The Beginnings of a Paddler by Angela Como


Peshtigo River, Marinette County, WI

From the riverbank above First Drop, I gazed into the thrashing hole, wondering how I ever managed to remain upright in my rented inflatable ducky as I’d punched through the turbulence. My plan had been to follow the clean line to the left of the feature, but that plan quickly changed as I found myself crashing through the hole. A friend who had been watching described my feat as an incredible combination of luck and balance. Whatever the case, I now sat with my feet dangling from the rocky ledge, waiting eagerly as the approaching group of paddlers in true whitewater kayaks prepared to descend.

The first kayak sliced neatly through the wave that I’d barely muddled through. I marveled at the grace of the boat’s movement. As I studied the kayakers, I noticed that they paddled deliberately, effectively using each feature of the river to carve their desired course through the rapids. They looked like a part of the river itself, dancing with the motion of the water.

I tried imagining what it would be like to experience the river from the vantage point of a real, hard-sided kayak. There on the rock amidst the chatter of the boaters and the rushing of the river, I closed my eyes for a moment of silent concentration. I promised myself that no matter what it would take, I would learn the art of whitewater kayaking.

Canoecopia spring paddlesports exhibition, Madison, WI

I wound my way through the labyrinth of bodies and boats that packed the expo floor, searching for a booth with a sign that would read “Girls at Play.” At Canoecopia the previous year, I’d taken a yoga class with Anna but hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with her. After going home and researching Anna and her company, I became intrigued by the Girls at Play philosophy, but was dismayed by the fact that Girls at Play was located so far from my home in Wisconsin. I decided that at the very least, I could talk to Anna and see what advice she could offer to a 15-year-old girl hoping to become a kayaker.

I fought against my usual shyness as I approached the Girls at Play booth, introduced myself to Anna, and blurted out my mission. Anna expressed her approval of my aspirations, and surprised me with what she had to say next.

“Bear Paw hosts a whitewater kayaking festival for women every summer. I’ll be there.”

Bear Paw! I’d heard of Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort on the Wolf River—and it was only a few hours from my home. My next stop at the show would be the Bear Paw booth, and I would be on the phone a few weeks later, finalizing my reservations for the weekend.

“Wow, sounds great. I’ll be there, too.”

Bear Paw Outdoor Adventure Resort, Langlade County, WI

I stepped out of the truck, squinted against the powerful brightness of morning, and grinned tiredly at my friend Mariah, whom I had managed to cajole into joining me for this adventure. We woke up at 3 am to be at the festival on time. With the sun climbing higher into the sky, our impending fate of kayak lessons drew closer. After getting settled in our humble rustic cabin, we hugged my dad good-bye and wandered over to join the group of ladies at the boatshed.

With me being only sixteen and Mariah, fourteen, one could say that perhaps we stuck out a little bit in the group of generally experienced-looking women. Everyone was so welcoming, though, that our age didn’t make a difference. We selected two twin Little Heroes to paddle for the weekend.

As Anna spoke during our introduction circle, I found myself already falling in love with the sport of kayaking. The most fascinating piece of information she shared was the fact that women generally experience a “tend and befriend” response towards the river, as opposed to the well-known “fight or flight.” I listened, entranced, as she explained that the river is not a force that needs to be attacked or conquered. Women, she said, tend to take time getting to know and appreciate the features of the river so that they may come to feel “friendly” towards it. I held on to this thought all weekend: the water is my friend.

After our first day on the water, I wrote in my journal, “If I ever decide to become an advanced kayaker, today is going to be a day that I look back on and laugh about.” My main goal for the day had been to perform a successful bow rescue, or being able to roll up from underwater with my hands on another’s boat. Learning the correct way to place my hands on the rescuer’s bow was a trial-and-error process, but I persisted doggedly through the many consequent wet exits until I got it. By the end of the day, my head felt so clogged with lake mud and water that it hurt to think.

If learning the basics on the lake was that tiring, I wondered how I would fare on the river the next day. But despite being mildly terrified to hit the rapids, I was also wildly excited.

Wolf River, Langlade County, WI

Completing my first successful eddy turn at Gilmore’s rapids felt like learning the first step in the dance of kayaking. As I experimented with catching eddies and taking different lines, I realized that the point of kayaking is not just to ride the river downstream. From my kayak, I was becoming a dynamic participant in the river’s movement, discovering the many paths that its particles traveled. I was learning to manifest Anna’s description of “tend and befriend.”

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. Women’s Fest 2011 came to an end, and I found myself back on dry land all too soon. I snuck in one short whitewater lesson later in the summer, but that was it for the year.

When Women’s Fest 2012 came along, I was set. I’d gotten my first whitewater boat, a brand-new river runner, for my 17th birthday. It was time to put some scratches in the glossy red hull. A friend had given me a short rolling lesson, and I was determined to nail this skill and put it to use in the river. At every opportunity that weekend, I tipped myself over and gave it a shot.

When the end of the weekend approached and I still hadn’t rolled, I felt defeated. However, I will never forget how my companions responded to my situation. The other women were not only helpful and understanding, but infectiously optimistic. Many were in the same situation or had been there before, and everyone expressed genuine faith in me. The dozens of hands waiting to help and the constant “you-can-do-its” probably did more for my confidence as a boater than the actual achievement of my first roll on a lake the next week.

In fact, my experience with rolling did change me as a paddler. When someone achieves the next step in that mystical dance of kayaking, it is a powerful thing. I started to toy with the idea of eventually being able to help others have this experience—what if I became proficient enough to actually teach other people?

My home, on the phone

“Of course we would love to have you be a part of our team,” said Jamee, the owner of Bear Paw. We talked awhile, making plans for me to move up to the Wolf River for the summer of 2013, after I graduated high school.

And that was that. Two years into my kayaking career and still extremely fresh, I was officially going to begin my adventure as an assistant kayak instructor. At this point, I could count on just my fingers the number of days I’d spent paddling a whitewater kayak. But again, it was Jamee’s faith in me that gave me the confidence to accept the offer.

Many people know me as a quiet girl who spends a good deal of time studying, playing my violin in orchestra, attending club meetings, and going for long runs with my track team. Those who know me well, though, understand my insatiable desire to be on the river. To any lady out there who is immersed in an already wonderfully busy life, I encourage you to still pay attention to those odd and crazy sparks of desire that pop up every now and then. You’ve heard many times that it’s never too late to start. Conversely, it’s never too early to start.