Where Do We Stop The Stupid?
by Michael Potter
Whitewater kayakers get started in this sport in many different ways. Maybe it was a car or train ride through the Nantahala Gorge where you can see a variety of paddlers in every design of water craft known to man. Maybe it was on a commercial rafting trip on the Gauley River in West Virginia, or the Arkansas River in Colorado. Maybe it was just an invitation from a friend to paddle some local creek or river. The how doesn’t really matter, the point is that somewhere along the line we became interested in dropping the gnar. The part that matters is how we proceed from that point on.
Some people go about this process in the right way. Take my friend Jerry Stevenson for example. Right from the start Jerry invested in kayaking lessons from a professional instructor. He took courses at the Whitewater Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. He listened to reputable paddlers and bought the right gear, and purchased the correct boat for the type of paddling that he intended to do.
Granted some of his thoughts changed over time along with his boats, nonetheless he has became a solid paddler. Does he swim occasionally? Maybe, ask him, it’s not my story to tell.
Now take me for example. I took no lessons for the first two years. I bought ill fitting used gear. My first boat was a Pyranha Inazone, which I could barely fit into. I would be crippled after a few hours in that beast! I also paddled with people who knew nothing more about whitewater than I did. Off to a good start here, aren’t we?
I kept this pattern up for quite some time. I had a little help here and there. I took some group paddles with local clubs. I got occasional advice from friends, but this is NOT COMPARABLE to professional lessons.
Herein lies the problem with this scenario. It’s an ongoing trend that I still see in effect with many new and self-taught paddlers. It’s called self inflation or ego boating, if you prefer. I’m as guilty as they come!
Don’t get me wrong, there are a few paddlers that can pull it off to a certain extent, like Hunter Torbush. But let’s face it, most of us can’t. I can’t. I’m the Wallace King! I’ve eaten so many Wallace sandwiches that they are actually starting to have a desirable flavor!
I had run some Class lll river sections that (by the standards of American Whitewater or some commercial raft guide) had some Class IV rapids in them. The Upper Pigeon and Nolichucky Gorge were two of them. This made me a Class IV boater, right? That’s what I was posting to Facebook and looking stupid doing it. Wait… Hold on… Yep, I still look stupid.
I truly thought this way, so I understand the mentality of this type of boater. The question is WHERE DO WE STOP THE STUPID? For me it came in steps.
STEP 1. I read an article written by David Mc. called I’m a class IV paddler. Or what class am I really? In my opinion this is one of the best written short articles I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
In this article David makes the statement that if you take the hardest rapid that you have ran recently and drop it by one class, you are probably pretty close to your skill level. I still refer to that statement today.
No, David is not a famous “I’m going to drop the steez” kayaker. He is just the average guy who likes to knock out a little southeastern paddling. Living in Knoxville, TN, he is blessed to have the beautiful creeking of the Great Smoky Mountains in his backyard.
I have asked his advice from time to time. (Some questions which I admit were pretty darn stupid. I hope he doesn’t remember those questions.) He has always been honest, blunt, and straightforward with answers that made good sense.
David’s article nailed me out and shed some light on my ignorance. I highly recommend reading that article, no matter what your skill level. I also respect David for his honesty and friendship. He is always a joy to be around when I see him on the river.
STEP 2. This realization came to me on a trip to White Top Laurel in Damascus, VA. I was scouting a rapid called Big Rock Falls with Jeff Vannoy and Bill Finger. I knew this rapid was over my head, but I wanted to give it a shot. After scouting I set safety while I watched Bill and Jeff run the rapid. They both had clean lines.
Afterwards, I handed my safety position to Jeff and started walking to my boat. I was calm and collective until I left the walk trail. As I took the first step off of the trail, my heart rate went off the charts! I paused momentarily and then continued the ten feet to my boat trying to get myself under control. Until this point, I had never been scared of running any rapid, but suddenly I was petrified.
