It was Memorial Day weekend, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was blessed with rain, runoff, warm weather, and a gaggle of eager kayakers. I couldn’t wait to paddle the Presque Isle and Black Rivers until they dropped into Lake Superior. I couldn’t wait to just be in my boat, making moves and looking where I wanted to go, breathing in the clean air and the sunshine, laughing with friends and giving thanks.
I launched into the Presque and glanced around at our flotilla. I realized something that is often the case, but upon which I typically don’t dwell. For whatever reason, it really hit me that day: I am the only woman here. There was one of me—one tiny creekboat, one purple helmet, one set of comparatively small biceps—and eight men. I felt oddly vulnerable. I didn’t know the majority of these guys very well, and I also didn’t know the river. My mind began spinning stories: I’m the only girl. I can’t be that one who messes up. I can’t be that one who gets scared. As long as I measure up to the dudes, I’ll be okay.
I’d felt this way before. I remember running the Narrows and the Cascades on days when there weren’t any other women in sight—the women who rock those rivers all the time probably also know what it’s like to happen to be the only female who washed up at the put-in that day. There comes a sense of “needing to represent” that, for me, is both thrilling and damaging. Thrilling because it pushes me to fire it up, to move beyond some of my characteristic reservations and challenge myself in a good way. But it’s also damaging, in the sense that it ruffles my ego in a not-so-good way. I feel the need to prove myself to others on the grounds that I, as a woman, can do what the men are doing. I forget the importance of simply proving myself to myself—of being courageous because it feels good. Of running that rapid because it’s fun. Of kayaking because it’s just who I am.
I worked hard on the Presque Isle to re-write these stories in a positive way. I reminded myself that every rapid presented its own special opportunity for each boater to run his or her own authentic line. I crushed rapids and maintained a sense of peace. I felt bummed when a miscommunication resulted in me taking out before running some of the more exciting drops at the end of the run, but I didn’t let it get to me. My worth is not determined by whether or not I ran a certain waterfall on a particular day.
But the next day, on the Black River, I couldn’t convince myself of that. Our group scouted everything, and constantly hefting my boat onto shore and slipping around in my worn-out booties started to feel like a chore. Thunder, lightning and brown rivulets of runoff-in-action coursing down the canyon walls brought the epic factor up a couple notches. Each time we scouted a class IV+ rapid, I let myself become terrified by the stories people entertained about “what would happen if…” These stories about potentially bad lines muddled my ability to see the good lines, and to know that I was fully capable of executing them. I ended up walking a few rapids that would have been tricky, but well within my skill set. I pouted in eddies at the bottom after I walked, trying not to cry, trying to care about whether anyone was swimming towards me in need of assistance. I stewed about the preservationist instinct that seems to come with being a woman and that sometimes holds me back from pushing myself. I grieved over my friend Jamie, who died last summer in a rapid that shouldn’t have killed him. I grieved over the fact that I’m leaving the Midwest and always seem to depart from a group of paddling friends as soon as I make them. I bit my tongue and splashed water on my face. Moving downriver again, I drifted beyond an eddy we’d all planned to catch, and panicked because I thought I was washing haplessly towards the entrance of a dangerous rapid. A friend peeled out and rushed to lead me down, and I relaxed into the assurance that it was just a class III ledge—not the class V Rainbow Falls. I rolled at the bottom half-purposefully, washing the tears off my face for good. If they even noticed my mood at all, my friends had no idea what was troubling me inside. But they noticed when I panicked and needed help, and rushed to my aid without question. I wouldn’t let myself tell the story that I was just being that girl, making drama on the river. I told myself that I was being a human, a humble and breakable human. I smiled at that. I slipped in the mud while portaging Rainbow Falls, landing hard and laughing before I even hit the ground. Humble. Breakable. But so real, so alive.
I carried this feeling with me to our final river of the weekend, the Sturgeon. Daniel, Jason and I stuck around to enjoy some laps of the 20-ft Canyon Falls. We all fired up a few great laps on the single-drop ledge, then found ourselves lounging at the canyon rim, just hanging out and enjoying the view. Everyone seemed tired and satisfied, myself included, when I randomly piped up: “I want to fire up the double-drop line.” I climbed over the wooden railing and squatted to scout. I drew a map in my mind of the diagonal waves leading up to the horizon line, and how I would follow the outer corner of one of them to the point in which I’d T up to the lip. I’d boof the first ledge with a right stroke and the second with a left. Nobody told me what to do or questioned my plan. Daniel said he would run that line if I made it look good.
Next thing I knew, I was paddling through my mental map, finding the corner of that wave, planting my first boof, falling for half a second, landing perfectly to boof again, falling a full second or two, then landing—upright—in a massive plume of spray. The boys were right behind me.
I thought we were really done after that, until some hikers begged us to run it so they could watch. We explained that we’d been there all morning and were just heading out, when I smiled and shrugged, “I’ll run it.” Then Jason wanted to run again, too. I cleaned the double-drop and he cleaned the single-drop. The audience went wild. I whooped for joy. Running waterfalls is fun. Sharing it with curious spectators is also fun. Being a team member, a leader, and a source of inspiration for your paddling crew is the most fun of all.
Canyon Falls is not the tallest or the hardest waterfall in the world. It’s 20 feet with a clean entrance and a deep landing zone. But who cares? Running it empowered me. I ran it because I wanted to, because it brought me joy, because it made me feel strong. That’s why anyone should run any rapid. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that I’m a woman, whether I’m the only woman in a group of fifty men, or paddling alongside fifty other women. I know how to paddle, and I know how to paddle for the right reasons. We all owe it to ourselves to paddle for ourselves. To tell ourselves positives stories about the choices that we make. To paddle with good people, so that we can know that we will be loved no matter what we walk or run or how many times we do it or don’t do it. And we owe it to our friends to love them, wherever they may be at on a given river on a given day. Nobody kayaks alone, even on a solo lap—we take the community with us wherever we go. It’s the community that taught us, and the community that keeps us going. Men and women alike. We’re all part of the community.