Absence makes the heart grow fonder. When I was a kid- and even now, for that matter- I always longed for summer in the final months of school, ached for it. Nervous excitement: what would I do with all those sweltering, endless afternoons? I would enjoy my freedom, my lack of responsibility and yes, even my sunburn for the majority of the summer, but as the weeks wound down and I found myself staring into the shorter side of the of the final month before school started, I would feel it again: nervous excitement. And as much as I hated to admit it and as quickly as I would change my mind as soon as I was back, I would get excited to go back to school. Something about change, I suppose, something about absence. After a while of going without something, even if I enjoyed the void left by it initially, I couldn’t wait to get it back.
It’s that time of year. Our windows have been tightly shut and my heavy jacket easily reachable for a few weeks now; it’s getting cold and paddling season- for some- is drawing to a close. You’ll hear many folks say the best boating is in the winter- and I assure you, in my hand-me-down men’s large drysuit, I intend to find out- but now seems as good a time as any to do some reflecting. This was the first summer of boating for me, and as I explore the weird (Farmer John, anyone?) and sometimes onerous process of cold weather boating, I find myself looking back on the first half of my first season, and doing so fondly. Taking the opportunity to reflect on the progress I made (six months ago I was still only rolling in the pool), the experiences I’ve had, and the growth that I hope has taken place- as both a boater and a person- brings about that familiar, nagging brew of nostalgia meeting resolve. I’ve been thinking a lot about those triumphs on the river, in my boat, and in my head, and how they always seem to overshadow the sour moments, if there even is such a thing. I’ve been thinking that anything, if I can let it steep for long enough… even the sour moments will seem more like triumphs.
My big struggle in the past few months has been setting standards for myself. I was a competitive athlete for many years and I do well with structure. Give me a task, a list of things to do…hell, the instructions at the top of a class assignment will send me exactly where I need to go. Take away those predetermined lines- those expectations- and I feel lost, frustrated, unsure and sometimes inadequate. The void of structure, expectations- standards, if you will- makes my head spin. How do I know if I am getting better? How do I know if I am improving or just surviving out of sheer luck? The possibility of the latter makes my stomach drop out. I don’t want to just get lucky. I want to be in control.
And there it is: control. Standards. The slow creep of inadequacy. It gets heavy, carrying all that stuff around with you, doesn’t it? My first time down the Nantahala in a kayak was earlier this summer. It was my first time wearing a dry top and some heavier gear, and my first time being in cold, dark water with rocks seeking out the bottom of my boat and the top side of my helmet. I had paddled the river in a ducky a few times before so I had a rough idea of what to expect, and I rolled over a few times when we first got in just to shake off the initial shock of the cold water should I be upside down. I wasn’t worried. I had been paddling so great at the Center, making all my combat rolls and ferries pretty consistently and I felt confident that even if I was upside down, I could roll. And sure enough, confidence in my previous and prior standard of consistent rolling quickly knocked me down a peg when I tried a ferry at good ole Surfer’s and flipped. Cold, dark, swirly; go for set-up and miss my first roll. It’s okay, I’ll hang out and wait for everything to calm down like I do at the park. I’m missing the light, warm water that I’m usually upside down in, though, and before I know it, my brain totally maxes out and I can’t even comprehend where I am or what I’m supposed to be doing other than a loud and resounding “Cold! Cold! Cold!” in my head, so I swim. After the instant shock wears off and I’m to the side draining my boat, disappointment sets in. Why couldn’t I roll that time when I had rolled so many times before that? I make it through the rest of the day, save the classic corkscrew flip at the bottom of Nantahala Falls and subsequent bow rescue. But that heaviness stayed with me all day, even when we got off the river, even a few days later.
Nothing would shake the disappointment of not living up to my own standards or expectations except for plugging away and seeking out a triumph, and I did, and I was soon able to breathe a sigh of relief that yes, I was competent and no, I wasn’t just getting lucky. My first real river combat roll- FB 9- was a big high for me. My moves at the Center started getting easier, and I started getting more daring, trying different lines, catching different eddies. I feel good, I feel like I’m growing. I find myself back on the Nantahala GAF weekend with my very own kayak, and I’m excited. Things had been clicking and there’s nothing like a little ownership and pride in what you do to make you want to kick it up a bit. Chris and I decide to do a few laps on the Falls to ease some nerves and stigma from my last experience and it’s not long before I find myself in the same sinking mentality that I had that first trip down. I couldn’t make the ferries, I was scared to flip, and I was wondering if my shiny new boat was a mistake, meant for someone who was skilled, not lucky. I had new standards now: I could now pick a spot on the river and go to it. I could now drop into eddies and zip out of them. I could punch holes. I had climbed the next rung of the ladder, but this felt like backsliding. My delicate, finely constructed expectations of myself are shattered within about 2 minutes of being on the river, and every second I spend upside down in my kayak is not vindicated by the subsequent breath of air but dampened by a deep feeling of self-inflicted failure, and it’s heavy.
