Learning to Open My Eyes

Big Kahuna (Photo Credit: Lorenzo Bergamin)

Canyon Creek Lewis. 3.2 miles of glorious, scenic, pool drop whitewater, the site of the Northwest Creeking Competition, mentioned on American Whitewater as:  “…one of the best sections in the country for a creeking race.” A year ago it was the upper limits of what I felt comfortable running and moving back to the Pacific Northwest, I knew I was at least better prepared to tackle it. So I made a project. Run it until I got comfortable.

My 4th time down ~650cfs I got stuck in a pocket near the bottom of the right wall of the largest drop on the run, 18ft tall Big Kahuna. I flipped and swam, getting typewritered back into the falls and then under a large undercut on the right. I had always been told it flushed out, but I panicked and fought to claw my way to the surface. Eventually I had to trust that what I had heard was true. I closed my eyes and balled up. The wall gets dark overhead as I go deeper away from the sunshine, then light comes back. I swim to the surface. My paddling buddy Paul is there, nose positioned and probing for me.

I had gone into this project with the explicit interest of improving my creeking skills, this experience informed me again I wanted more guidance. Help came from two places. Brene Brown’s “Daring Greatly” and my river community for both the psychological and technical barriers I was facing.

Having challenged myself with running Canyon Creek more and more, I would have trouble sleeping the nights before I knew I was going to run it. I started having a series of dreams, the essence of which came down to “How can we live in a world with so much risk?”

Understanding Risk is one of the reasons kayaking is so important to me. I never broke a bone as a child, I didn’t climb trees because I thought I was protecting myself from “danger”. But what I’ve slowly been learning is that risk is part of life, that we have to take risks to live fully. Climbing trees as childern is one way to learn how to evaluate risk as we go. Instead of writing off the tree entirely, the placement of each handhold and step becomes information about how to proceed or when to turn back. Learning the importance of risk in life and how to be present to break down and take calculated/aware risks has been a part of my learning with kayaking since I began. However, in taking calculated/aware risks, we all still fail at times, and with kayaking it is a full body experience! To move forward we have to be able to incorporate that story into our own in a way that doesn’t diminish our self-worth, either in our immediate experience of that event, or in our understanding of it as we grow.

Brene Brown’s book “Daring Greatly” is about vulnerability, which I’ve come to understand as what we are faced with when we face risk:

“Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, its understanding the necessity of both; its engaging. It’s being all in. …[It] is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.” (2)

There was no question that this drop made me feel vulnerable, but I had thought that I was already owning my vulnerabilities here: I was challenging myself to engage in something that pushed my limits; I was open and honest with the people I boated with about my goals; I was willing to repeatedly expose myself to the same fear, practicing my skills and trying to normalize it. Some ways I mitigated my fear I felt helped me, for example, I made sure I have a supportive crew, but others were hurting me, I cringed or just “got through” the hardest parts of drops without a clear awareness of what I was doing right or wrong that led to my success or failure. I was gaining confidence that I could deal with the consequences, but not taking responsibility for the entrance and the key moments of the drop.

I asked my friend Willie to go out and focus on boofing with me. On the drive over we talk about what I do: Body over the deck, vertical stroke, wait until you see the hole…And for the first time I admit to him what I perceive to be my greatest problem: “I get to the lip, I have my paddle set, and then I don’t know what I do.” “You don’t know?” “No…It’s like I black out” “Do you close your eyes?”

Sure enough. Pictures emerge from the creeking comp and front and center, I’m halfway down a would be boof, with enough angle not to plug, eyes solidly shut.

Sunset Falls (Photo Credit: Kaelan Hendrickson)

I close my eyes while boofing. Admitting this to myself was embarrassing and honest.

Willie took this in stride. He explained that this is a defense mechanism we have as humans going into something we want to avoid, in other words a protection from vulnerability. I cataloged it in the list of things kayaking teaches you: How to hold your breath while suspended underwater, how to use your torso muscles instead of your arms… Counter-intuitive in nature and integral to success in the sport, this is just another step I tell myself.

He smiled. “Do you know why boofing is the best stroke in the world?” His eyes twinkled. “No”, I wasn’t sure what he was getting at.  “It’s not just that it is as close as you can get to flying, it lets you set angle, direction, momentum, you can literally take off in an unimaginable number of ways from it. It gives you ultimate freedom.” I appreciated this positive, nourishing, full-hearted view of what I had thought of just as a paddle stroke.

But how to convince myself to keep my eyes open while going over the most crucial part of the drop?  The moment when you boof or don’t, the crux, where you need to have timing, stroke angle and placement, momentum, or you flop.

Embrace the moment. Be present. Focus the fear into intention. I tell myself.

I boat with a supportive crew. I visualize each of my lines in my head before I run them trying to predict the forces I know will affect me, current direction, gradient etc. I give myself affirmations.

Then water gets higher.

