By Melissa DeMarie
There we were, standing on the boulder next to “the big one,” that rapid which had everyone ’s bellies full of butterflies. I had heard stories about this rapid – the big hole, the must-make move, as well as the difficult portage if one decided to walk around it. I was nervous and now it’s decision time.
There are so many factors in deciding whether to run a challenging rapid or river, especially with the understanding that once you peel out of the eddy – you are committed to going downstream. Whitewater kayaking is unique because it has all the elements of the other gravity sports with the added bonus of being on a dynamic environment. Oh yeah, and lack of oxygen if you end up off line and flip over. When you fall off your mountain bike or your skis, the ride’s more or less over. With this dynamic environment, aka water moving over and around rocks and other obstacles, if you bail out of your craft, the excitement is only just beginning. Now we have a swimmer (also moving with this dynamic environment) and various bits of floating gear to rescue. It puts pressure on the entire team to manage the situation.
So how do you make the decision to put on the river or run a rapid?
There’s quite a few facets involved in making these choices while boating. The first, and most important question I ask myself is, “do I have the technical skills to run it?” This is probably the most objective of all the questions. It includes a clear understanding of your confidence in your maneuvering skills – making your strokes, the moves and reading the water. There’s also your recovery skills and the ability to move to plan B (or C) if you miss a move – a good brace, a solid roll, a level head with quick response or the skills to surf out of a hole if needed.
Once I’ve answered this first question honestly, I can move onto the rest of my “do I run it or not?” mental flowchart. If the answer is “no” then the chart ends there. I’m not doing it. If the answer is “yes” then I can move onto the other important questions. These include – how have I been paddling? Have I been making my moves with confidence, or have I been beatering down the river? Have I already rolled a lot or swam that day? Or maybe I’ve been paddling “fine” but feel low energy, didn’t sleep well or just don’t feel like my head’s in the game. These are all a bit more subjective but good barometers on whether or not it’s a good time to step up to something more challenging. I’ve walked rapids I’ve run before because I just didn’t feel like I was paddling at 100% that day.
Another very important piece in the flowchart is the crew on the water that day. If I feel like I have the skills to run a rapid but I’m not confident my team can perform a rescue in the event of a mishap – I may decide to walk it. Things happen on the river to the best of paddlers, so you’ll want to be fairly positive your crew has the experience and know-how to execute a rescue if needed. A good tip is to practice scenarios with your core crew on your local river and of course, stay up-to-date on your swiftwater rescue certification.
Now we’ve gone over the more objective pieces to the paddling puzzle but what about that nervous feeling or being scared? For example, I’ve been paddling well on this particular day, I have both the maneuvering and recovery skills, I’ve scouted the line and my team is solid but now, there’s these butterflies in the belly to deal with. It’s easy to say from my office chair, or when watching a kayaking video that, yea I got this, I’m gonna run that. But when you’re standing there looking at the rapid, it changes a bit now, doesn’t it? You know the feeling. Suddenly, the I’m gonna run it confidence, you had the night before has suddenly evaporated.
Fair enough. It’s okay to feel nervous or even scared about stepping up to a challenging and potentially dangerous piece of whitewater. There’s times when I just haven’t felt it and walked away and there’s times that maybe I should have. This is where the mental flowchart comes into play. Now I can’t give you a magic trick or a special spell that’ll make those jitters go away – we all feel the same fears but it’s how we manage those fears that helps to keep our thoughts and decisions level.
There’s something to be said for the expression, “do one thing everyday that scares you” because dealing with the fear is a practice, just like you practice your strokes, or yoga, or anything you do over and over to become comfortable at doing. In kayaking, you do it by practicing class III moves in class II or class V moves in class III, keeping consequences low while increasing your skillset. Same thing with managing the nerves. Doing things like paddling into an intimating but safe feature, or leading on a run you’re familiar with instead of following helps your fear management practice. Then when you’re faced with stepping up to “the big rapid,” you’ve had some practice time dealing with the fear, as well as your hard skills. It’ll take practice but over time it should help you make the best decision for you and your team out on the river.
Keep paddling, keep practicing but most of all, be sure you’re having fun.
Bio: Sponsored by Kokatat, Pyranha, Werner and Pit Viper, Melissa DeMarie grew up in the Northeast but found her way to the rivers and mountains of California in 2004. Fueled by a love for rivers, travel and adventure, Melissa paddled her way around the world on the endless summer as a guide, safety kayaker and photo boater, spending seasons in places like Chile, Norway, New Zealand, Nepal and Uganda. In 2015, Melissa created California Watersport Collective with a focus on bringing more diversity and inclusion into the sport of kayaking, helping to make paddlesports accessible to everyone. Info: cwwcollective.com