A wise man once said, “You win some, you lose some, and you wreck some.”. That wise man was Mr. Ralph Dale Earnhardt, or as us mere mortals may refer to him- “Dale”, “Number 3”, or most aptly, “The Intimidator”. Dale was onto something with that statement, and in a shocking turn of events, it applies not only to NASCAR and life, but also to this whole “Whitewater Boat-Riding” thing we all seem to love so much. This is an article I’ve been meaning to write for quite some time… DALE YEAH.
I’ll preface this whole thing with some background: I am by no means an exceptional boater. I began boating around three years ago while still in college in the mountains of Virginia, and have been enraptured by the sport ever since. While my rise to my current skill level was meteoric at times, I always attempted to stay grounded, put in my time and work, remembering that JahGreat is always lurking in the shadows. With time, I became a decent playboater, and managed to hold my own on the class III+ and IV creeks of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. After graduating with a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in whitewater, I instructed for an outfitter in the DC area for about five months. My days were spent working retail, and playboating before and after work to avoid the hellacious rush hour commute of the DC wasteland. My weekends were spent on the intoxicatingly flowy and demanding gradient of the Upper Youghiogeny River. With countless Upper Yough laps throughout the season, as well as the benefits of playboating everyday, I felt like I was on top of the world dialing in my boating, and in the process, becoming the multi-discipline kayaker that all of the greats laid the ground floor of their careers on. In essence, I began to think that I was hot shit.
We all know what happens when we think we’re hot shit.
We’ll interlude here in order to actually get back to the meaning of the title, because introductions are like a virgin on prom night- they can only last so long. Ass-kickings are a staple of whitewater kayaking. Who doesn’t have fond memories of their friends yelling, “RODEOOOOO”, or “TAKE IT BEATER”, while they’re working in a pourover? These ass-kickings are commonplace, and the beatery they result from are learning experiences that will likely lead to more beatdowns, and as always, the feeling of sweet sweet hand-relief as an intrepid kayaker swims. We all bounce back from these, drink our bootie beer, post our shitty GoPro edit, and move on. But what about the other kind of ass-kicking? The one that shakes you to your core, rattles your confidence, and makes you question yourself?
We’ve all been there- that lengthy swim in frigid water, the terrible line off of a drop that breaks us, or having to be roped out of a terrible place. Those are the experiences that really make us better, though; they’re the experiences that lead through two doors- Door 1 being a decay in our lust for kayaking, one that leads us to being conservative for the rest of our careers, either plateauing, regressing in our skills and river difficulty, or even leaving the sport altogether. Door number 2? Well, Door 2 is the one that forces you to reevaluate what it is that you’re doing, how you proceed, how you grow from getting your ass Wallaced. Water is dynamic, our sport is dynamic, and WE are dynamic; if we reframe ourselves, pick up the pieces, and move forward, then we can discover an outcome beyond all imagination. Enough introspection, back to the story.
I was getting awfully big for my size 34 britches, and as the Summer waned on, the water levels of the Potomac began to drop. With them, the signature rapids of my then home river came into play: Great Falls.
For those of you unfamiliar with them, The Great Falls of the Potomac are a set of rapids lying upon the Atlantic fall line, which allows for a considerable drop in elevation in a short period. In fact, roughly 50 feet of gradient in 1/10 of a mile. There are three sets of rapids, all named based upon which state they touch on the river bank. All three lines, Virginia, Maryland, and Center, are steep, challenging, technical, and massively consequential rapids. Those who run them regularly are the elite of DC boating, and their safety and credibility are vehemently defended by the “Falls Boaters” of the region. The chosen line for my ass-kicking was the Virginia line; arguably the most (relatively) friendly choice for a first foray into the territory of the Falls.
The Virginia line consists of three main drops: U-Hole, S-Turn, and the Spout; each drop in the sequence becoming steeper, and more consequential than the last. While U-Hole and S-Turn are impressive drops in their own right, The Spout is the iconic drop of the Virginia lines. A 20 foot waterfall whose line involves taking a hard left boof stroke while skidding down a semi-exposed rock shelf, The Spout is a crowd-pleaser than happens to be in clear view of the observation decks of Great Falls National Park in Virginia. A successful run down Virginia lines leads to thunderous applause and cheers from the spectators of the Coloseum-esque decks. Anything less than perfection can lead to 911 calls, speedboats appearing, and a National Park Service helicopter flying over in order to investigate any trouble.
