Hammer Factor, Fear Factor: What’s in a Story?


“The past and future are in the mind only – I am now.” – Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

Last month I accompanied Girls at Play on the last five rapids of the Green Narrows on the final day of Creek Week. This was my fifth trip down this section. I had an arch nemesis on this river and it was called Hammer Factor. The previous several times I ran this rapid, I managed to do it every way except plastic side down. I’ve ran the whole thing upside down, had a brief out-of-boat experience stuck in the pocket, and bow stalled face first into the wall. In a large volume creek boat.

My adversarial relationship with this rapid has stuck in the back of mind since the first mis-run as the rapid to beat. Here I was, back for showdown number five and my lunch was sitting like a brick in my stomach. When I put on the river, I employed every calming breathing technique I could remember. “Breathe in, 1, 2, 3 and out 3, 2, 1” was my mantra as I bounced my way through Toilet Bowl and into an eddy. As I sat there, waiting my turn to take on Hammer Factor, a lesson that I had been struggling to “get” for a few years finally settled in me. Every other run, swim and flip were meaningless. They had nothing to do with this moment. The only thing that mattered was right now. Those memories and stories about before wouldn’t help me one way or another.

I took a deep breath, paddled down to the next eddy just above the drop and lined myself up. While I could feel the sensations of nervousness in my body, all of the mental noise melted away. The drop and shelf unfolded below me with every seam, rock and spray in vivid relief. I ran the whole thing clean, going exactly where I intended and I was victorious. But not in the way you might think. It wasn’t the rapid I beat, which was never really the battle I was facing. I was victorious over my own invented story.

Ever heard the phrase, ‘We’re all in between swims?” The fact is we all really are all in between swims, whether you are novice boater or have been paddling for years. Swimming or having a “bad line” is an inevitable part of the game that happens to us all sooner or later. What is not inevitable is how we choose to process it when it does happen. We can choose to criticize ourselves and beat ourselves up or we can choose to turn it into a lesson in empowerment. Too often, it is easy to get caught up in worry about what we think others think about us and what it means about us as a paddler. We start comparing it to how we did the last time we were in that rapid. The next time we’re in that same spot, we’re thinking about how we screwed it up and are concerned it might happen again. We create an entire meaningful story around what was really a simple event: we swam. That’s it.

A swim today has nothing to do with a swim last year, last week or even a few minutes ago. It will have nothing to do with the next time we swim. It is absolutely useful to understand the events that lead to the flip and swim: the missed stroke there, looking in a direction other than where you wanted to go, lifting your head when rolling, etc. Learning from our mistakes is critical in improving our skills, but the story about those mistakes and the meaning we make of them hold us back from facing the next challenge with full presence and with a clear mind. If we can focus on the events that happened and shed the story, then we are in a powerful position to choose how the rest of the run unfolds, on the river and in our lives. If the swim or mistake becomes a thing that happened and stops being a commentary on our worth as paddlers, we free our selves to focus on the next move without the mental noise and distraction of the past. We are free to be fully in the moment and to embrace the beauty and awe of the river. The only moment is now and the choices we make moment to moment.