I sat in my boat in panic mode and could not get myself anywhere near a normal level of thought. I could not find my line, but I refused to look like a coward and back out at this point. A series of bad decisions followed and I ran an eight foot drop on my head, from top to bottom. To Jeff and Bill it looked as though I had landed upside down on a pile of sharp, jagged rock. I had truly missed the rock by mere inches.
When I came to shore I realized that I had now needlessly put Jeff and Bill in panic mode. They were amazed that I was even conscious. I have boated with Jeff a lot in the past two years and have never seen him scared until this instance. It was not even close to cool to put my crew in this position.
Looking back, I should have admitted that I was scared and walked. Instead, I decided to ego boat because my pride wouldn’t let me back down infront of two friends after my big mouth committed me to run this rapid. Never again! There’s no shame in walking any rapid that you aren’t comfortable with. You can read that run in an article I wrote called The Demons and Angels of White Top Laurel.
STEP 3. This lesson was learned on an unplanned PFD trip on the Upper Ocoee. I set out for the Middle Ocoee with Jeff Robinson on a Sunday morning. Upon arrival we met with another crew that wanted to run the Upper Section. I informed them that I was not comfortable with the Upper Ocoee, having never been on it before.
They assured me that they would get me down and that they had my back. I knew that I was pushing my limits, but in my own selfishness to see a new part of the river, I agreed to go. The run went well until I came to the Olympic Section
I quickly found out that I am not an olympic boater. However, I did manage to become an olympic whitewater swimmer.
This took me completely out of my game. I Wallaced the next two rapids like a newbie before making the takeout.
I made the decision to jump in over my head and I paid my dues. I’m a grown man and have nobody to blame for my bad decisions but myself. True, this crew should not have taken me on that section, but I went with the full expectation that I would Wallace something. Honestly, I’d be tempted to do it again.
STEP 4: This brought me to the only good decision that I’ve made this far. After that trip, I contacted a highly recommended kayak instructor by the name of Kirk Eddlemon. I told Kirk to start me out as a brand new kayaker, like I’ve never seen a boat before. He has done just that. Still to this day, I’m doing flatwater exercises which I absolutely hate, but I truly do see the benefits of it.
Kirk is trying to break the bad habits that I have ingrained within. I’ve never taken a lesson where I’ve felt like I’ve been cheated on time, training, or benefit. I totally understand the importance of a great trainer, and Kirk Eddlemon is definitely first class. After a day on the river with Kirk I barely have enough energy left to drag the boat to the vehicle. In my opinion I haven’t hit a decent water run since I’ve hired Kirk. I’m fine with that.
I don’t need to keep getting bigger, I need to keep getting better. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the level I’m on. When it comes time for me to step up, those rivers will still be there.
This was my process for stopping my own stupid. Each person is an individual with a different skill and mindset. It is up to each of us as to where we assign our own level of stupid. How much are you willing to put yourself through? How much are you willing to put your crew through? How much are you willing to put your family through?
Some of you reading this may be great paddlers that know their limits, others of you may not. I wrote this article using myself as an example, in hopes that I might get some of you to think about where your skillset is, and possibly think about some of the decisions you make. Or perhaps you’ve got a Michael Potter in your midst. Please share my experience.
There’s no reason to overrate yourself as I have done in the past. Be honest with yourself and your crew. They will appreciate you for it. Most importantly make safe decisions not only for you, but for them as well. If you do overrate your skill it will show in a short matter of time. Most people who do this usually have a hard time finding a crew to paddle with. We are a small community and word travels fast with social media.
Always remember that there is no shame in admitting that you are not ready for a certain river section or water level.
I have come to the point that I don’t feel the need to be on a river just because my friends are there. If they want to paddle with me, they will step down to my level, instead of me pushing to be on theirs. I still have fun where I’m at. I also still have plenty of friends to paddle with.
