In early March, I sent Anna Levesque a cold call e-mail asking to get involved in Girls at Play. I had been traveling in New Zealand and my letter of inquiry included a line that summed up my latest truth: “I think that there is a cultural stereotype that women are held back by fear [in whitewater kayaking], but in my experience it is simply that they want to be intentional.” I still think this is true, but I was missing something.
In the last year, I have intentionally expanded my boating experience both in variety and challenge. I did the most multi-day trips ever: a 9 day self-support on the Salmon River in Idaho, 11 days on the Grand Canyon and 22 days on the Rio Maranon, the largest tributary of the Amazon, in Peru.
In addition to multi-days, I intentionally challenged myself with new runs in the northwest area including Lower Icicle creek, the Cooper, East Fork Lewis, Canyon Creek Lewis, Tumwater, rivers of the Payette drainage, noteably the Lower 5, and to top it all off, I spent 3 months in New Zealand over the winter boating with my best friend.
However, in New Zealand on our first run of a “Class III” I started to realize something was off. I got pinned half way down a drop. I was completely stuck, but stable and upright. Someone quickly eddied out, got to me and moved my boat off the rock, accelerating me backwards down the short rapid.
That moment shook me and set my mentality for the trip. West Coast NZ is stacked and I carefully examined runs with my best friend before we bit off what we could chew. We were careful to portage what we questioned since we were so remote and had either hiked or helicoptered in. However, it hit me on a run of the lower Hokitika, I was no longer on my game. I biffed a line and rolled in simple current. We’d helicoptered in that morning and were about to tackle a gorge, or so we thought, and I was breaking down. My best friend pulled me into an eddy and gave me the pep talk of a life time: “You’re a good kayaker” was the refrain. “Yeah, sure” I was thinking, “but what does that mean anymore? And is that why I’m here?”
Arriving at the gorge entrance, a quick scout came to show a class V rapid, unknown weir, wood and shadows beyond. Knowing ahead of time there was an option of portaging the gorge, we quickly determined the trail our best route and made bets on how long it could take. 1.5km, 900vertical feet? My 4.5 hrs was the longest bet.
27 hours later we finally found ourselves back at our cars and I had reached a new place mentally with kayaking.
I started “protecting my experience”. Those were words I began to use talking with others and myself about stepping up, about hard lines and on days I just wasn’t feeling it.
The more I stepped up to class IV/V, despite the acceleration of time on the water, the more I realized how little room for error I felt I had. It inspired focus and intentionality to the extreme, but play had been lost. I remember the week and a half I spent on the Payettes absorbing the new criteria of running the Lower 5, the lowest Class 5 section of the North Fork Payettes: You can’t swim and rolling almost certainly means hitting your head! Two rolls on the “Warm-up” section in my first two days taught me the later and I had already sworn on the former as my strongest commandment. I wasn’t playing anymore. I didn’t think I could.
So what was I doing there? Why did I need this? If this is where kayaking is going, what did kayaking even mean to me anymore?
With these thoughts in my head in New Zealand, I ran into Anna Wagnar, a former Girls at Play intern. Hearing her talking about the organization addressing paddling both physiologically and psychologically for women, I was instantly intrigued.
But who was I to do that? What did I have to offer?
These questions re-enforced the appropriateness of the choice and my own self worth. I’d run a 200+ student member kayak club in college teaching, leading pool sessions, trips and mentoring new boaters up to class III. It had been the “thing” I did in college, having spent 5 years fluctuating between 5 degrees.
So I sucked it up, got intentional and reached out to Anna.
Everything fell into place for me to move me from Washington State out to North Carolina. Down to the details of housing and meeting new folks, the process seemed streamlined outside of my control. On arrival, I ran the Green narrows with Anna my first week. It was low, and there was a solid group going. Walking down to the put-in my head was racing with the “what-ifs” but I continued to affirm my intention of knowing I wanted this experience this way and followed through. About half-way through the run I realized I wasn’t on edge anymore! While I was still very attentive to the new run, I was seeing everyone around me taking part in the merriment of being on the river, rock splats, surfs, and general river shenanigans and I just couldn’t be nervous anymore! I was playing again!
My second week I lead an Intro to Whitewater course and two days of private instruction. In my Intro class, I observed these ladies facing their fears of flipping a boat over with a skirt on, a seriously foreign mental challenge for those who don’t spend much time upside down underwater. I was inspired by their commitment and positive attitudes with themselves and the joy we all shared in celebrating their accomplishment was uplifting. We had a blast laughing through the learning process and I remembered how much I love teaching and sharing the river playground with others.
On my second day of private instruction, the words were coming out of my mouth without conscious thought: “We can only be here- there are rapids ahead and behind us, but while we are right here, lets appreciate that we’re breathing, that we’re seeing what’s coming, and most importantly that we’re having FUN!”
I had become disconnected from my sense of play getting hung up on the rocks in New Zealand. Watching people face the foreign challenges of learning to kayak reminded me of the choice we have in facing struggle. When I started instructing in college, my goal was to facilitate for others what had been such a struggle for me. But we all get to choose how we face struggles, and in choosing our attitude, we write our stories different ways. It’s not just that we overcome challenges, it is how we overcome them that defines how we view our experience and ourselves. When we are able to face those challenges with warmth and laughter, we keep those stories positive!
In Peru, my girlfriends, Teagan Owens, Janelle Deane and I had a heart to heart about stepping up in paddling. We shared how we had been pushed to our limits, or run things at the edge of our comfort zone. While empowering to see what we are capable of, we agreed that real progress happens when we step back to an area we are comfortable playing in. You solidify skills when you don’t feel like you have to control everything. You have confidence that you can deal with the consequences as they come, be it flipping over, running the route backwards, or taking the “other” line, etc. Through these “errors” we learn to both prevent them and deal with them when they happen, the whole time feeling like we aren’t spiraling out of control.
We need to be not just intentional in our goals, but intentional in our joy of the moment and our experiences. Otherwise, what do our goals mean? And how are they so important that they require shutting joy out as a prerequisite?
I’m re-writing my story.
Instead of “protecting my experience” I’m digging deep and intentionally putting Play into practice!
What do you do to make sure you are having fun out on the water?