Monday, September 12 – It’s my first day of my senior year of college, and I should be flying out of bed and bustling about and getting myself organized. Instead, I feel the need to be quiet for a bit. There’s a stillness to this morning that I want to honor. One month ago at this time, 7:12 AM, I received a message that stopped me in my tracks. I’d just returned to the US after a research trip to the Philippines. I was curled up on the couch at my friends’ house, nursing my jet lag and working up the stamina to head into the lab, when words that I didn’t want to see appeared on my iPhone screen to the tune of a single ding: “Got a call late last night that Jamie Page passed away yesterday on Gore Canyon.”
I blinked a few times. My thumb quivered over the keypad, trying to form the words to a response but coming up short. Jamie? No. I wanted to ask, are you sure? Can you check again? Jamie Page was one of the best paddlers I knew. He calmly led me down class V and he danced across class II with an unmatched elegance. He’d just moved from the Pigeon River in Tennessee over to Colorado to safety boat in the Royal Gorge. He was soaking up the joy of it all like a sponge. That’s how Jamie always was—so saturated with joy that it seeped out constantly to anything he touched. People don’t just die when they’re living so fully—do they?
Anna and a client and I discussed at length last summer on a drive to the Nantahala how the longer you kayak, the closer you come to surviving a paddling buddy. Eventually, someone you know will die kayaking. Since then, a former instructor of mine died on the Black River in Michigan and a friend that I’d paddled with once was pronounced dead at a whitewater park, though he later was revived. I considered these events solemnly, grieving for the family members and the community. But I kept on paddling like I always have, because that seemed like the only option.
I didn’t expect it to happen to a close friend. I thought I’d fulfilled my quota of “someone I knew.” I met Jamie in the summer of 2015 when I first came down south, and in the spring of 2016 when I returned to step up my creeking skills, Jamie and his friends took me under their wing and gently pushed me to keep stepping it up. I celebrated life with them on the West Fork of the Tuck and the Narrows. They got me through a hair-raising PFD of the Cascades at higher water, and a tricky PFD of Big Creek at low water. We shared laughter and silent prayers on playful runs of the Nolichucky and the Pigeon. Although I was the new kid in town, Jamie and his crew believed in me and stood faithfully by my side through all of my ups and downs. I mentioned in my last blog post that paddling exposes one’s raw emotional core to whoever they’re paddling with. You might know a paddling companion for only a short time, but the ties you form with them are inevitably genuine, deep, and unbreakable. These guys were new friends, but they knew me well. They may or may not have any idea just how instrumental they were in me nearing the pinnacles of many long pined-for kayaking goals.
Two weeks after Jamie’s death, I ironically found myself on a road trip to Colorado. I visited Gore Canyon and paid Jamie my respects. The beauty of the river and the canyon numbed me, and though I cried, I couldn’t really fathom what I was crying for. I knew I was supposed to be sad, but nothing computed. Several days after that, my boyfriend, Daniel, and I decided to squeeze in some kayaking before heading home. We ventured to the neighborhood of the Arkansas River and met a kayaker in a grocery store parking lot who agreed to take us down the Numbers section of the Ark. We were pumped, me especially, since I had been out of the country and not paddling for the past month. Finally, it was time to return to what I love.
The night before hitting the river, we found a campsite made of mountain views and pinyon pine and little cactuses and hard red dirt and a big moon. On my way to bed, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably on the ground. I wailed that here we were in Colorado about to go kayaking, and Jamie wouldn’t be there. I screamed that kayaking used to be my best friend, and it had betrayed me, and nothing made sense anymore. When I was in high school, the dream of whitewater kayaking is what kept me going when the piles of homework and the harsh sun on the track and the stress of violin auditions drove me to my breaking point. At that time I was kayaking about 3 days per year, but I lived for those days like a child lives for Christmas. When I started college and started kayak instructing, the promise of a return to fresh air and living waters and adrenaline rushes defying description pulled me through late nights in stuffy labs and early-morning studying in cramped dorm rooms. When someone I loved was sick or sad, I carved out time for myself to be on a river, and I returned with a healed strength to love and help and listen. Kayaking has been a blessed spiritual, emotional and physical foundation for me as I’ve navigated the tumult of young adulthood. It’s given me best friends and helped me become the woman I want to be. When the rest of the world battered me, kayaking could do no wrong.