Make good decisions, be honest with yourself and your crew, be safe, and have fun. The best paddler is not necessarily the class V gnar runner. The best paddler is the guy smiling, laughing, and sharing his story by the campfire after a fun day with friends.
EDITOR’S DESK: Longtime DBP Admin Michael Potter writes regularly as a Staff Writer for us. His articles includeWHY DO WE DIRTBAG? THE LIFESTYLE DECODED , WALLACING GAF WEEKEND , and RIVER PEOPLE . You might find him paddling, or swimming, a river near you, if you’re from the SE. He might even be organizing a river cleanup near you!!
KIRK EDDLEMON is a friend of many DBP Admins, a terrific instructor and author of WHITEWATER OF THE SOUTHERN APPALACHIANS vol 1 & 2. For more info on the book, ordering, or getting some lessons visit his site http://www.wwsouthernapps.com/about/
CORRECTION: We inadvertently used an amazing photo that had been incorrectly identified as being of Michael Potter, which in actuality was a photo shot a Bull Sluice by Nell Rose Fiedler. Our sincere apologies for the error.
6 replies on “Where Do We Stop The Stupid?”
Hi, a great article full of many valuable observations and experiences. My problem is, that as I have aged (now 58) I have become more risk adverse. The thought of paddling a grade 3 river has my adrenaline and nerves on high alert, even though I have paddled these rivers before without incident. I now have trouble accepting that I can actually paddle certain rivers, and this even extends to certain artificial slalom courses – yea, dumb I know 🙂 A good friend of mine and excellent lifelong paddler, whom I have the utmost respect for told me once, “Don, you have all the technical skills needed to paddle, it is your mind that you need to overcome”. I agree, but I just don’t know how to do that. How do I get past this damn brain barrier? It is not that I have any great desire to paddle grade IV or V, I just want to enjoy grade III with no massive adrenaline or great nervous gut twists. grrrr 🙁 🙁 So sad I know, but I have made it my goal this year to get this issue totally under control. A few thoughts from a lame old hack 🙂 🙂 hahaha
It’s a struggle for us all, no matter the age! Thanks for reading !!
Maybe you have it backwards. Instead of overcoming fear, maybe you need to learn to fully enjoy class II. Catch a million eddy’s, backwards. Mentor some newbies, whatever. Fear is your mind telling you something, listen.
I like the latest rapid minus one rule. I will continue to preach it.
The struggle I have with whitewater kayaking is that there is no direct pathway to competence promulgated by the whitewater culture. At some point, good skiers have had lessons (or started when they were two). And you can buy a cheap mountain bike at Walmart and go bombing down single track, and you might break a wrist or something before you realize you’re a noob. But the consequences with whitewater are dramatically higher–especially with groupthink, where one paddler is remarkably more skilled buy with less judgment. If good paddlers drown, what about bad ones?
When a kayaker dies, the news reports that a kayaker died. The family usually says something like they were experienced paddlers (which means their Pungo is two years old) who have gone out on that river or lake dozens of times. Yeah, but not without a PFD or when the water was 40 degrees. No one wants to say, “Yeah, my kid was an idiot and had no business being on Lake Superior in a rec boat.” And EVERY TIME a kayaker dies, we reinforce the danger to the public, which keeps participation low. How many times have you met someone in the parking lot who looked at your boats and said “You’d never get me in one of those…you can get trapped in them.” Well, true enough, you can, but no one ever walks up to a car and says “You’d never get me on those skis (or snowboard or whatever).” They usually want to know more, not less.
If we want more people to paddle, we need start by making more paddlers not die. We will never be able to educate the media (believe me), when someone dies in a kayak accident, they just want the story, not the details.
Tom, you make many good points, and I’ll make sure my staff read it. Thanks for taking the time to write it.
And Don, I’m 55, and I hear you. I paddle more OC1 now as I get older. No more squirtboats for this guy. 🙂
Thanks for the thoughtful commentary! Much wisdom here
I’m pretty much a beater, but