Letting Go

Words provided by Michelle Layser, Chile trip guest 2014. Photos Chris Wing

Yet here I was, standing unbalanced on the rocks, declaring that this rapid—this one, of all the rapids on the trip—might be the one I portage.

IMG_1718Standing on the slippery, moss-covered rocks that protruded from the right side of the river bank, I watched as clear water poured over a nearby horizon line.  The ten foot ledge was a mere stone’s throw from where I stood, but it was steep, and my view of the bottom was partially obstructed.  Unlike many of the clean waterfalls we had run earlier in our trip to Chile, which stretched straight across from one side of the river to the other, this ledge was curved and uneven.  Looking upstream—in the direction of the snow-capped volcano, a painted backdrop on the Upper Trancura—the ledge looked like the angry frown of a rabid animal.  Whitewater rushed violently down it like frothing saliva, crashing at its base in a display of power and chaos.  Directly in front of me, water pounded against a large rock, blasting into the air as it hit before disappearing over the ledge. There were multiple lines that would enable a kayaker to safely boof this ledge and paddle through the rapid below.

I saw none of them.

I admit, this wasn’t my first meltdown moment in Chile.  But it was the weirdest.  For starters, it was day six of the trip.  By now, I had: run my first thirty-foot waterfall and a couple twenty-footers; styled most of my way down the Rio Fuy and  succeeded in staying in my boat for the rest of it; surfed the most beautiful, bluest play wave I have ever seen; paddled a playboat through the big, Gauley-style rapids on the Rio San Pedro; and conquered the steep creek-like drops of the Upper Palguin.

I also had already run the Upper Trancura—including the comparatively minor ledge before me—with no trouble at all.  I knew full well that IMG_1395despite its ferocious growl, this big bad wolf of a rapid was a total puppy. The threatening mess of whitewater at the bottom?  A cloud.  An airy, soft, fluffy cloud that gently flushes anything that lands on it right out of the chaos into the peaceful pool just downstream.

Yet here I was, standing unbalanced on the rocks, declaring that this rapid—this one, of all the rapids on the trip—might be the one I portage.

“Okay,” Chris said, “but let’s look at it for a minute.”

Ten minutes later, I was back in my boat paddling toward the ledge.  Maybe I was on my line, maybe I wasn’t.  When I reached the lip, I attempted a boof stroke before launching over the horizon line and dropping into the rapid below.  I flipped, flushed and rolled.  Then I looked back at the surreal scene behind me and tried to internalize the beauty that surrounded me.  I breathed it in and hoped it would replace any fear, any self-doubt, any frustrations I still felt in this place.

In most of the stories I will tell about Chile, on my blog or to my friends and family, the stories will end with me throwing a brown claw.  And I think it is fair for that to be the case. I showed up in Chile alone, the first time I had ever traveled internationally without a buddy, and I made a dozen new friends who I can’t wait to see again.  I paddled some of the most scenic, varied and fun rivers I had ever seen; rivers that challenged my skill set and mental toughness every day but never broke me.  I had as many good lines as I did ugly lines, and the way I plugged that twenty-footer on the Rio Palguin on my last day was sick enough to redeem my performance for the entire trip. [Author’s aside:  And that is how you stomp it.]

IMG_1777But when I think about Chile, I can’t help but think about that moment on the Upper Trancura.  As I continue to push myself to become a competent class IV paddler, I suspect I will have many more moments like that one—moments when I feel totally, absolutely, one-hundred percent maxed out.  Sometimes my gut will be right: there are rapids that should be walked, and I did walk some in Chile.  But almost as often, such moments will be when progress happens.

I learned as much about myself, how I paddle, why I paddle and what I want to get out of this amazing sport in those ten minutes on the Lower Trancura as I have in the past year.  Maybe it is because the paradise-like atmosphere made everything seem so much simpler.  Maybe it is because Chris gave me some well-considered advice about when to run and when to portage, based on a clever analogy to poker chips.  (And who doesn’t love gambling in Eden?)  Or maybe it is just because that was the moment on the trip when I really did just reach a wall that needed to be climbed.

Whatever the reason, that ledge on the Lower Trancura stands out in my mind as the snapshot that most completely captured my trip to Chile—a trip that undoubtedly sent me home a better paddler with a greater understanding of my current skills and future goals, not to mention some amazing memories.