Canyon is at 800cfs and few other things are running. I spend all morning debating running it. My friend Paul even offers to run some fun class III, but I realize that my mind is already set. Despite the fear, I listen to the fact that it is telling me I am ready.

We go out and meet the crew: Nine guys, stoked about the level. For them this is the preferred flow. One guy shows up and says “yah, Paul was gonna bail and run class 2 with some chick.” I laugh  “Hi, I’m some chic”, the group laughs with me and the guy is visibly sorry. I admit I was debating it because this is the highest I’ve run it. It comes out casual, but to me it is also a huge relief. I’ve admitted to everyone my greatest vulnerability in showing up. I have a hard time allowing myself to belong when I don’t show up as myself. I’ve been boating a lot with a crew of guys that have been boating in the area 10+ years. I constantly have to remind myself I can’t expect to have the same lines as those who has been running this stretch for years before I had even thought about picking up a paddle. I have to give myself some grace, credit and support. I have to tell myself that just because I haven’t been running it as long as them, and don’t always make all of the moves as gracefully, I have a right to be there, to learn, to be paid attention to. This is hard because I’m asking people to help me with my mistakes, some of whom I don’t know, people who heard of me as “some chic,” but I’m here, and I’m intimidated but I know I’m ready. I showed up.

At the put-in, another buddy of mine and I sit in an eddy while everyone puts on. There is a small surf wave and we all take a turn, practice a roll or otherwise stretching/warming-up. He mentions that this is the highest he’s run it too. My gears are beginning to relax, I’m feeling more and more like I understand why I knew I needed to be here.

My lines aren’t stellar. I’m nervous and it’s definitely higher, but I’m full of conviction that this is a level I can do, and every rapid I’m visualizing what I need to do and my mind is a broken circuit of affirmations to myself that I am capable of this and to keep my eyes open.

We get to Trasher, everyone’s favorite boof. It’s great because you can hike up and run it again. Everyone has clean lines down and I’m in the eddy. I visualize my line, gather my speed and go! I boof, flip and immediately get pulled back into the hole at the bottom. Swim. The swim isn’t so bad. I’m stuck in a pocket right by the wall moving in a circle, but I can breathe and within a few seconds people help me out. My boat and paddle retrieved, a couple guys go up and run it again. I’m completely embarrassed, but not hurt. I force myself to make eye contact with the guy who pulled my boat out and smile guiltily. They boof beautifully and again, everyone is done and waiting. I remind myself that I have a right to be here and to learn. I hike my boat up. People see and cheer and move to position. I visualize my line. I run it. Better this time, but I land on edge, flip and get sucked back in. Swim #2. This time I come out grinning. I know what happened.

The guys smile as they help me get my boat to the eddy. The same guy that called me “some chic” earlier tells me: “We’re laughing because we’ve all gotten beat down there, but none of us has gone up to do it again!”

My nerves are gone. Boulder garden rapid is next, and while maybe the most complicated rapid, it is the most fun to me. I slide through and we’re above Kahuna.

I scout like I always do. One by one the guys send off the falls. Again, I’m the last in the eddy. At this flow you can’t pull into the eddy right above the lip, you have to leave the side eddy and run it, angle set. I confirm that everyone is down below safely and visualize my line, one last time. I’m thinking of the angle of a lateral current I want to hit near the boof flake when I drop over the other side. I know my boat needs to be ever so slightly left, and my stroke timed with passing the flake. I focus on the lateral, my signal, my icon. Pulling out of the eddy I correct my line in the current and drop over the edge. There is a bit of a tongue before the boof. I’m on glassy water with the lateral right in front of me, as I’m passing over the lateral, I stroke! BOOF! I know it’s good my boat is still moving in the forward direction. I bring my chest back to my deck and land and a riffle sound ripples through the punch bowl pool that is the landing, followed by the whoops and hollers of my crew.  “That was awesome!” “You had the best line!” I’m smiling ear to ear, full to the brim with gratitude.

That moment was what a boof is suppose to be like. I’ve replayed the success of it over and over, trying to ingrain in my mind the stroke, the moment of release and the feeling of continued forward motion off the lip.

Paul actually caught it on camera along with the final boof at Hammering Spot.

Double win. I succeeded and get credit?

But while I’ve played that clip over and over to myself, what I’ve replayed more times than I can count is the first person memory from my own point of view. What I mark as the true success, comes with the fact that I COULD visualize it over and over again. My eyes were open.

Video Credit: Paul Meier

 

Book Reference

Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.

Meet Anna Levesque

Anna Levesque is the leading expert on kayak instruction for women and yoga and wellness for paddling, including SUP Yoga. Named one of the most inspirational paddlers alive by Canoe and Kayak Magazine, Anna’s twenty-plus years of experience as an accomplished international competitor and instructor has landed her in mainstream publications such as TIME, SHAPE and SELF magazine.

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