I almost swam at the bottom of Nantahala Falls this past weekend. It took me about seven or eight times and a nasty drag over some rocks before I finally rolled up. I wasn’t thinking about swimming- honestly, it seldom crosses my mind when I’m upside down- but that last roll attempt I knew would be the last if I didn’t make it. I rolled up in an eddy way downstream with a friend who had caught up to me. I breathed deeply and noticed the bloody knuckles rite of passage as he grabbed my bow and asked me with wide eyes, “Are you okay?” Yep. Seven roll attempts later and some apparent iron lungs and I’m still in my boat. I’m just fine, thank you.
It’s experiences like those that can make or break us; you see, I’ve got expectations for myself. Oh, here we go again, right? Fear and expectations. As I progress in this sport, though, I realize I cannot move forward for myself without finding the balance between the two as both can be equally paralyzing if mismanaged. Everything comes down to mitigating the fear and negotiating the expectations. There seems to be a bit of an inverse relationship; lots fear can mean lower expectations, less fear can mean higher expectations. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing but when one outweighs the other, I am learning that I how I perceive my experience on the water before and after is incredibly important if I want to be able to take away something positive. Taking away something positive is what keeps me getting back in the boat time after time, even with the growing pains.
I ran the falls by myself. It was one of those instances where there were enough people around that I felt comfortable going out alone and while my heart beat in my chest as I peeled into the eddy above the falls, it was more so because I didn’t have a security blanket to clean up after me if things went wrong than it was because I was about to run a particular rapid. I realized that I wasn’t really scared of that rapid anymore; it now carries a sort of intrigue for me. What happens if I make this move or catch this eddy? There’s some liberation in being able to put fear on the back burner; it makes room for curiosity.
I’ve got to say, my initial reaction to my experience at the bottom was, “Oh crap. I’m going to run the Ocoee in a few weeks and I can’t even run Nantahala Falls right side up. What am I doing here?”
Expectations. I wasn’t scared out of my wits anymore but now I had expectations for myself… as if the conquering of fear changes the equation in any way. It’s still me out there in that moment, still me in my boat taking strokes or not, rolling up or not. When I’m upside down banging over rocks, the river could not care less whether or not I think I’m better than flipping coming through a rapid. In that moment, I’m upside down. The next moment- or in this case, a few moments- I’m right side up. That’s the reality- fear, expectations irrelevant.
Here’s what I took away from that experience. I chose to latch on to the positive which was one: I ran a rapid that has been challenging for me hitherto by myself. That was my choice. And two: I stayed in my boat for a really long time upside down trying to roll up- also my choice. You know which roll is a good one? The one that gets you right side up.
Those are the experiences that matter the most to my development as a boater these days. The perfect lines and the comfortable runs aren’t asking me whether or not I’ve got grit and in this sport, there are days when you need a whole lot of that just to make it to the take out. There are other days when grit is the difference between floating and soaring.
A few weeks back, I was on Section IX of the French Broad with some folks who had not run it before and for me, it was a much higher level than I’d ever paddled. Being relatively comfortable on that section of river, I had a few chances to make some more challenging moves while the new folks got the feel of the flow. I had a clarifying moment where I thought I might just take the easy way out because the more challenging option got my heart right up into its favorite spot in my throat, and I knew I’d be just fine if I ran the easy line. I was really mulling this over, these two options between easy and not so easy, comfortable and scary and all of the sudden, it hit me. Fear is the biggest opportunity we have, both on the river and off. Easy doesn’t pay out. If I want to keep moving forward- as a boater, as a human- I’ve got to seek out those moments with healthy amounts of fear- and don’t misunderstand me: I’m not talking about being reckless. I’m talking about taking the road less traveled for you. I realized then that as I get better and my skills become more refined, there would be more and more moments like this on the river when there would be a clearly defined “easy line” and a readily available challenge. From fear is born a new precedent. Why wouldn’t I pursue that every time I can? When there is that perfect balance between how scared I am and having not low expectations but no expectations… wouldn’t I be foolish not to seize the opportunity to climb the next rung of the ladder?
I’m coming up on my one year paddling mark. It hasn’t been about checking off runs or rapids but about what I can do when I have the choice not to. I know it’s not the same for everyone but for me, staying in my boat and taking a whack on the head only to roll up downstream has made all the difference in my communion with the river. I don’t have to be a passive audience; I can be an active participant. Choosing to evaluate fear not as an enemy to be avoided but as such a gift… I never feel more alive than when I’m sitting above a rapid or scouting it from shore or sliding over the green tongue and I can feel every blood cell get pounded through my veins. Kayaking has made me feel alive when it is so easy- too easy- these days to forget how fallible yet powerful I really am.
Humility is the toughest pill to swallow in this game- both in paddling and in life. To admit that you are not always in control is perhaps what gives flips and swims and bangs and bruises such the stigma of failure to us as boaters; it means we have to accept that in those moments, we do not have control. The thing is that those moments only seem bad or like failures because we let them be that way. I can be frustrated with myself for nearly swimming out of a rapid that I think I’m more than capable of running upright, or I can revel in running something kind of scary by myself, and hanging on until I can roll. What I choose to take away from that experience is my decision. I can let the expectations rule the experience or I can let the experience create something valuable for me and accept it for what it is.
Fear, failure, expectations… these are all things that we manufacture for ourselves. The environment in which we create these things exists independently and purely apart from any notions that we have about it. What’s more is that these elements can be negative or positive, and we get to decide which way it swings. Sometimes these things are wake up calls for us that we need to spend more time in our boats and on the water, and sometimes it’s the river reminding us that what we do we do out of harmony, not dominion. I believe that to be true.
As I close this first, wild year of growth as a paddler, I cannot help but think that none of this would be worth it if it didn’t get my blood flowing every now and again, if it didn’t put me in my place from time to time. As I was thinking about my near swim last weekend, I realized that even in every river experience where something has not gone my way- my preconceived way- I can still find something to hang on to and take with me for the next time. There are times when I am just thankful for safe passage and there are others, like that day on Section IX when I realize that I can spend all my time and energy avoiding fear or I can beat it to the punch, embrace it, and fly. I have surprised myself in so many ways in those moments when I choose to hang on; the reward is to know myself even just a little bit better.
When I was on Outward Bound as a sixteen year old, there was a book of readings we’d pull from each night after dinner. I remember this one well: “Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.” I hope I can hang on to that as I turn another page in this book and dive deeper into this crazy river…. And I hope that you can, too.