My goals coming into this season were simple: just paddle, paddle, and paddle some more. I didn’t come to the Southeast with a list of desired PFD’s in mind, or a dollar amount that I wanted to earn kayak instructing. I just wanted the experience of living by the river, getting on the river, taking what it had to offer, and giving back what I could. I decided that I would be content with anything, as long as I found something to cherish in each moment of each day for the two months I was here.
Immediately upon arrival, I found myself building momentum frighteningly fast. Girls at Play Creek Week provided me with a running start: I went from not knowing how to boof on day 1, to crushing Hammer Factor on day 4. Before I knew it, I was running Tallulah, Cheoah, West Fork of the Tuck, and the Cascades. These runs were big news for me—I had only a tiny bit of previous class IV experience, zero class V experience, and had also been out of my boat for 7 months. At the put-in, I’d wedge trembling legs into my Mamba, and breathe to the beat of my adrenaline-swollen heart thumping furiously against my chest wall as I snapped on my skirt.
I never felt totally ready for any of these runs. All I knew was that I was more ready than I’d ever been, and that I may not have the chance to return to these rivers for a long time. So, I went for it. In the three weeks that I completed these PFD’s (personal first descents), I styled a lot of rapids, barely mucked through some others, rolled a handful of times, swam twice, and celebrated continuously. During these weeks, I focused on taking it one step at a time. I didn’t look back at yesterday’s mistakes. I showed up, I geared up, and I paddled. Driving home from the Cascades, I watched the sunset lighting up the mountaintops, and I was overcome with emotion. I had just paddled a river that I honestly never thought I would have the guts or the skill to paddle. I’d taken the opportunities that were presented to me, faced my fears, and lived to tell. I was grateful. Beyond grateful. I was moved. Achieving the impossible had never felt so easy.
Some weeks passed in which I wasn’t making any gnarly PFD’s, but I wanted more. I wasn’t ready to stop; I was still on fire. Only one step-up river remained that was running at boatable flows: the Green Narrows. I gently begged some wonderful folks, namely, Anna and Adriene, to take a Wednesday out of their lives and get me down the Green. They agreed, and rallied a whole crew of Narrows veterans and other solid boaters. Excellent. I was to be in the world’s best hands. It was really time to shine. I was so nervous on the hike in that my body forgot to sweat. But I arrived at the put-in, expecting that in just a matter of seconds, I’d hop right back onto the steep, upward track of paddling momentum that I’d been furiously ascending so far this season. I was going to style some tricky moves. I was going to be baptized. I was going to fly.
Instead of continuing to soar, however, I felt my momentum start to halt. When someone gave me beta, I’d look at her like a deer in headlights, trying to digest the foreign descriptions. When I ran a rapid, I don’t think I breathed until eddying out at the bottom and checking to see if I was still alive. It’s not that the moves were so impossible, it’s just that I was so incredibly scared of missing them. I wasn’t missing very many, and never to the point of endangering myself, but the “what if’s” were eating me alive. While portaging Gorilla, I stumbled and scraped my shins on the rocks. My body was shaking so intensely, it was hard to walk. I felt paralyzed; paralyzed by fear, paralyzed by awe, paralyzed by the simple power of this gorge and this river. I didn’t even look back upstream to study or appreciate Gorilla, though this was my first time seeing it in person. I seal launched to land in the slack water between the Flume and Scream Machine, and I felt small and insignificant.
Finally, we approached Toilet Bowl and Hammer Factor, the only two major rapids on the Narrows that I had run before. I relaxed, starting to feel normal emotions return, and wondered if I might start crying, just for the amazing power I felt emanating from the river. I told myself to wait until after Hammer Factor, then I could release my emotions. I cleaned Toilet Bowl and drove into Hammer Factor, feeling smug and confident. I knew this line; I could show these pros who’d been watching me scramble all day that I could indeed crush a rapid. This thought spun out of my mind as I realized that I was upside down in the hole; Hammer Factor was crushing me. I tried with all of my might to set up for a roll, but I couldn’t get my paddle to move into position. I pushed on it, I pulled on it, and my boat and body bounced around, but my paddle was stuck fast on something. I clung to it like a small child to a monkey bar until I surrendered to the need for air. I bobbed sheepishly into the river right eddy and begrudgingly accepted the breakdown paddle that Anna snapped together for me. This felt like the ultimate acknowledgement of a blown line: here is Anna, my mentor, my boss, my friend, and my longtime paddling idol, handing me the breakdown that I haul in my boat when I teach beginner clinics in case someone loses their plastic Desperado. I paddled stiffly down to the takeout, half-shocked and half-moping. All I could think was, one for the Green, zero for me.
But it wasn’t such a loss in the end. The Green didn’t take anything from me. Not only did I fish my paddle out the next morning—it had been wedged perfectly across the diameter of the pothole in the river left wall—but I learned some valuable lessons. Anna often reminds students that kayaking is not about ticking off a list of rivers. Anyone can get down class V; the water runs downstream. What matters is the quality of your experiences as you move downstream—are you safe? Are you having fun? Challenging yourself with technical moves? Telling yourself positive stories? The day before I ran the Narrows, my boyfriend, Daniel, had asked me what was next. I was finally about to check off a big one, so what was going to follow? I told him that I didn’t know. As I walked into the parking lot at Fishtop with Anna’s breakdown in my hand, I thought, shoot, maybe I’ll never run anything harder than this. Maybe I shouldn’t even be paddling this right now. I was happy to spend the next weekend on some rivers I felt more comfortable paddling. But I surprised myself by taking a rough swim on the Cheoah, and a pointless swim on the Nolichucky—yes, the Nolichucky. I know that we are all between swims, but I felt that these things happened to me perhaps because I was not really in tune with my paddling and what I wanted to get out of it. The Green shook my confidence, and I needed to step back and rediscover my reasons for being in a kayak. I needed to stop checking boxes and start checking in with myself.
I discussed my frustrations with Daniel, asking him why I suddenly felt so incompetent. He told me that my performance can’t reflect my skill level if I don’t believe in myself. Right—that hit the nail on the head. So I dredged up some faith and remembered just what it is that I believe about myself and kayaking. I believe that kayaking brings me close to God in a way that no other worldly activity can. I believe that kayaking pushes me to grow as a person and helps me to create a healthy perspective on what it means to be alive. I believe that I can do it, because I have worked hard at it and I love it. Even if I lack experience, the only way to gain it is to just get out there and give it my best.
I got back on the Narrows a week after my PFD, and I’ve never felt so alive. My run was smooth. It was humbling, purifying, instructive, awe-inspiring, everything that any paddler would want an early-morning Green lap to be. I spent more energy soaking in the beauty of the river, and I let go of the urges to judge myself and to focus on my fears. I took the time to be grateful. I shot out the bottom of Hammer Factor with a smile on my face and a prayer exploding in my heart. So what if I never run something harder than this? So what if not every day on the river will always be this perfect? I’m here. Now. I’m a part of something powerful and beautiful. I’m learning. I’m growing. I’m living fully. This is enough. The next box I check might not be for a new river. It’s going to be for living fully, full of gratitude, full of joy. It will be for happiness because I’m out paddling, not happiness because I’m paddling perfectly. It will be for getting out and breathing the fresh air and connecting with God’s creation. That’s the next thing on my list.
Photo credits to Sarah Ruhlen. Thank you!