Upside-down and Underwater
Whitewater kayaking is fun: It’s exciting, it’s scary, it’s thrilling, it’s got a stupidly steep learning curve, and I love it. I got into it via packrafting, which was more of a gateway drug than I was expecting. The ability to just walk up to a river with a boat, put in, and end up somewhere else is something that’s almost magical to me.
Showing up with an inflatable boat and heading downriver is one thing: you’re limited in the ways that you can interact with features on the river. I’ve never felt truly in control in a packraft. They steer like tanks, they don’t carve well, rolling is, for the most part, out of the question. That’s all changing, but the conventional wisdom is that if you want to improve your paddling, you have to get into a hardshell.
You can carve turns like a set of skis, boofing over obstacles is more approachable, your boat has speed and character and doesn’t bend when it goes into a wave or a hydraulic. You feel secure. The packraft is a very specific tool: Nobody wants to carry 20 kilos of plastic for ten miles into a spectacular wilderness river. Packrafts are amazing for that.
But when you want to perform, when you want to engage with everything on the river, you reach for a hardboat. And it’s terrifying. The first time you mess up a line and go upside-down in a rapid, or a boiling eddy or even just getting out of the river, you panic. Maybe you practiced your roll a few times in the pool, or maybe you can execute every time. The unintentionality of going under when you don’t want to is a very, very unique experience.
For me the duality is the important part. In a packraft, you have no choice but to start swimming, hold onto your boat, and hope that the water calms enough that you can get back in. In a kayak, you’re given a very sudden, unique choice: Execute and perform, or get risk injury.
It all happens amazingly fast: You mess up your line, maybe you get a snapshot of the thing you were supposed to do before it all went wrong, and you’re under. It’s pure instinct that most of the time you breathe in, deep, and prepare for whats about to happen.
On a good day, you’re angled right and the river helps you get back up by pulling on your downstream edge, assisting in the roll. It’s nothing but an exhilerating little dunk, you feel great and it’s super exciting. On a bad day, you’ve got into a nasty little hydraulic that you shouldn’t have gone into, and you can’t even really tell where to put your paddle to pull yourself back up.
Personally, my thoughts quickly go from “Okay get into position and pull” to “I’ve never gone into a hole like this, I’m getting recirculated in this rapid and I’m going to hit my head a rock and die”. These things happen very fast, and snap judgements are all you have. The adrenaline telling you to GO is not helping. Staying calm is the most important thing.
And then you feel the water slacken, the craziness around you stop for a second, and reality jolts back into place: You’ve done this a million times in the pool, in the river, watched videos about it, and the process is thoughtless: Put your paddle above the water, snap your hips, keep your ear down, and you’re back in the world of the living. It’s an amazing feeling, every time. It’s gambling with uncertainty and your own life, and having the confidence enough to do so.
That’s not the moment that’s important though, and not the one I wanted to write about. The one that is important to me is when you fuck up the roll. Once, twice, maybe even three times. Confidence disappears. I’ve had moments where my hand was on the pull-tab, ready to wet exit and escape, and I’ve talked myself back into trying one more time. And I’ve succeed. I keep my head down. I wrangle with the panic-demons and the fears and I win.
These are the moments that I train for, that I’m most excited about. Performing under pressure, knowing that the most dire thing I could do is get out of my boat. Knowing that if things change just slightly, I’ll be able to right myself and paddle away. And most of the time, I do. I still swim, we all do. It’s inevitable and not something we should be afraid of, but as paddlers it’s something we do only in the most dire circumstances: When everything else is exhausted and there is truly no other choice.
The mastery over mind, over self, is the most important thing in kayaking, and it’s the skill that transfers the most to every other thing. If anything, just remember that You can hold your breath for another ten seconds. Just try one more time.