There’s No Crying in Whitewater

“How’s your day going?” I asked a new canoeing friend, R, as he pulled into the eddy. My class, the more experienced solo boaters, had already scouted Staircase Rapid, just below. From the boulders on the shore we’d picked our lines and were heading back to our parked boats as R’s group arrived.

“Okay, except a bit too much crying,” R said, nodding towards his classmate L who was slumped in her boat, talking quietly to her instructor. I don’t think he meant it unkindly; he just couldn’t understand where she was coming from. He seemed happy to throw himself into rapids even if he got dumped out of his boat and scraped along the rocks. Out of all the canoeists, I think he lost the most skin over the five-day class.

When I get scared I tend to get quiet rather than crying, but I thought I knew exactly how L felt at the top of that rapid. I was fortunate, having paddled this river before, not to mention having over a decade of solo canoeing experience. The class III rapid still intimidated me, but I knew I could do it. L, who had just begun learning to navigate in a solo canoe, didn’t have any such consolation to draw upon.

“People wonder why I do this sport when it makes me feel this way,” L told me several days later. I was paddling alongside her on a flatwater section of the Ottawa River. “But I love it. I love this,” she said, smiling and wiping her face. We hadn’t yet gotten to the first rapid and I was trying to reassure her that she’d be okay, without lying about the whitewater she was going to face.

“You can walk every rapid, if you want,” I said, forgetting this was not entirely true. When I took my first clinic at Madawaska Kanu Center a number of years before, I hadn’t slept a single night because I knew that on Friday I was going to paddle the mighty Ottawa River, which I knew only from friends’ stories as the biggest water I had ever seen.

Understandably, L didn’t want to walk around every rapid. “I guess I’m holding myself back,” she said.

That feeling I knew intimately. “Maybe so. Some people fearlessly throw themselves into difficult water and try challenging moves. Take T, in my group. He’s probably swum more than anyone, but he keeps trying. People like him probably do learn faster. Me, I’m on the super slow program.”

She looked at me uncertainly. She reminded me that a couple days before she had seen me make some tough moves with apparent ease.

I laughed, thinking about my disappointment with myself, about the moves I was still afraid to make. “It’s taken me forever to get where I am,” I said. “I figure, you either have to push yourself or make peace with slower progress. I do a little of both.”

Before lunch I saw L again, this time crying at the bottom of a short but steep rapid that she’d just successfully paddled. When I asked her how she was, she smiled and said, “I’m allowed to cry out of happiness, too.”

I wondered if whitewater paddlers could be divided into two neat groups, people who were afraid, and those who weren’t. I had taught a beginner class a few weeks before and one student told me through tears that the river was going too fast, that she was sticking her paddle into the water just to try to slow it all down. She didn’t seem destined to love the sport, and I started wondering if scared people like L and like me just didn’t even belong out there. Then I saw L at the end of the day, hoisting her canoe out of the river. She was beaming, and ready to take on Zoar gap after she got home.

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