As I venture into this new year, I am in a space of reflection. I am connecting the thread of my past to my present and getting stoked for my future. Looking back over my experiences in whitewater kayaking, I am profoundly grateful for all of the lessons this sport brings to my life. From getting into a kayak for the first time, to stepping it up and now teaching, whitewater kayaking continues to teach me much about myself, both on and off the water.
When I first got into a kayak, it was on a whim. Heeding a tiny far-off voice in my head that craved adventure and something new, I went whitewater rafting for the first time and added on a “kayak experience” because it was inexpensive and sounded interesting. I recall being nervous and excited as I paddled around the flat water pool below Ohiopyle Falls on the Youghiogheny River. Teasing the edges of boils and testing my confidence in the foam pile washout, I wanted more. Soon after, I drove back to Ohiopyle and bought a used crossover boat and went on a guided trip down the Middle Yough. I was never very good at sports and so I was doubtful as I put on; I had no idea how this was going to go. As I wobbled my way down the river, I alternated between appreciating the beauty of the water, sky and trees around me to tensing up at every rock, wave and eddy line. At one point, I found myself unexpectedly out of my boat and swimming in the cold river. I swam to shore, shaken up and gasping for breath. The guide emptied my boat for me and then I needed to make a decision. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get back in that boat. However, I didn’t want to give up just yet. I learned that day that swimming is inevitable and choosing to get back in the boat was the most important decision I made that day. Over and over again as I learned this sport, I would choose to get back in the boat and ignore the voices that said I wasn’t good enough. I didn’t fully understand at the time, but choosing to reengage every time there is a challenge in my life was the first lesson I learned from kayaking.
By choosing to get back in the boat, I also chose to directly engage with fear on the river. As I gained more confidence, I wanted to increase my skills and challenge myself more. I was ready to go beyond the easy class I and II rivers. An opportunity to paddle the Nantahala for the first time came up on a pick up trip with my paddling club. I watched the river flash by through the car window as we drove to the put in and I had lead in my stomach. When we got there, I stood and watched the cold water rush by. I walked away that day and didn’t paddle, too scared to even contemplate putting on. The next week was our club’s training trip for that river. Spending most of the week arguing with my inner doubting voice, I decided to do the trip anyway. I hiked my gear to the put in ramp and got in my boat. It was a trip I will never forget. The fog hanging over the river was so thick we needed to call out periodically to regroup so we could find one another. Because I couldn’t see the rapids much in advance due to the fog, the water seemed so much louder and bigger than ever before. As it eventually lifted, we spent the day practicing ferries, peel outs and eddy turns in the the biggest water I had paddled so far. At the end of the day, I was exhausted physically and mentally, but more comfortable in my boat than ever before. A world of possibilities opened up for me that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t directly engaged with my fears.
From that trip on the Nantahala River, I developed a drive to keep exploring my limits and edges. I kayaked as often as I could, taking on fear with every new river and every new drop. I learned skills to paddle increasingly challenging rivers, from class IV creeking in North Carolina to the jungles of Costa Rica and now teaching whitewater kayaking to others. Journeying far beyond what I thought was possible for myself, I find joy and peace in the chaos of the rapids, grace in the flowing currents, and empowerment in facing my fears head on. At the end of each paddle, I walk off the river grateful for the lessons found in the river and the power of choosing something new.