The River, my Old Friend


Mind Body Paddle recently re-posted the very first blog post I wrote at Anna’s request—the story of how I became a kayak instructor, written before I actually started instructing.  Written before I ever knew that I would end up working for Girls at Play/Mind Body Paddle. I was in high school, writing about this dream I had of guiding people down the river. I was signed up to teach kayaking on the Wolf River in Wisconsin that upcoming summer, despite my status as a novice boater. I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew that I was chasing a dream.

That was almost 5 years ago. I can now safely say that kayaking has allowed me to realize dreams a thousand times over. I’ve taught dozens of people, children and adults alike, the dance of whitewater kayaking, and I’ve guided or ran safety for hundreds more. I’ve paddled casually (and gratefully!) alongside some of the world’s best whitewater athletes. I’ve worked for two highly respected kayaking institutions. I’ve dipped my paddle into what might be considered class V. I’ve dropped over waterfalls upside down; I’ve fished my boats and paddles out of crazy places to give my battered gear a second chance. I’ve made countless friends who would probably give their lives for me, on or off the river. I have realized that dreams, in fact, don’t just become reality sometimes—they are a type of reality. They can be lived continuously.

In my original blog post, I wrote this:

Once I met the river, there was no going back. I wanted to continue to learn its secrets, but I knew this would take an incredible amount of work and time. 

It did take time. It did take work. I was prepared for that. I wasn’t so prepared for the sacrifices that would eventually emerge. I still think of my good friend Jamie’s passing every time I get in a kayak. I still feel a pang of sorrow for Shannon Christy’s family and friends whenever I “like” a post regarding the Ladies Southeast Paddling Series. I shiver sometimes when I check the weld in the bow of my boat, remembering the day I cracked it. But I realize that my 17-year-old self was speaking truth back when I wrote that first blog post: there is no going back. Every river I’ve run is forever a part of me that will not run dry.

Since moving to McCall, Idaho from Yellow Pine, ID at the end of August, I feel like I’ve fallen in love with kayaking for a second time. Every weekend, I’ve been able to check out a new chunk of river. None of these rivers are the hardest or “gnarliest” thing I’ve ever run, but they are all beautiful places to discover. One of my grad school classmates recently got into kayaking, and I have had the honor of paddling alongside him on many of his “step-up” runs. I can see his confidence and his love for the sport blossoming constantly, and it’s impossible to suppress the same joys surfacing within myself. I wistfully recall the days when I was obsessed with “stepping it up.” That was the perfect adventure for me at the time. What I’m doing now is the perfect adventure for this moment in time. Joy comes from doing what we need and want to do, right here, right now. Joy also comes from the understanding that learning never stops. I’ve been exposed to my first real surf waves (as opposed to holes) in Idaho, and learning to catch a big wave and surf it has been absolutely delightful.

On my way back to McCall after a Salmon surf sesh a few weeks ago, I ran into none other than Anna Levesque herself at a rest stop off the highway. I knew she was leading her Main Salmon trip that week and wondered if I might luckily run into her. Standing there on the lawn hugging Anna before she re-boarded the shuttle bus, I couldn’t stop thinking about how perfect and serendipitous fate can be. Five years ago, sitting there in my high school study hall blogging about my plans to kayak after graduating, I never would have imagined that I’d be standing in river-damp clothes hugging Anna on the roadside in Idaho, after two years of working for her in NC, after nearly quitting kayaking this past year, after countless tears and peals of laughter stemming from five years of kayaking adventures. Life knows what we need, and it deals us our cards in the right doses, at the right time. Sometimes we might only agree with this in hindsight, but it’s true.

Be assured that you’re getting what you need. Whether it’s the best line ever on your favorite rapid, or a hard hit that shakes you up. Whether it’s years of glory or years of doubt, it all brings you back around to where you need to be. Patience, faith, and a lot of love make the whole process that much greater.

In my original blog post, I also described the experience of learning to “tend and befriend” the river, as per Anna’s guidance. I wrote how during my first ever kayak clinic:

I held onto this thought all weekend: the water is my friend.

 I’ve had my doubts over the years, but I proclaim that the river is indeed my friend. Like any good friend, it can sometimes exercise tough love. But that’s what friends are for, right?

Perhaps it’s been a bit since I’ve professed simple gratitude for anyone who’s been a part of this journey. Friends, students, and teachers of mine, thank you. The river is great, but you’re the ones who make it worth it.

Thanks to Dan Lay for photos!