I was getting jostled in my whitewater solo canoe in the swirly eddy next to gate 11 of the slalom course when it occured to me, This is my problem in my life: staring at an obstacle I know I can negotiate, but don’t trust myself to make the move.
Then I noticed I could cheat. There was room to slide my canoe through the upstream gate, hit the downstream current and spin my boat, landing downstream of the rock, an impediment peering malevolently back at me. Ha! I took two hard strokes and slid into my goal, the eddy behind the partly submerged boulder. Safe. But now I was in no position to make it halfway across the river to the next downstream gate.
Oh, I tried. Fought my way across the current towards gate 12, paddling like I was running up the down escalator—which is pretty much what I was doing—but not even close to making the next gate. Not only that, I’d just broken a promise to myself: to really go for it this time.
The required maneuver is what I call an “up and over move.” You paddle upstream using powerful strokes and the current to push yourself above and then beyond some obstacle. It means you don’t even look at the obstruction once you’ve planned your move. Your eyes are upstream, focused on your line, not on the potential danger you could float into if you miss it. “I’m going to put my boat right there,” you say. And then you do it.
It was only my first practice run of the weekend, but I knew about that move before I even arrived. At this course every year there’s a gate in that eddy and to make the next gate you always have to go above that rock. Earlier in the week I had pictured that one move, over and over again. This was my year to quit pretending to try it. (As in, Oh gosh, I didn’t paddle hard enough and oops I’m going below the rock, Darn.) This time I wasn’t going to balk.
And when I was successful, I decided, it would give me confidence for all the other things in my life that were giving me a case of the “free floating anxiety.” Okay, granted, that was way too much pressure on one move. But only if I didn’t do it.
After the first run I told my friend Mike, a great canoeist, that I was having trouble with that gate. Mike had taught me whitewater canoeing when I was in college and I knew he really wants to see me quit holding myself back. But I kind of hoped he’d tell me how I could make that move without going above the rock.
Instead, of course, he talked me through it, the perfect angles and how to use the wave to line me up for the next gate. As I was about to go try it he said, “Whatever you do, do it with confidence. It’s when you can’t decide where to stick your paddle that things go wrong.”
I heard Mike’s words in my head as I was getting sucked up towards the rock at the same gate on my next run, hemming and hawing. This was exactly what I was not supposed to be doing.
Then my friend Greg, an excellent kayaker, came the eddy up from behind me and showed me the move. Suddenly there wasn’t a rock lurking below, waiting to pin my boat and send me swimming. There was just the move. It helped that Greg was sitting in an eddy below in the perfect position to pick up the pieces if it didn’t go well.
I took a few aggressive strokes across the eddy line, watching the chute I was aiming for. One more stroke and I swung downstream, nicked the edge of the wave like Mike had said and shot over to the gate, which I sailed through, clean. A cheer went up from the other side of the river. Mike and other friends were watching. I raised my paddle in celebration like I’d just made a gnarly first descent. Because, yeah, it felt that good.