During my last week in the Girls at Play office this summer, I was looking through photos of beginner kayaking clinics and Ladies Southeast Paddling Series events, smiling about all of the grand memories attached to the images. As I mindlessly scrolled back up to the top of my iPhoto library, however, an older picture caught my eye. It was a snapshot of me with Anna, Amy Vickers, and Jamee Peters from the Women’s Whitewater Kayaking Festival 2012, on the Wolf River in WI. I was 17 years old, reveling in the excitement of a brand-new whitewater kayak, a brand-new flatwater roll, and the fact that I was having my picture taken with three women whom I revered for their accomplishments in kayaking, their leadership skills, and their outstanding instructional abilities. As hard as I was falling in love with the sport of kayaking and the rivers themselves, I was equally enamored with the lifestyle and values that I saw so strongly embodied by these three women: Adventure. Pushing stereotypical physical limits of women. Expanding personal, internal connections with one’s own self and with nature. Generously sharing their knowledge and talents. Inspiring others to dive into the adventure. Adventure. Did I mention adventure? At 17, about to start my final year of high school, all I knew for certain about my future is that I wanted it to be adventurous. It was apparent to me that these women knew a heck of a lot about adventure, and an ambition of mine was born: I want to be them. I want to grow up, and be them.
Fast forward three years and here I am, sitting in the Girls at Play office writing this blog post. Happening upon this photo earlier today really took me aback, and I am feeling pretty sapped of words regarding it, to be honest. I can laugh and tell this photo of my 17-year-old self that, surprise, I’m still me—I haven’t morphed into Anna, or Amy, or Jamee. But it’s almost startling to realize that I have spent each summer since then shadowing, assisting, and working for Jamee, and now Anna. You can’t get much closer to “growing up to be” a person than sticking with them all summer long, trying to help, trying to learn, trying to absorb their skills and their strategies and—quite frankly—their successes. If that’s not a quest fulfilled, then I don’t know what is. However, I’m still laughing at my teenage self for the silly aspiration to be exactly what these other ladies are. I have, indeed, learning amazing things from shadowing ladies like Jamee and Anna. But what I’ve learned throughout my time as a young kayak instructor is that the real education takes place in those situations where I have to figure it out for myself. Hanging with Jamee and Anna has led me towards scenarios in which I have to be strong, creative, and inspiring in my own right—they aren’t always around to copy or fall back on. The real transformation from my former self into who I want to become takes place as I figure out how to create my own adventure!
Spending time paddling in the Southeast this summer has definitely solidified something I already knew, that there are some incredible, elite athletes (and instructors) out there and I myself am not yet one of them. I’m just a normal college kid, bumming around in an old car stuffed with new paddling gear, seeking water and mountain tops and striving to share every bit of my knowledge of kayaking—even if it’s comparatively limited—with women trying to get into the sport. I’m going to be honest, it’s felt quite daunting at times to try and fill the shoes of Anna and other GAP staff, who are much more experienced, more accomplished, more decorated than I am and perhaps ever will be. When I look back at this 2012 photo, though, I am reminded what it is that I was truly seeking when I decided that one day I’d “grow up and be” Anna. Was I seeking her titles, her medals, her credentials? No, not really. They’re most admirable, but probably not in my future. Did I want to be owner of a business like hers? Well, maybe, but also maybe not. Did I want a life of adventure that comes from all those values and lifestyle elements that I listed previously? Yes! I am reminded that I came here to have an adventure, and an adventure is what it’s been. I’ve not become Anna, but I’ve become a better Angela, to be sure.
What’s beautiful is that I’ve realized the most transformational parts of the adventure have been small, tender moments. Sure, it’s easy to see growth in myself as a paddler and instructor, like when I style a rapid that I know would have demolished me at this time last year, or when I successfully take a student down a class III+ feature that I’ve only seen twice before in my life. However, when taking the time to reflect, I realize that it’s meeting the tasks and challenges of working for GAP with honest effort and passion in my heart that have helped me become the woman I hope to be. For example, I’m often conscious of the fact that I want to radiate more positive energy. I have a naturally serious
disposition, but what new kayakers need in order to feel comfortable and excited is lots of smiles and laughter. So, I have been constantly reminding myself to smile more, even if I’m feeling nervous or tired, for the sake of my students. The day when I overheard two of my students chatting and saying, “Notice how she just never stops smiling!” regarding me, I felt victorious. Additionally, many students have thanked me profusely for doing a good job of teaching them, and it’s tempting to try and downplay these compliments. I’m not sure why, but I think there’s some odd human tendency that causes some of us to struggle with accepting praise. However, I’ve come to understand that simply saying “thank you” and actually meaning it is the gracious thing to do. It’s a much better use of my energy to pay the gratitude forward, by thanking students for what they’ve offered to me. Thus, I’ve been better able to embody some of those key things that I noticed in Anna, Amy and Jamee—their joy, their graciousness, their humility, all of which seemed to be influenced by the river but certainly carried over into the rest of their lives.
I think it’s fair to say that any day on the river can be a roller coaster of emotions, sometimes even more so than it is of whitewater. I’ve guided students through moments of achievement and discovery, and felt like a hero. I’ve also witnessed periods of incredible frustration, and though I’ve helped out to the best of my ability, it’s hard not to feel a little badly if a student is having a rough time. I’ve spent hours in the van discussing some emotional non-river related topics with students (you just never know what’s coming to come up during the van ride!) that have left me feeling anywhere from curious and excited to depressed and drained. Through it all, I’ve had to keep teaching, keep smiling, keep being a source of safety and support for the group. And through this I’ve realized that I am capable, I am most certainly capable not simply because I’ve gone through instructor training but because my heart is in the right place. I’m capable because I accept the adventure for what it is, I love the adventure for what it is, and I’m willing to share this love in any way that I can.
In my previous blog post, I touched upon how I feel that the river helps me to be who I need to be. Keyword here is “I”. What’s right for me as a paddler, an instructor, and just as a human being is certainly not going to be exactly the same as what’s right for Anna, Amy, Jamee, or any other of the awesome paddlers and friends that I’ve met throughout my journey. At 17, it was tempting to think that pursuing a specific adventure (say, whitewater kayaking) with a very specific goal (say, getting as good as Anna) would allow me to be true to myself in the way that it seems to help all of the great paddlers be true to themselves. Really, though, it’s my approach and response to how the adventure unfolds for me that allows me to grow. I think what my spirit is seeking right now is connection—connection to people, to the earth, to my creator. I’ve definitely found all of these things this summer, but in my own ways. I’ve connected to people through talking with students about their families. I’ve connected to the earth (quite literally) by smacking my head into a rock that cracked my favorite helmet. I’ve connected to my creator by praying along the banks of a creek in the middle of the night. I’m finding what I need.
It took lot of faith to get here to Asheville, even more to stay here, and just as much to leave here. A general rule I have for my life is that as soon as I start to feel settled in to a certain situation, it’s time to move on and see where else the adventure wants to bring me. I am so grateful to Anna and to Girls at Play and to everyone who’s been a part of it with me – co-instructors, clients, friends, and clients who became friends. It’s scary to take the next step, especially since the next step for me right now is primarily academic and will require trimming down significantly on the amount of paddling I’ll be able to do in the next several months. However, I know I will always be connected to the community I’ve found here – emotionally, virtually, and, at some eventual point, I know I will return physically. I know to trust in the adventure and where it brings me, and I know that in every second of it, there will be something to love.
As always, SYOTR!