(Cover Image: Beautiful Bernice Karnett on Oblique Falls, Hiwassee River, TN. Photographed by Mike Tossing.)
Some paddling days are extra special.
On those days, my friends and I get up even earlier. We check and double-check our gear, our throw ropes, our first aid kits, the charge on our cameras. There’s a low buzz humming just below all the usual processes, part excitement, part stress. We drink a little too much coffee or Mountain Dew and go over logistics several times. We review river signals in our heads and mumble our safety talk to ourselves on the way to the put-in, maybe. We worry about leaving something out or talking too much.
What’s the big deal?
Yeah…you. There, with your cobbled-together borrowed gear – or maybe your matchy-matchy bright and shiny whitewater ensemble, paddle logo pristine, helmet glossy. Your paddle is upside-down. You’re juggling sunscreen and a snack and a water bottle. You’re riverside looking at the gentle rapids, and your face says, “I don’t really know what’s about to happen! But I’m game.” And then you look to us.
We’re beyond delighted that you’re here.
When I was just starting to kayak, I thought folks led me down new rivers and helped me learn skills just because they’re the nicest people ever. (As a matter of fact, some of them are.) But as I’ve progressed to intermediate-ish level and done some of my own leading/helping of beginners, I’ve discovered that there’s a flip side to the deal. When you, newb, are all grateful and grinning like a slap-happy drunk, post-ass-kicking PFD, you should know that hey…it was good for us too.
Here’s WIIFU (What’s in it for Us):
1. Everything you do right now is a big deal – for you and all of us who remember how magical those first times are.
Sure, when you ace Gorilla someday, your GoPro footy may get 114 Facebook likes (and 27 wows!), and you’ll earn the official seal of kayaking badassery. But in some ways, that triumph cannot compete with the universally felt karma-bomb of your first combat roll. That crusty grizzled veteran, carving his green Prijon Release back and forth across the burly waves with arthritic finesse – he doesn’t give a rat’s about your rodeo cowboy antics in styling the Notch. But when you bring that boat back up after a wobbly spot on Hell’s Half Mile, he WILL mutter, “Hell, yeah!” into his unkempt beard. It’s a natural law.
Please celebrate all the stuff, and bring us along for the ride! You can display your sophisticated ennui later, when you dry-hair Cheoah. We’re vicariously reliving our first kiss, here.
(Minor adrenaline explosion and dorking out in the eddy after Baby Falls PFD, Tellico River. Video by Woody Woodall.)
2. You help us stay sane.
See, a lot of us get into this thing all wide-eyed and with no other objective than to have a really good time. Then something weird happens. We usually have to keep our day jobs, and this paddling thing becomes, by far, one of the most interesting parts of our lives. We get a tad obsessed with ourselves and our fantasies about how we’ll win the Best Kayaker in the World Cookie. We start developing a little skill and suddenly go from, “OMG – I caught an eddy like a BOSS!” to this kind of thought process: “OMG I swam and my stroke is an inch too long and Class III is for losers and she ran that I haven’t run that and I’m better than her and I should be there and I’m only here and what is wrong with me and why can’t I do that and gawd I suck and why didn’t I get to go and I try so hard and nobody listens to me and my video was cooler than his video and why are they already doing waterfalls and they hate me because I’m awesome and they didn’t follow my line but sponsors tho!!!!!!!!!” Big deal, misfire.
Suddenly, our “fun” starts feeling a lot like work.
Then there’s you, like a giggle of fresh air – bouncing down Lilly Rapid, stoned out of your mind on waves and sunshine, just happy to be here, right now. It’s like a good, hard smack in the face. We snap out of it, shake our heads and blink a couple times and say, “Huh. Sorry…was I just acting cray? Let’s go kayaking.”
3. You make us better.
I may still harbor insecure visions of carping and swimming when I do my practice roll at the beginning of our paddle, but I won’t let you know that. I might worry that I’ll blow the line with ten people expecting me to show the way, but I’m going to do my best to leave no doubt that I’ve got it dialed in. It’s showtime, baby! And what’s cool about that is that people usually live up – or down – to expectations. If you trust me to help you get down the river, I need to make that happen.
When we’re put on the spot to lead, we have to become leaders, in spite of ourselves. It’s suddenly more important to make sure you have the best experience possible than to nurse our neuroses. This is very liberating for us.
And you ask questions. You know how it is – once you get a little comfortable with some new endeavor, there are lots of things that you sort of think you know. Messing around with my friends on a fun river, that’s good enough. But when people start grilling you about how and why and if this or that should be done, the weak spots in your own knowledge become obvious. Having to turn wishy-washy mental mush into concise, simple explanations that might keep someone from getting frustrated – or hurt – is a fantastic reminder not to rest on our soggy laurels.
4. You help us settle up.
Sometimes, I still feel a little guilty about all those swims my first year. I’d make a few half-hearted attempts at a roll, aaaaaaad…she’s out again! Somebody’d herd my boat to the side, check for my paddle, give me a tow, throw me the “are you ok?” sign, and lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s a given, in our crowd. They scout the rapid with you, even though they’ve been running it since 1984. When you carp, they t-rescue you. When you’re afraid, they give you grief and make you laugh. When you’re cold, they put extra clothes on you. When you’re hungry, they feed you. When you bleed, they tape you up (and hope to get to use their suture kit, for once). They run the rapids ahead of you to set safety and take videos and photos of your first time, so you’ll never forget it.
It’s our turn to pay it forward now, and it feels amazing to start chipping away at that debt. We know there’s every chance that in a year or two, you’ll be running things we would pee ourselves just looking at, and you’ll come back and show us some stuff. Bring it! For now, we just want to share this thing we love so much with you. We’ll do everything possible to make sure that you come back for more. We know you’re going to love it too.
I still get to be the newb, from time to time. My gear is way cooler, but I hold my water bottle and stand riverside looking at the menacing rapids on a new run, and I feel my face saying, “I don’t really know what’s about to happen! But I’m game.” And then I look to the people I trust.
It’s a big deal.
(photo by Nantahala Outdoor Center)