The following post was written by friend and fellow paddler Nell Steed. She reflects honestly on what pushed her toward a breaking point of not wanting to kayak anymore, and how taking some time for herself helped her get a grip on her fears and set new precedents when moving downstream. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Nell!
It was the first time that I didn’t want to be in my kayak anymore. I had reached a breaking point with my paddling. I’d been paddling for over a year and was always trying to fit kayaking into every spare moment. But after two mentally awful days on the river, I was fed up.
I’ll admit that my definition of an “awful day” on the river is different. I had paddled two days in a row and had no swims, no near-death experiences, and not even a single upside-down event. But despite having dry-hair days these had been mentally exhausting days on the river that ended in tears and terror.
The stage was set like this: I had been traveling for various reasons for 3 weeks and hadn’t had the chance to get in my kayak once during this time. I was already anticipating feeling shaky when I got back into my boat and attempted to plan something easy and familiar to paddle for my first day back. But then, of course, it started raining. I ended up setting on a river that was reaching the upper levels of my comfort zone. With the rain this river was also higher than I had ever done it before. But I had an excellent support group, an amazing guide, and decided that I was ok with being challenged.
Unfortunately my nerves got me from the start. Everything was coming at me so fast that my mind couldn’t keep up. It felt like being a beginner kayaker all over again, when the waves seem much larger than they are and you are simply reacting rather than planning strokes. I was dropping the wrong edge on eddy lines, falling off drops instead of boofing them, and felt shaky going through simple wave trains. I took off the river early that day. I was in tears I was so frustrated with myself.
The next day I made another poor decision. I had told myself that I needed to paddle something that (1) I knew well and (2) this river was at a normal water level. I felt that, after the previous day, I needed a day of calm, comfortable paddling in order to “get my groove back” so to speak. But of course, it had rained again and there was nothing that was running at a normal water level. I chose to paddle anyway. The river was an easier section but was running much higher than I had ever done it. Again I felt overwhelmed from the start. I started walking every rapid that I could and just tried to get to the take-out without incident. While driving shuttle I again found myself in tears. Kayaking is something that I love, yet I had just spent 4 hours being scared, frustrated, and just dying to get off the water.
At this point I felt like I didn’t want to be in my kayak anymore. The shock of feeling this way prompted me to take action. I called Chris, told him what I was going through, and asked for his help getting comfortable on the water again. While my idea had been to go back to the basics and review things like paddle stroke technique, Chris had something else in mind. He asked me to lead him and Lydia down a section of river that I knew well. Putting me out in in front forced me to see the river in a new light. I had to be confident about describing lines, committing to those lines myself, and executing what I had described. I planned ahead, slowed down the pace, and thought about the group instead of my own anxieties.
This exercise allowed me to realize a few things about myself and my paddling. I’m hoping to share the lessons I learned from this experience:
1. If it’s not working, change something.
After one bad paddling day I committed myself to another similar day despite knowing that it was likely a bad idea. I knew that I needed to change something, yet I failed to do so. I allowed outside pressures to put me back into the same position. I knew that I needed a calm day of paddling and that something needed to change. I believe that my head game would have been better off in the long run if I had simply not paddled. With both the mental and physical aspects of kayaking, recognizing and fixing a problem early will always be better than waiting too long and letting a bad day or bad habit become a big problem.
2. Figure out what you need.
When I was scared I was not able to rationally think through what it was that had made these days overwhelming. After my day with Chris, however, I realized that the fast pace of paddling had largely contributed to my fear factor. On those high water days my group had gone extremely fast, catching very few eddies. As a beginner it was easier to paddle straight downstream and just punch through waves, but now I had gotten used to catching eddies, river-scouting features, and deciding on a next move from there. When I started to pass up eddies the river became much more intimidating. At an earlier stage of paddling someone may need to just paddle hard downstream, and later someone may need to slow things down and break it up. It all has to do with style, preference, and ability level. At my intermediate ability level, I needed to break things up. I could only realize this after the fact, but this now helps me manage my fear on future runs.
It may be a different pace, a different group, different weather, or a different river, but figuring out what you need to get through a head-game issue is the first and most important step to fixing it.
Surrounding yourself with good paddlers and paddling friends that will help you figure out what you need is also key. Someone like Chris, who has years of experience in teaching not only kayaking skills but also teaching others how to deal with the mental aspect of kayaking, was instrumental in getting me past my moment of crisis.
3. Then do what YOU need to do.
I’ll admit that I’m a perfectionist, so with that comes a fear of failure. When I see others that I perceive as of a similar ability level on a certain river, I convince myself that there is something wrong with me if that river scares me. If someone tells me that I’m ready for a specific run but I don’t feel ready, I feel like I’ve failed in some way.
Listen to other’s advice if you are having trouble figuring out what the issue at hand is. I listened to Chris’s advice about slowing the river down and catching more eddies. But when I knew what the issue was (needing a calm and easy day of paddling) I let other’s expectations of me influence my decisions. I ended up having two awful
days on the river and and still haven’t gotten all of my confidence back.
If you need to push yourself and challenge your skills to get through a head-game issue, that’s what you should do. If you are like me and needed to take a step back sometimes, that’s what you should do. So, as we’ve all been told in kayaking before, listen to your gut. Do what you need to do. Only you can know what you need to make yourself into a better kayaker.
All photos were supplied by and used with permission of Nell Steed.
I learned to roll in February of 2012 with little intention of applying the skill to whitewater. My background in competitive athletics, however, left me anxious to test my skill in the unpredictable and dynamic environment of whitewater once I got rolling down pat in the pool... it has been quite the journey ever since.
I have been extremely fortunate to come up in the sport of paddling while allowed to maintain a virtue I hold true in other areas of my life, too, in that "we are the company we keep." Surrounded by talented boaters, instructors, and encouragement, I have had the opportunity to grow through challenges and success while being lifted up by a great group of people. Because of that, I have been able to fall in love with kayaking as it takes me to big water, steep creeks, and beautiful waterfalls throughout the Southeast and now, into South America.
I continually pursue a fuller and deeper connection with my natural environment through a greater understanding of self and my place on the water. My role with H2o Dreams is an evolving one that allows me to push myself as a paddler, instructor, and creative mind; I love to document and reflect on my experiences with the river through writing, photography, and video.