And now, kayaking had done me wrong, or so it seemed. There’s no forgiving a sport that takes an amazing athlete, friend, son, and brother from this earth, right? I didn’t want to paddle the Numbers anymore. Heck, I didn’t want to do or think about anything anymore, because the glue of my entire earthly existence had just gone bad. I trembled there on the red dirt, remembering following the pointy tails of Jamie’s Braaaps—he’d had a gray one, then a new orange one when that cracked—off the lips of Flight Simulator, Horns of God, Chinese Feet. This man had been my safety blanket in some of the most intense river moments of my life. If he died on the Colorado, he could have died those times with me, thank God he didn’t. If he died on the Colorado, I could have—should have!—also died those times, running stuff I was somewhat qualified to run. If he died on the Colorado, I could die running anything. Anyone could die running anything. So, why do it?
Anna’s response to potentially losing a loved one to kayaking was that while she may not know how to carry on without them, she’d go forth with the understanding that you can’t keep a person from doing what they love. She’s right. I was disillusioned with kayaking, but that was because I loved it more than ever. Of course I had to wake up and paddle the Numbers. My heart was nervous, but as soon as I launched, my body knew what to do. My mind knew how the read the water and send the appropriate signals to my muscles to let me dance and keep me safe. Daniel and our new friend Steve whooped for joy, and I joined in. I didn’t have to search the clouds above to see Jamie watching over us. I felt him there, in the water, dancing too.
I see now that perhaps I’ve been mistaken these past 6 years in considering the sport of kayaking to be my rock. Kayaking, as evidenced by Jamie’s accident, is fallible. It breaks sometimes—breaks lives, bodies, gear, hearts. But the love of the sport, the love of life, the love of your paddling companions and the love of God’s outstanding creation, these loves are steadfast. I’m grateful that kayaking has been my avenue to access these types of love. I’ve lost my innocence to the reality of the sport, but I love it just as much.
Jamie was wise for a 25-year-old. He knew how to seize the moment like few humans do. Running the West Fork of the Tuck, I’d planned to walk the first boulder garden but accidentally washed into the eddy at the top of the rapid, missing the takeout eddy. Jamie glided over and I stammered, panicked, “I didn’t want to run this but now here I am!” He looked me in the eye, smiled, and said simply, “Now here you are.” Then he vanished off into the whitewater. That may be some of the best advice I’ve ever received on a river. It’s about being where we are, right here, right now. We know that, but why do we always forget and let our minds wander to shore, to the other eddy, to the bottom when we’re at the top, to the top when we’re at the bottom?
From this, I’ve learned that we need to keep doing what we love. Kayaking helps me to access love, true love, for humans and for myself and for the earth. I will never understand why God wanted to take Jamie in this manner, but I don’t have to. All I can hope to understand is what I’m trying to do with my time on this earth. And I don’t need to have my life perfectly figured out, I just need to understand what I’m doing to give and share love. I’m about to head to class now, and I’m glancing over at my kayak that is currently occupying the vacant bed until my roommate returns from studying abroad. I have no idea where my classes, my job search, my grad school search this year are going to lead me. I have no idea when or whether I’ll have time to deploy this boat in a river before winter break. But I know why it’s here, and that’s what matters. I know why I’m here—to do my best. To live the life I have while I have it. Keep paddling, friends, and keep tending your fires of love. It’s all we can do. Love yourselves and love everyone. This time is so precious. Jamie’s last piece of kayaking advice to me was to hold onto my boof stroke longer. Don’t just tap the rock, boof it like you mean it.
It’s time to stop tapping at life. Grab ahold and put your weight into it for all you’re worth. The nature of your landing may not be guaranteed, but it will be spectacular. That’s for sure.
In memory of Jamie Page, 1991-2016
Thanks Sarah Ruhlen for photos