This is it.
We’ve moved as a team, cautiously probing our way down through the rapid above. From one eddy to the next, we slowed down our descent, breaking out of the main flow, knowing that soon, somewhere, we would stumble upon the main event.
And here it is, a horizon line, where the river drops off into the unknown below.
We scouted ahead, of course. Placed safety. Discussed options. But now, in our minds at least, it’s safe – or safe enough, to go. And go we shall.
I walk back towards my boat across the wet rock, glancing back over my shoulder to keep the image of the rapid in my head. I need to remember what the rapid looks like from upstream now. I need to see what I will see from boat level. It’s the walk of a condemned man, as I work through the what-ifs in my head. I want to do this, but I’m aware of the consequences.
I’m scared, but good-scared – the kind of fear that keeps you alert and focused. When you’re truly scared, the body enters its “fight or flight” reflex, G-ing you up with adrenaline, ready to stand your ground or run away. Saliva dries up in the mouth, as all non-essential processes shut down, the brain’s last ditch attempt to focus all of its resources towards the muscles. I spit on the ground, glad to see that I haven’t reached that stage yet.
And so here I find myself, sitting in the last eddy above the drop, no turning back. I go through the same routine that I do every time. I check that my helmet is clipped up, tighten the side straps on my buoyancy aid, convinced that the extra millimetre will offer me some protection. Leaning forwards, I pull my spraydeck on over the lip of the cockpit rim and feel backwards with my hands, to check that it’s on tight. If anything is to go wrong, it won’t be something I could have avoided.
The boat bobs gently in the water as the river laps against the shoreline. In any other context it would be peaceful, relaxing. I look back over my shoulder, straining to see the drop one last time, before I commit. Oh, fuck.
It’s hard to explain the sense of dread in my stomach. The sense of self-doubt, creeping in. Right now, I would do anything, to not be here. I look back at the bank – the safe, easy path around what lies ahead. I could step out of my boat and walk round in an instant and nobody would think anything less. Whatever fate lies below could easily be avoided. And yet here, right now, is what I’ve dreamt of. I’ve ran this drop a thousand times in my head, but now, in the cold, with the thunderous roar of the water, it all seems more intimidating. It seems higher in real life, the hole at the bottom, far more retentive. I feel like a fool – all the time and money I’ve invested in getting here. And now, in this moment, I would rather be anywhere else. If this goes wrong, it’s not going to be pleasant.
And yet, the others made it.
I watched, as one by one, they took their turn to go. Watched as they pushed off from the bank, driving hard against the flow, before dropping into oblivion. But they made it. Their whoops of excitement tell me they’re ok and it’s good to go. I gain confidence from their success.
But it doesn’t last long. I look back at the horizon line, intimidating, fear creeping in once again. I imagine the worst – missing the last stroke off the lip, the nose dipping. I imagine the beating at the bottom, as the boat dives out of control and I’m plunged into the depths of the river below. Cold, dark, turbulent. I imagine the kicking I’ll get as the boat thrashes around, the water ripping at my paddles. The fight I’ll lose. I close my eyes and feel for the grab loop on my spraydeck, wanting to make absolutely sure it’s there, should I need it. Oh, fuck. I imagine kicking the boat away from me, the gasp for air, the…
I’m scared. Full-body scared.
I screw my eyes up and shake my head from side to side, physically, trying to push the thought from my mind. One last look at the bank, the easy way out. But we’ve come too far, it’s no longer an option. It goes, I can see the line. I’m capable of making the move. There’s a part of me that wants to do this and for reasons far beyond logic, the decision has long been made. The path no longer exists and the only way out, is down.
I look back at the drop. I see the eddy line. I see the current. I see the marker rock that I’ve decided I want to be 2ft to the right of. I spot the place on the very lip where my last stroke needs to go, a long righty, pulled through slow and with purpose. I imagine being at the lip, the picture I’ll see where my world meets vertical. The point where I first see my landing area below. In 5 seconds it’ll all be over, one way or another. But if I don’t go now, I’m not going.
I push off the rock.
I paddle forwards, driving through the eddy line. As the boat pierces the main flow I feel the power of the water pushing the nose of the boat, trying to whip it round and downstream. My paddle stays planted in the water, holding fast against the current and surging the boat in the right direction. I slice it forwards now, pulling the front of the boat round, aiming towards the drop. Once last stroke on the right, to hold the angle. A leftie now, to keep forwards momentum and then, I wait.
In front, the world drops away on the horizon line. I feel everything. Every ripple of water, every micro movement of boat and paddle. The side of my boat moves past the marker rock on the left. The water feels slower than I imagined. I hover my right paddle blade at the front of the boat, waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. As I float towards the edge, my stomach rises in my chest, a feeling of dread. I see the landing pool for the first time.
Reaching forwards I place the paddle over the lip, hoping that things will play out the same in reality as they did in my mind. The nose of the boat dips. I pull on the paddle stroke, loading up my right blade. It locks into the water, giving me purchase to pull up on my knees, sending the front of the boat up again. There’s a moment of weightlessness as the boat flies up, away from the drop. I try to spot the landing, but see nothing, as my eyes scrunch up, hoping against hope that it’s worked.
It’s over in an instant. I feel the impact of the hit through my body, as the boat lands hard and flat, throwing water up around me. I snatch at a quick forwards stroke to keep the boat upright and drag me out of the white water at the bottom of the drop.
The most powerful wave of emotion washes over me. Elation, excitement, relief – a cocktail of endorphins. I’m buzzing. Everything is great, it’s going to be ok. It’s the state of most perfect calm, the peace that comes from knowing that you’re safe. I’m grinning like an idiot, ear to ear happiness.
I look back at the drop, far less intimidating than before. Now, far from fear, my only thought is to how fast I can get back to the top and run it again. Can I run it better? Land flatter, send the nose of the boat up higher? I want to run back to the top, to replicate that experience.
As I paddle to the edge of the pool, across the calm water, the short-lived high starts to fade as my body tunes back into reality. I’m cold, tired, and ready to eat. We take a while to congratulate each other in the eddy, talk out our experiences – a blow by blow account of how it felt and what could have been better. Shouldering our boats, we hike up to run it again, the fear now gone. Sideways, backwards, plugging, every which way goes, now that beast seems tamed.
We run the drop half a dozen times, each time an improvement on the last, all great fun. But, nothing touches the feeling of the first time. Now that the uncertainty of the first run is no longer there, the fear has largely gone. Nothing can bring us back to the same buzz of making it down the first time, living those few seconds in the very sharpest of realities. It’s great every time, but that intense, full body high can’t be replicated now.
As the light starts to fade we run our last laps and head to the take out. We pack up, say our goodbyes and drive back to civilization.
I can never work out which one is the real world. Are our adventures on the river short escapes from real life? A full-sensory, life and death holiday from the numb, safety of our day to day lives? The occasional adrenaline ride in the theme park that is our own body?
Or is it the opposite? Is living in the here and now, truly feeling every movement of our existence what we should be aiming for? If this is the very essence of being human, then surely this is the real world and everything else is a distraction?
As a kayaker, I should probably come to terms with these questions. But alas, I choose not to. I edit the footage, dry my gear and dream of the next time.
EDITOR’S DESK: Our anonymous author is a longtime DBP Admin who has guided rafts and paddles kayaks around the world. The photos and video accompanying the story are from DBP Admin Aaron Kendall, a fellow UK boater whose pictures fit the mood of the article to a tee.
We’ve all been there, those of us bold enough to call ourselves DIRT BAG PADDLERS…