“Guys, I think I’m done.”
“What!?” We’d barely paddled a mile yet.
I sighed. I looked around, up at the cloudless blue Idaho sky, down at the matching blue Salmon River, upstream towards the rapid I’d just swam. It hadn’t been a bad swim. Not pleasant, but not terribly damaging or dangerous.
“I’m fine. I just don’t want to mess up again,” I said, biting my lip.
Joe turned to face me from where he was perched in the rocks, emptying my boat. “Angela, you have some of the best lines of all of us. You just so happened to get stuck in a 19-foot deep hole. None of us are worried about you. ”
Okay, okay. I told myself that I should get back in my boat. The East Fork South Fork of the Salmon was at a good level, and dropping fast. It was July 4th, and I had randomly happened upon this incredible crew of kayakers who adopted me into their flotilla for the holiday weekend. This was my chance to do here what I came here to do: Paddle. Explore. Hang out with good people.
I had nothing to worry about. I’d run this river yesterday, and it was great. I’d run it a week ago at twice the flows, and that had been great. But as I ran the next rapid, I just couldn’t seem to take a breath. Every paddlestroke felt nerve-wracking and forced, even though I was running the rapid well. I pulled over in the next eddy and called to Joe that I was taking out.
Brady hadn’t heard my message, and when he saw me scrambling up the rocks towards the road, he eddied out in the middle of the river and sat there tapping his helmet for a solid minute as I waved him downstream, until I finally tapped mine back. Yes, I’m okay. Just done. Just walking off a river for the first time in my life.
As I crawled up onto the road, I considered that I have never abandoned ship before the takeout. Never. I’ve paddled out with bare hands for hand paddles. I’ve paddled out with my shoulder barely clinging to its socket. I’ve gotten students who are crying and panicking all the way to the end. But now, suddenly, on a class III-IV river with absolutely nothing wrong, I couldn’t get myself to the finish line.
My experiences in the past year, both on and off the river, have drastically changed how I feel about kayaking. It used to feel like the ultimate embodiment of adventure, toughness, competency, and freedom. Lately, I have faced parallel elements of grief, pain, and sacrifice within the sport of kayaking. I tell myself that I just need to keep paddling, and one day it’s going to click again. I was excited to come to Idaho for a change of scene. I willed myself to paddle, whether I really wanted to or not.
Only a week prior to walking off the East Fork South Fork, I’d believed that my kayaking season had been ended for me. Running a different section of the same river at relatively high water, I swam and my boat pinned. I got myself out just fine, but nobody could get to my boat safely. As I hiked to the takeout, boat-less and paddle-less, I felt a strange sense of peace emanating from the apparent fact that I wouldn’t be able to go kayaking for awhile, as long as my boat was stuck in the river. It seemed as though God and fate were prodding me to spend my time and energy on something else. I secretly hoped the boat and paddle were gone for good. That way I could start with a clean slate at some later point in time.
Of course, I had my boat back in my hands about 5 hours later. An ATV with a winch, some makeshift grappling hooks, and some extremely generous friends and neighbors made short work of fishing my Mamba out of the river. It suffered one piton and one tiny crack, which we welded a few days later. My paddle was gone, but I had others. I found myself back in the same situation: I love kayaking. I’m good at it. I love all of the positive growth it allows in my life. There are people here, wanting to paddle with me. So I should paddle. I just don’t want to right now.
Hence, I finally walked off the river.
Nobody judged me the day we lost and found my boat. Nobody gave me a hard time the day I walked. The truth is, good friends and respectable paddlers understand how a person’s relationship with kayaking ebbs and flows just like a river. In my last blog post, I discussed how we should run rapids because it feels fun, empowering, strengthening. Nobody else can dictate what that means for an individual paddler. We have to be honest with ourselves, and honest with our crewmates. I found myself turning down an opportunity to run a multi-day trip on the South Salmon later that week. I explained that I just wasn’t comfortable going with a small crew, in case the unexpected happened. I cringed, worried that the person I was in contact with would ridicule me, but he simply replied, “Honesty is always the best policy!”
Lately I’ve found myself hankering to paddle, but still shying away from the popular runs around here. One morning I woke up and decided to scout a few miles of a class II+ creek. It looked lovely, so I hopped into my boat and paddled down with the single goal of having fun. And guess what? Class II+ provided some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time. I ran rapids
backwards, I ferried backwards, I caught eddies backwards. I ferried with my eyes closed. I caught micro-eddies and boofed micro-boofs. I went back a few days later and did the same thing. Anna always championed running class II like it’s class V—you’ll only be able to do something in class V once you can do it in class II. Neglecting work on my basic skills has probably contributed to my lack of confidence in bigger water. Pulling back and working out the kinks in class II has been liberating, strengthening, and most importantly, fun. At the takeout, I stash my boat in the rocks, don running shoes, and run back up to my car. Total self-support. I feel strong.
I’m not sure when I’m going to feel stoked about paddling something harder. It might be tomorrow. It might be two weeks, or it might be two months. I don’t need to know right now. My kayak isn’t going to decompose in the meantime. My friends aren’t going to forget about me. The rivers are certainly not going to go vacate their riverbeds, even if they do drop a bit.
It’s important to remember that no one is asking us to kayak. We might find ourselves in leadership roles—leading a trip, helping a friend, even getting paid to teach a class—but at the end of the day, we have to be authentic with ourselves (as Anna often reminds me). Kayaking is a gift. It’s a gift that keeps giving, in many ways. Styling a stout rapid might feel like breaking a ribbon or tearing a handful of wrapping paper off that gift. But running shuttle and jamming out to good tunes, enjoying a peaceful campfire beneath clotheslines draped in gear, calling up a river friend for help or advice totally unrelated to kayaking, watching the sun rise or set over a rapid, just closing your eyes and listening to the water gurgle…these are all layers of wrapping paper that we get to peel perpetually from the gift of kayaking. Sure, we don’t always get what we expect, but if we are honest about what we want, we are set up well for success.
We can make sure this gift keeps giving. We can cheer for our friends when they achieve a milestone, and when they don’t. We can cheer for ourselves when we achieve a milestone, and when we don’t. We can open up and share both our fears and our joy. We can be receptive of the fear and joy that others share with us. We can be grateful, authentic, honest. Personal first descents are great, but honesty is greater. Giggling down class II is great, but honesty is greater. Kayaking well is great. Making peace with it is greater.