While The Spout loomed on my mind, U-Hole would prove to be my undoing.
While working and paddling everyday in the DC region, you occasionally rub elbows with some great paddlers, and as they’re human beings, much like yourself, you come to befriend them. In this case, I befriended a paddler who, at age 20, is (in my opinion) the best C-1 kayaker in the world, and one of the best paddlers in the world, period. While talking in the shop I worked in one day, I threw out the idea of having my sights set on the Virginia lines. After hashing it out, talking about my progression this past Summer, and my understanding of the risks and skill involved, he offered to take me to scout the Falls sometime. If I felt like they were good to go, we would run them, if not, then it would be no harm, and I’d keep working up to one of my dreams.
Flash forward two weeks, and I’m anxiously following him to “The Flake”, a monstrous spine of rock that acts as the scouting/safety epicenter of the Virginia and Center Lines. Leading up to the flake, all I see is the mist of aerated water wafting lazily toward the humid East Coast sky, the jagged rocks of the fall line, and the walls of Mather Gorge far below us.
I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I wasn’t even in the United States anymore.
As we carefully scouted each rapid, I was given a complete play-by-play of each line, the hazards inherent in each rapid, and a confident, “Sound good?”
Dale yeah, it sounded good; how could it not? I was landing retentive loops, my boof was dialing in, and I ran THE UPPER YOUGH (In retrospect, no one gives a shit that you run the UY…), how could I not be ready?
Quite easily, actually. Remember that quote we used at the beginning of the story? About wrecking some? This was one of those times that, had this been NASCAR, I turned right, instead of left.
We’ll set the final act of the story at U Hole. The FIRST rapid of Virginia Lines—you know, the entrance? The standard line for U Hole is rather straightforward: Navigate two small ledge boofs at the entrance, then drive left down a small slide into the awaiting eddy. The slide is just to the river-left of the large rock toward the right side of the picture. Now, the only catch to this rapid is the large, as well as aptly named, U-shaped hole that the kayaker in the above picture is boofing over. That hole awaits anyone who decides to beater his or her line. While powerful and sticky, it’s escapable by those with the skills and ability to do so. On that day, I didn’t have said ability to do so.
As we both hopped into our boats, we exchanged glances, a nod, and I went first. I mean, why not? I RAN THE UPPER YOUGH A FEW TIMES, FOR GOD’S SAKE.
The first two boofs went well, and I felt like I was driving aggressively enough to clear the river-left rock and make the slide. As I took my last stroke to enter the slide, everything went wrong. The next thing I knew, my bow was caught up on said rock, and my boat was rotating backwards, directly into the hole. I tucked, and tried my best at SOME kind of back-boof, but it was too late- I rolled up, and instantly found myself being surfed. As I looked around to take in where I was, I finally realized where I was. I was no longer at the playhole, I was no longer chugging beers at National Falls. I was at Great Falls, and they knew I was there, too. As I held my side surf, not quite being worked, but not quite in control either, every attempt to paddle out of the pourover failed. In that moment, I stopped to pause and take it all in—the torrent of water causing my predicament roared in my ear to my left, a fine mist kicked up all around me, and it was then that I wondered, “What in the fuck did you get yourself into?”. To my luck, my partner sailed off the river-right boof into the eddy, hopped out of his boat, and had a throw rope ready for me, all the while I remained locked in the hole. After a quick glance, I decided it was time; I tossed my paddle vaguely in his direction, grabbed my spraydeck handle, and pulled for sweet freedom. The next few seconds qualified for one of those ass-kickings that isn’t quite so happy-go-lucky. After resurfacing roughly 2-3 seconds after swimming, I felt a rope slap straight across my body (Dale yeah), and I immediately grabbed on, assuming the necessary position to be swung into the eddy. However, as I swung in, I ran into a rock; thinking that it’d be prudent to grab onto and use as leverage to get into the eddy, I did just that. Instead of successfully making it into the eddy, I was sucked under the rock, which equated to my very first undercut swim scenario- SURPRIIISE. Thankfully, I resurfaced on the other side of the rock, my partner still holding onto the rope, WITH my boat and paddle at his side (what a hoss). After pulling me by my PFD strap onto shore, he tapped his helmet to make sure I was still mildly functioning, and then we had the inevitable conservation about where to proceed from there; after all, that was the ENTRANCE.
