Getting Out of a Rut: A Kayaker’s Guide to Getting Back on the Horse

Kayaking is a fickle beast. Okay, okay… allow me to rephrase. The River knows no dominion, and as hopeful explorers we will discover this for ourselves sooner or later. We’re merely along for the ride until the River decides we are in need of some serious humility. You know what shape this takes: gnarly swims, coughing up water, swollen hands, banged up shoulders… if we’re lucky. We may limp off stream with concussions or dislocations and sometimes- maybe even worse than maim or injury- we lose our nerve to tango with the River at all.

I’ve been trying to work up a post about how magical and wonderful and life changing my time in Chile was this past winter and I just have not been able to crank out anything worthwhile… maybe it’s because so much happened in such a short amount of time that I’m still processing who I was before and who I am now, as a paddler and a person. What I can tell you is I’ve got a lot to say about taking licks, quaking in my boots on the side of the River, and finding the strength to get back in my boat.

I spent most of my time in Chile pushing myself really hard. My first runs down these new rivers were so pure and beautiful; I had no idea what lie downstream, no YouTube videos to reference or internet descriptions to taint my own perspective, and certainly not a barrage of horror stories from someone or everyone’s first time down. These rivers were mine; somewhere along the line someone said, “Soak it all in. You only get to run a river for the first time once.” I challenged myself on more technical, more consequential whitewater, seeking harder lines, making harder moves, and pushing myself to remain level headed about rapids that I just was not quite ready for yet… turns out, they weren’t going anywhere. Towards the end of our stay, though, I started to feel stretched and tired, like I was pushing my luck and was not sure how much longer I could keep up with myself. I hadn’t had any bad experiences and felt my skills matched the demands of the rivers I was paddling… but somewhere along the line, my head- my mind, rather- began to falter. I started to feel like my mental game didn’t match my physical game.

This mental conundrum culminated with a weak walk off of the Bridge to Bridge section of the Futaleufu, followed by a swim the following day that left me in shambles on the side of the river. To be clear, I psyched myself out before we even arrived at the Futa by internet scouting the section and reading terrifying details and hazards that, in reality, would not necessarily be in play for me as a kayaker moving downstream. It didn’t matter; the writing was on the wall. I had created challenges for myself that didn’t need to be there, and a swim that was completely natural and, well, kinda epic (one word: Mundaca!), wound up infecting my confidence, my perspective… hell, my motivation for paddling at all. We got back to Pucón and I was gun shy about paddling Class II in a play boat. I knew then I was in trouble.

We aren’t superheroes. Even the best of the best remain subject to the ebb and flow of the River; anyone who tells you otherwise- who pretends Class V boaters don’t crash or swims don’t happen or fear doesn’t creep in- they are downright misguided, and you should seek encouragement elsewhere. We do not own the river. Our objective, as paddlers, may be varied and diverse, but we remain united in the fact that we seek a personal experience with a force of nature that will continue to exist without us. It is only a matter of time before we are reminded of this, be it mental game lagging behind skills or a good ole fashioned beat down. The River, ultimately, kicks and screams its way from mountain to sea- that is the River’s objective. Do you think it minds for the wantings of a small, warm body in a cold, plastic kayak?

So you’re stuck in a rut because you got the crap kicked out of you on the river and you now spend your moments inside your own head instead of outside on the water. I’m here to tell you that I don’t have the answer for you… but I’m going through it, too. Here’s what I can tell you:

