This year has been a huge water year on the river and my schedule has not let me spend as much time as I would have liked on the river (read: at all). So I’ve been thinking a lot about the river. How it has a yearly cycle. It grows and contracts. Each time I visit it, even in the exact same spot, it is different, it is constantly changing. The river is also good at subtly and not so subtly wearing away at things, polishing things, and clearing out things.
The very first time I was in a whitewater kayak I was pretty scared. I was just floating along in the current, only dipping my paddle in if I felt I was forced to maneuver. But I learned that when you are not putting your paddle in the water, it is much easier to be pushed around by the waves and get taken places you don’t want to go. But when I was scared, I didn’t want to put my paddle in the water, I was just concentrating all my energy on trying to maintain “balance.” Really, I was frozen in my fear and anxiety. It is easy for me to get stuck in my head, thinking about what might happen, but when I’m doing that I’m not stable, connected, or participating with the river.
Once I finally decided to put my paddle in the water, I noticed the current grabs it hard. Of course feeling that while being scared made me only want to put a small part of my paddle in the water. And putting a little bit of paddle in the water is better than nothing, but if you really want to go somewhere, you have to put your whole paddle in and pull on it. But sometimes being scared causes me to overreact and paddle too much. The nice thing is I learned you I can always put your paddle back in on the other side and correct. Just having your paddle in the water and taking a stroke makes you much more stable.
Most of the time I do pretty well on the river, I’m cautious and I have learned a little bit about how to work with the river, it’s currents, and obstacles. Some obstacles you can see and plan for, others are just under the surface and it takes practice to see them and you have less time to react. But even the obstacles are helpful, because right behind them there is a place to rest.
Sometimes I do get a little careless or in over my head, and the river will flip me over. I usually try a few times to perform an Eskimo roll to bring myself and my boat upright. Often, I’m a little panicked about being in such a low oxygen environment where it feels like death is imminent, so my attempts to roll back up will fail. So I pull the release handle on my spray skirt, maneuver out of my boat and come back up for air. Luckily, this is never a sport I do alone, and a friend is usually close by who will help make sure I get to shore and help me collect my boat and paddle. After taking a few breaths and draining the water out of my boat so my load isn’t so heavy, we get back in and continue on down the river.
The river has taught me so much. Without fully participating in it, just staying in my head due to fear of getting flipped I'm actually more likely to flip. My anxiety runs out of control. Ironically, by staying still and attempting to just be in balance, it is easier to get knocked out of balance. By engaging with the river with my paddle in, fully I’m more a part of it, I’m more in balance, and I’m able to affect my path. Every now and then, I still get put in an uncomfortable situation that is really scary, but that’s when I really need a friend to help. And the thing I was most afraid of is often pretty refreshing once I’ve gone through it, and of course, I’ve learned from it. If I’m not engaging with the river, I’m just scared, anxious, getting pushed around by its waves into situations I don’t want to be in.
Obviously, life is that river. And as I was telling my story, the “I” that I spoke about is really all of us. It’s time to put our paddle in the water. It’s time to get wet.
If you’ll excuse me, I need to step away from this computer and get back out on the river. All this thinking about it is no substitute for being on the river. I’m ready for the next experience, for it is only through experience that we learn. And I’ve got much more to learn. See you on the river!