It was there that I opted to walk the rest of the rapids, a decision that I had never made. I felt like I had failed, that I was giving up, but I then realized that I had never run a river consequential enough to require that kind of risk mitigation. It was then that he agreed with my decision, and he ran my boat down the Falls (with stellar lines), hiked back up the Flake, and did the same with his boat. After reconvening in the flatwater leading up to Mather Gorge, we finally debriefed, and while what he said was reassuring, I was rattled, and filled with an immense level of self-doubt that I hadn’t felt in quite some time. The pros to the situation were that I had held on for quite awhile in the hole, I managed to swim effectively, and I had the presence of mind to know when to walk out. However, there was one big con that couldn’t be ignored: I had swam in one of the many places that should never be swam in, and all because I thought I was “ready”.
For the next two weeks, I was in a different place- I lost my roll, injured my left shoulder with my resultant poor roll technique, and had proceeded to be T-Rescued by a whitewater SUP at Maryland Chute during an ill-fated play session- we were at a low point. While to some folks, the swim shouldn’t have been a big deal- sometimes you just need to pick up, dust off, and move on. In my case, I had had the closest call of my life thus far; I had thought I was ready for the next step in my boating progression after putting in hours of work, watching all of the possible lines I could, and studying my project. In this case, I was wrong. I went back over what happened repeatedly: My boat control was lacking, I wasn’t paddling aggressively enough, and I didn’t take my first real Class V rapid seriously. In summary, I realized that I was nowhere close to being any kind of shit, let alone hot shit. My mind raced constantly:
How would I proceed? Do I WANT to progress to be good enough to run drops with those kinds of consequences? Can I accept those consequences? Will I stagnate? Should I just cut my losses now if I’m going to keep overestimating myself?
In the end, I stayed with kayaking. While rattled, I worked through it. As it stands now, I’m a better kayaker than I was at the time of running Great Falls, but I’m still not ready, nor will I be for quite some time. Instead, I’m putting in my time, being realistic with my abilities, and when the time comes, they’ll be waiting for me.
For those of you wondering when this soap opera will wrap up- here it is. I got WALLACED – there was no doubt about it. I thought about quitting the sport I loved because I’d never dealt with failure of that magnitude, and reconciling those feelings took a large effort that made me better. So, what helped me? Here’s a quick list:
1. Remembering why I kayak- I had a phenomenal weekend after my swim in Ohiopyle, I met new friends, fired up Ohiopyle Falls, and went back to my old faithful: The Upper Yough. By focusing on the experience, I was reminded of the lifestyle that motivates me to work for gas money.
2. Seeking others- I talked to many a folk about what happened. My sister, my mentor that taught me to kayak, and even the fine folks at Swimmer’s Anonymous. In the end, the varied insights of everyone and their own ass-kickings helped me draw my own conclusions about where to proceed from where I was.
3. Taking a break- Directly after Goose’s death in “Top Gun”, Viper tells them to “Get him (Maverick) back in a plane.”. I operated under this same principle, thinking that acting like nothing had happened would allow me to move past my own self-doubt and keep charging. Instead, I ended up with an injury, and worse confidence in my abilities than when I started. After taking a few days off, I was allowed to heal, focus on other pursuits, and come back to kayaking mentally refreshed.
4. Do your booties- I beatered my bootie beer in the Great Falls parking lot, so as redemption, I endured a solo bootie beer on my front porch when I got home. River karma is important- keep Jah happy, and you’ll be happy.
Well, there you have it, folks. These were only my steps to moving on; every person is different, as we’re all human. After a shitty swim, it’s on you to decide to how to proceed. You can move forward, backwards, or upward, but it’s on you. Dealing with doubt, failure, and progression are all part of this sport we love, and it’s okay to admit that they’re real. If none of this had happened, I’d still be a cocky 22 year old beater that though I was on top of the world, but now, I’m far more grounded, so I suppose that that’s what a good ass-kicking gets you these days.