  1. The longer you wait, the worse it gets. Was I going to hop back out on the Futa for second helpings of Mundaca after my swim? Definitely not… but I didn’t wait to get back on the water. As soon as we got back to Pucón, I got in a playboat and spent some time playing, rolling, and re-acclimating in the playspot under the bridge. I kicked myself for the knot that arose in my stomach at the thought of heading downstream in such a squirrely little craft, so I hopped in a river runner instead. Did I feel weak? Sure. Cowardly? Absolutely. But I had to start somewhere; I had to get back on the water, somehow, and I decided that starting somewhere was better than going nowhere.  It turns out that the River is self correcting: I got stuck in a hole that day, anyway, and got to the take out with some of my confidence restored.The point? Accept where you’re at. Identify what happened, how you’re feeling, and get back in your boat. When I was diving, if I had a crash landing while doing something and smacked my back or my face really hard, my coaches wouldn’t let me leave practice before I did it just one more time… this kept the experience from rooting itself in my head and gave me some power over my circumstances. Whether you’re walking back up to run the rapid again or you’re easing yourself back on to milder current, don’t forget to know your craft. It will be easier now than it will be a month from now.
  2. Remind yourself of why you do what you do. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t take long if you give yourself some grace. For me, the best way to do this is to get back to basics. I like to get out on the water and be precise, powerful. I will take strong strokes and work hard in easy current to feel finesse… and I let myself have fun. Pushing myself on Class IV is its own kind fun, but there are consequences and fear that can be either manageable or constrictive. Goofing around on easier whitewater- surfing, rolling, charging for tiny eddies, boofing little rocks- that’s why I paddle: to have a good time and experience every facet of the river.
  3. Take it personally. Everyone is going to have an opinion for you about what you should do and how you should do it… but kayaking is for you and you alone. Take some time to reflect on what’s holding you back and create a plan for yourself to get back some momentum. Get out on the water for yourself, try some different boats, run a new river, sit in an eddy alone. If you’ve never been the last one to come down through a rapid that gets your blood flowing, put that on your list for your next river trip. I never feel more powerful and present than when I get to sit in the last eddy above a drop by myself and feel my heart pounding in my chest. It’s just me and the River,  and the way we experience it together.
  4. … But consider the wisdom of your fellow boaters. Most everyone I paddle with has been paddling at least twice as long as I have. When they make a suggestion to me, I consider it by weighing both my own skills and his/her experience as a paddler. When Chris suggests a move to me, I ask myself three questions: 1. What are my risks? 2. What are my consequences? 3. What am I scared of?If all I’m scared of is swimming, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me to be out of my boat, I know this is a good time to step it up and build my confidence. Is there any reason not to take accept this challenge? Only you can answer that, but if there are paddlers out there that know you and your abilities, and you trust their wisdom and experience, at least consider what they have to say… even if you wind up going with your own gut, anyway.
  5. Don’t let yourself off the hook. It’s okay to be tentative without totally bailing on opportunities for growth. Hop back in a boat that you feel gives you more stability or take a squirty boat down an easy run. This past weekend I went for a challenging move I’ve never tried before in a rapid I have grown fairly comfortable with on a river I know very well. I prepared myself by making a few tough ferries upstream and working the river back and forth before charging for the line. I left the river that day feeling better about my paddling than I have in a long time. You can still push yourself without laying all of your confidence on the line. A bruised ego doesn’t have to be an excuse to stall all progress. Take it as an opportunity to hone in on basic skills in basic whitewater… you’ll be surprised at how well you handle crashes in tougher situations when you’ve been pushing hard in easier ones.
  6. Trust yourself. You know what you’re capable of. You’re the one who hung on as you raked over the river bed and pulled out a bomber roll at the bottom of the rapid. You’re the one who laced that tricky drop your first time down the river. You’re the one who encourages your paddling buddies for one more lap, one more go. You also know yourself better than anyone, acutely aware of fluctuating heart rates and erratic breathing. Trust that you have the skills to deliver, and trust that you have the head to make the right decision in the right moment. That might be getting back on the horse and tackling the drop that left you limping as soon as you can… or it might be working on freestyle or slalom techniques to get your skills sharper and better than ever for that moment when you do decide to return to your match. There are no White Whales in kayaking if you don’t want there to be.IMG_1423

I’m still a work in progress, still trying to tap into the girl who fired up Leona and laughed down the Fuy. My goal, for now, is to get my head back to where my skills are, and I’ll do that by taking to the water as often as I can both in challenge and in fun. If we forget why we paddle by letting moments overshadow experiences, we won’t ever get back in our boats. Search for something- anything- to hang on to from that beatdown that left you in a rut to retain something positive. I will never be better than the River… I’m just finding a thousand different ways to experience it, in and out of my kayak. If all else fails, reflect on yourself as a beginner paddler: those early combat rolls, the first time you surfed. You have a lot to learn from yourself.

For more ideas on how to keep your paddling fresh and challenging, check out my blog post 8 Ways to Keep it Fresh.

cover photo by Kyle Thomas

2 thoughts on “Getting Out of a Rut: A Kayaker’s Guide to Getting Back on the Horse”

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