The first summer is marked by an on river epiphany, not long after I was forced to stop hating myself for not living up to my own expectations, and it was only because in the world of emotion, fear outweighs self-loathing, and always. Chris asks me if I’m ready to run Nantahala Falls and I shrug my shoulders, conceding because I doubt my ability to make my river time any better where we are at this point. We look at the Falls briefly and he knows I’ve been having fun trying my hand at boofing, so he explains we are going to try the far left line by catching the river right eddy instead of the traditional line. I’m scared.
There is nothing more present, more jarring than sitting in an eddy by yourself, whether it is above Nantahala Falls or something much bigger and scarier. I find myself in this eddy on the river right and I’m alone, since Chris has gone down already, and it starts to rain a little bit. I’m not thinking about how bad my ferries were earlier or why my roll is so much better sometimes as opposed to others, and I’m definitely not thinking through my laundry list of self-depreciating one liners from a few minutes prior. That’s not even on my radar anymore, and there’s simply not room for that sort of thing in my head at this point. All that I can process is where I am: in an eddy, surrounded by rocks and trees and rushing water; I take in the innate pattern of moss and lychen on the rock upon which I rest my hand. I feel the slight edge to the mountain rain of waning summer. All that I can process is what I’m about to do: point boat upstream. Eddy out aggressively. Lean on edge and paddle like I mean it to the left side of the river to make my line. The only river that matters is the one that I’m on, right then and there. The only standard I have is the one I’m about to set, knowing it will soon be left behind by a new and fresh moment.
That was the moment of clarity. That was the moment of reckoning in my own personal boating that allowed me to press forward when, two days later at twice the flow, I flipped going into the eddy right above the falls and- for the first time ever- rolled right back up without even thinking about it. That moment of clarity made me paddle like hell into the last, tiniest little eddy on the right so that I wouldn’t go down the Falls backward on the right side, and that was the moment that kept the thought of simply just walking off the river out of fear and undesirable situation far and away from my mind as Chris sat in the eddy with me and explained the Wildwater line: right of the top hole, and just left of the rock right after. The moment on Friday prior, when I realized that on the river as with life, the only thing that matters is being present in the moment that I’m given… that moment kept my heart from exploding in my throat.
I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths. Chris had made it look easy but I wasn’t sure if I would get away with it. My hands were shaking and I looked down stream. I couldn’t see Chris but I knew he was there, and I could see my parents sitting in the eddy river left, waiting. If I could have foreseen this in anyway, I would have expected myself to start crying, but my eyes were dry because the deep breaths I was taking were heaving the beast in my chest that I knew to be Inevitability. I wasn’t going to walk off the river. This was the moment I had been given, this was the moment I was in and this, now, was my river, and I was the paddler. One last, deep breath. I know what’s next in the moment. I look down stream to my parents, who are still waiting for me, and I hold high a thumbs up.
The high point of my first summer was the slow motion peel out from that eddy, and a great line that followed. Was I lucky? I don’t know, but I know it doesn’t matter. What matters was the decision to stay in my boat and go for it, to suck in the sharp mountain air with the bitter recollection of fear- my old friend- and accept the moment I was in and the river I was on, and that the only river that could be was the one that was right in my face, right then. When I got to the bottom I was so high on adrenaline I couldn’t decide between laughing and crying, but I knew that that was the kind of standard I could set for myself: letting myself be in the moment, washed in fear and willing to take a chance.
Later on, I’ll be sitting in an eddy on another river watching people take a line through a rapid that skirts a big hole. I look at Chris and I ask, “Why do people go around the hole? Can’t you go through it?” He laughs and replies, “Hell yeah, you can punch the crap out of it!” I smile and nod, take a deep breath, and peel out of the eddy, ready to make a new friend.
And even as I sit behind the computer, warm and comfortable, I wait for that moment when I’m cold and scared and uncomfortable but willing- even just slightly- and where the time is Now and the river is mine and the fear not a foe but an old friend, ever-present and anxious to turn over time and create a new moment, a new present… together.