Everyone who paddles long enough experiences a moment of connection to some aspect of the river. It’s that connection that keeps us coming back for more. But what happens when the connection runs dry?
I craned my neck to see all the way across the Chattooga River to a thin line my guide was pointing out beyond a churning hole. The bedrock of the left bank played out under my feet like a sculpted sidewalk before turning up at the edges, rendering the riverbed into a walled tunnel of metamorphic stone. The roar of the water clamored in my ears, its siren song enticing me toward the depths of the churning cataracts.
“Do many people get stuck in the hole at this level?” I asked my guide, shouting over the roar.
“Most people don’t run it at this level,” was his frank reply. Then he walked back to his boat and climbed in.
I watched breathlessly as he ran the rapid, scooting along near the distant right bank and past the thundering hole. My heart raced as I walked back to my boat and sealed my skirt. Should I go? If most people don’t run it at this level, what business do I have attempting it? My impulse to walk was tempered by my resolve. This was the challenge I had come for, my chance to advance. If I walked away, how would I know if I could or should have run it?
I peeled out of the eddy, dug in to build up speed in the flow, and aimed my bow for the spot just off the river right rock that would yield the perfect line. It seemed to take forever to get to the drop.
It was over in an instant.
My bow slid along the rocky shore, and my long hull glided over the hole. I turned around in the pool and looked back at the rapid. I had done it! After working toward running this section of river for years, I had accomplished a goal. The feeling of satisfaction – of stepping up my game and challenging myself – was a connection. This sport was for me.
We were surrounded. We were secluded. The feeling of isolation conveyed an almost overwhelming feeling.
I stroked steadily for shore across the icy, clear water of the Middle Fork of the Salmon. It was a long way from the center of the rushing river to the rocky bank. I picked a point far downstream and felt the surge of the river’s swollen spring flow tugging on my paddle blades. I finally reached my destination, climbed out, and pulled my boat up above the water line. A huge orange-barked Ponderosa Pine jutted from the rocks nearby, its upper reaches lost far above in the deep blue western sky, long needles trembling in the gentle breeze. I walked over to find a seat on the tree’s knobby roots and looked around to take it all in as the rest of my small group arrived.
On the far side of the river, rugged mountains surged abruptly upwards from the bank. The rocky shore and Ponderosas gave way to green meadows painted with bright yellow swaths of blooming Arnica flowers high above. When I strained my eyes toward the mountain’s distant top, I could make out the circling silhouette of a soaring bird of prey – an eagle from the shape of its wings. On the other side of that slope lay dozens more mountains, the same as the ones that lurked at my back. We’d paddled three days to get there, and over fifty miles. You could walk for a day in any direction and see no human trace. We were surrounded. We were secluded. We were alone. The feeling of isolation and immersion conveyed an almost overwhelming feeling that this was where I was meant to be. It was a connection. I would seek these wild places many times again.
I paddled doggedly back up the Cowbell Eddy for the hundredth time and ferried out into the flow, plunged my bow into the green slab of a small wave and clumsily twisted my hips to the left. The front of my kayak dunked under water, then the stern popped free and waved through the air like a glittery flag in the breeze. I thrashed my hips back and forth trying to release six feet of fiberglass bow from the river’s grasp.
Fear and wonder swirl into an emotional cocktail of sensory overload. Will I come up?
Paddle back up the eddy; I’m gonna get it this time. Ferry, surf, dunkbow, sinkstern. This time it’s the front of my boat that pops free. The world tilts crazily and I see the boat framed above me against the sky, water glistening as it drips toward me over the shining metal flakes. I lean back, rest my head on the water’s surface and spin–spin–spin. It’s fun, but what I seek still eludes me. The ritual becomes a tired trance – up the eddy, across the wave, dive the bow and wrench the stern.
Suddenly, the river snags me and thrusts me under. I feel pressure build, and the water rises with a “glub” to cover my head. Down, down, down I go. Water presses in on me from every direction, a bear hug of currents enveloping me in a pulsating aqueous embrace. Fear and wonder swirl into an emotional cocktail of sensory overload. Will I come up? How did I get so deep? The result I’d been seeking for the last hour was all the more surprising in its sudden arrival. This was what I’d hoped for, but how would I get out?
Before my thoughts or fears could congeal into substance, it was over. I popped to the surface and paddled quietly to shore, confused and amazed by what I had discovered. Part of me wanted more, but another part was terrified to do it again. I slid out of my boat and sat on a rocky island contemplating the eddyline and the mystery that it had just revealed. I needed a break, but I would go back to study it more. The mystery move and the squirt boat were something new for me, something captivating – a connection.
I braced my feet solidly to hold me on the seat and pushed steadily with both arms for all I was worth, working the oars to build up speed. Beneath the heavy craft, a seething, undulating sheet of water accelerated me to breakneck speed. I would need all the speed I could get. The sound of the Colorado River’s churning water slowly grew, its amplification rising from a whisper to a full-throated roar that echoed back in deafening proportions from the canyon walls. A buttress of churning whitewater suddenly loomed above, giant curlers the size of semi trucks folding inward from each side. I carefully lined up on the maw of the abyss and pushed as hard as I could, timing my last stroke to peak just as the front of the raft smashed into the wave.
Water washed over my head, swallowing me and the thousand-pound raft whole before spitting us abruptly out the back side of the wave. No time for celebration. I worked the oars again, one at a time, walking the boat into position for an enormous wave train. The boat surged up and down on the rolling giants, rising and falling like flotsam in the flow.
