Freaking Out is Universal

Different strokes for different folks: My friend Jason having fun

After a leisurely Memorial Day breakfast, we decide to swing by the take-out of our local dam-release river to see if any of our friends might be around to take a run with us. We still have our canoes strapped to the roof rack from yesterday, but all our gear is hanging up at home, five minutes away.

It’s a gorgeous sunny day, headed up to 90 degrees—the kind of day we haven’t seen yet this year, and the kind of day that calls out for some kind of on-water activity. People are out on their motorboats, jet skis, and recreational kayaks in the reservoir and on the flat part of the Hudson River.

No one is ready to paddle with us now, but there are plenty of cars in the parking lot and surely someone will be able to shuttle us back up to the truck at the end of a run. I’m not convinced I’m ready for our first trip of the season on the fast moving class II and III, through the big waves. I don’t know how many times over how many years I’ve paddled this section, and yet every single time I get nervous. First run of the season on this river I still find myself positively scared.

I might feel more confident if there were a third paddler to go with us. In the time between going home and getting our gear and making it back, I’m hoping someone will join us. Usually, you are supposed to paddle in groups of three or more. In this situation it hardly seems necessary, though. Even if we don’t put on the water together, likely we’ll see the other paddlers already on the river. It’s also only a three-mile section of river and follows a road. This is not a dangerous stretch, with few consequences of messing up, except perhaps a long swim and bumping your butt across the rocks in a couple of shallow places.

(That is, as with any river, as long as you don’t try to stand up if you’ve flipped. If you are unfamiliar with whitewater safety, you should read this post on some real dangers of whitewater.)

When we return, still no one is ready to paddle with us. But here we are, ready to go.

Realistically, even though the water’s running higher than usual, I know the river well enough to make it a pretty easy run. W points out that for anyone with good boat control it’s not too challenging. It’s true that the only swims I can remember taking on this river were trying to surf a wave towards the top of the first rapid or the wave just below it (called Vesuvius or the Terminator.) The part that makes me the most nervous, the big wave train towards the bottom, could easily swamp a canoe and cause a long unpleasant swim. But I have always been able to maneuver my boat to keep myself on my line and prevent waves from crashing into my boat.

Even telling myself all these reassuring thoughts in the huge eddy at the top of the river, with the sound of the water thundering over the dam, I can’t calm myself down. I don’t want to make the three ferries across the top that we usually make: the long easy one across mild current to drop into the eddy where the rafts start their trips and where there’s a mellow surfing wave. The next is back across to river left below where we put in—just as a challenge I suppose. Then we go back across the fast current and some larger waves, digging in to make it all the way across before the big surfing waves. Finally, halfway through the rapid, we spin around downstream and eddy out next to the wave where the kayakers like to play. By this time I’m usually feeling pretty darn good about myself, though rarely in the mood to try to surf in the big wave.

But not today, I tell W. I just want to go down the left side. He raises his eyebrows. This is actually a more difficult line, he thinks, maneuvering around rocks, waves, and holes, looking for good eddies to catch along the way. My mind is set, though. I feel safer over here. As we get to the eddy across the river from the surf wave I see that all the kayakers are gone. We’ve got the river to ourselves. The high water changes features a bit, makes the moves a little more challenging, but it’s all okay, I tell myself. The water temperature is 61 degrees, an uncomfortable swim in my shorts and tank top, but I could make it if I had to.

Even in the mile of flatwater before the next rapid I can’t find my confidence so in the next rapid I’m just as wimpy. I take the easiest route, stop in only the easiest eddies, and don’t try to surf anything. I know W thinks I’m being silly, but he doesn’t try to change my mind. He stays close enough so I feel safe.

Yesterday he was concerned that the people we’d paddled with on an easier (though colder) river weren’t having any fun because while he and I played in the current—popping in and out of eddies, surfing, and ferrying—the two kayakers shot through each rapid and then hung out in an eddy below, waiting for us.

I tried to encourage them to try a little ferry across mild current or spin into an easy eddy, but they said they wanted to wait until the water was warmer. That may have been excitement enough for them, I explained to W on the way home yesterday. In those eddies beneath the rapids they felt safe; staying upright in the rapids was enough challenge on the cold water. I think they were grateful we were there for them in case they needed rescue.

And here I am doing practically the same thing the next day. At the bottom I realize I worked hard to make a few of the moves across strong current, but never came close to disaster. I marvel at how silly I am. Still, I don’t think I’ll be much braver until the water warms up a few degrees, or we have another paddler, or they release the normal flow.

At the take-out, waiting for W to return with the truck, I talk to my friend Jason who works at the shop and teaches kayaking lessons. He paddles class IV and V, over waterfalls, in giant waves, and throws tricks in rodeo holes. I am out of the closet with my anxious feelings, determined to laugh off my wimpiness, so I admit to him and a few other paddlers that I am still nervous canoeing this river after all these years. I think he’s going to laugh with me—this river? Still?—but instead he says lots of paddlers feel this way, especially first run of the season. The others nod. I don’t know why this should surprise me.

Sometimes, he says, he looks at a drop and thinks he must be crazy to paddle it. I’m sure for Jason that would be some gnarly class V waterfall, but it reminds me that we all freak out, though at different levels and about different things. For the majority of people of course, it doesn’t interfere with their lives, (doesn’t prevent them from driving, for instance) but still, it is somewhat comforting to think of freaking out as kind of a universal condition. Even among my seemingly fearless friends.

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