Suddenly the river flattened out – fast, smooth water jetting into the canyon below. I sat for a minute of rest to take it all in. After almost twenty days and one hundred seventy-nine miles of practice, I had passed the largest obstacle. A whole world of multi-day possibilities opened up before me. It was a connection. Rowing a raft was for me.
The Art of Staying Connected
Paddling is an activity with many things to offer. There are as many different ways to enjoy whitewater as there are boats and rivers to paddle them on. Everyone who paddles long enough experiences a moment of connection to some aspect of the river. It’s that connection that keeps us coming back for more. But what happens when the connection runs dry?
What happens if and when you reach your goal? What’s going to motivate you then?
“I’ll never quit paddling.” Most of us have heard those words from the mouths of passionate young boaters totally immersed in and obsessed with the sport. “I can’t imagine my life without boating,” they’ll say. For two and a half decades now, I’ve seen those paddlers come and go. The question I often ask is, why? Some start families or get jobs that make them move away from whitewater; others have injuries or changes of heart. Many, however, simply burn out and fade away. There has to be a reason.
When new paddlers try whitewater, they are usually sucked into one discipline that they connect most profoundly with. Their quest for mastery begins. Whether it’s learning freestyle moves with the goal of competing, pushing the envelope of difficult creeking in a quest for Class V, or exploring remote wilderness areas where no one has ever been, most paddlers tend to gravitate toward one favorite aspect of the sport. We live in a goal-oriented, driven culture. Many boaters are motivated to improve, to reach a set objective, or even to try and become “the best.” After all, that’s who we read about all the time on the Internet and in the magazines – the best, fastest, biggest, farthest – it’s the image of boating that the paddling media most often conveys.
The problem with this approach to boating is twofold. First, reality dictates that most of us will never be the best at any aspect of whitewater. There are tons of kids starting at young ages and sticking with the sport for many years, and it’s virtually impossible for the rest of us to ever catch up. There are only so many rapids left that haven’t been run, and so many rivers that haven’t been explored. Only one person can finish each competition in first place. Right from the start, seeking to be the best usually sets you up to fail. Even if your goal is more modest – running a certain river or doing a specific trick – what if that eludes you? What if other interests or responsibilities in your life get in the way? What if you simply can’t afford the time or money to seek new rivers or new arenas for adventure? Does it mean you’ve failed as a boater? Does it mean you should give up? Of course not; but all too often, that’s the result.
The second problem with goal-oriented paddling is far more insidious. What happens if and when you reach your goal? What’s going to motivate you then? I’ve seen this one many times as well. A boater declares, “I’m going to get good enough to run River X or Rapid Y.” They practice hard and reach their goal. A period of reveling in their accomplishment follows where they repeat the goal for a day, several months, or even a couple of years. Then there’s nothing left for them to do. Once the goal has been realized, why should they still boat? Is it time to “retire” from the sport? For many boaters, realization of long-term goals is actually the beginning of the end.
There’s nothing wrong with quitting boating and moving on to something else, but there are a lot of components of the whitewater experience that many of us would miss. Whether it’s the challenge, the friends you’ve made, the time outdoors, the exercise, the scenery, or the escape that paddling provides, leaving the sport can often leave a hole in your life. The good news is that you don’t have to quit! There are plenty more challenges to be had and connections to be made. You just have to look outside of your current experience.
Most of the people I know that have been paddling the longest have participated in multiple facets of the sport. They’ve creeked and they’ve playboated, or they’ve creeked in their playboat. They’ve submerged in a squirt boat, ridden high in a raft, or sought the dry lines in an open canoe – but the majority of paddlers today never do. There are so many options these days for ways to enjoy whitewater. There’s been a new craze of long kayaks and the emergence of SUP. There is a huge variety of playboats on the market – more than ever before – as well as a surge of new open canoe designs. You can take family floats in an oar rig or paddle raft, or experience the river intimately on some of the new river boards that have evolved over the last few years. With so many fun things to try, why do so many people maintain such a narrow view?
More often than not, we are prisoners of our own comfort zone – and we stay there long after we’ve become bored with its confines. We’ve worked hard to get where we are, and we don’t want to start over now. In the introduction to The Squirt Book, Jim Snyder writes, “Squirtists are respected for dealing with change. Almost every one went through the embarrassing stage of being an expert-turned-beginner. Experience reemerges as an ability to learn.” I think this statement is quite profound. What it says to me is, “don’t let your ego or your habits get in the way of your growth or your fun.” Sometimes, we seek one kind of fun so much that the fun fades away. Once we get comfortable in a certain sort of boat on a certain kind of whitewater, few of us want to do the work or take the licks again – we’re stuck in a rut. However, it’s that work – and those beat-downs – that provided us with the richest part of the experience, the part that made it so fun and captivating in the first place. If you don’t have a goal, how will you ever get that thrill of achieving it? Sometimes the secret to finding more and better fun is to step outside of what has been fun for you before.
There is much more to being an expert at whitewater than running the hardest rapids or throwing the biggest tricks. The true experts are the ones who are always learning and trying something new. The ability to adapt, change, and grow is the secret to keeping your horizons expanding and your attention engaged. Seek new connections. Each discipline has its own set of lessons to learn, settings to explore, and friends and memories to be made. It’s never too late to try something new. Don’t let pride or ego get in your way. Suck it up, lay it out there, and dive in – a breadth of experience that you’ve never imagined awaits. All you have to do is try – that’s the most fun part anyway.
Expand your horizons and
embrace the process, not the goal.