September: A Foray Into Kayaking


My entire summer had been almost singularly focused up until the start of September. My off days would come, I would climb some big mountain, I would recover the next day, and I would go back to work. That had been my cycle for the past two months and suddenly it was over. I enjoyed the simplicity of it. I always felt like I was striving towards something and there were easy, verifiable steps I could take towards achieving my goal. But now that that goal had been achieved, what was I to do?

Thankfully I wouldn’t have to wait long to answer this question. Not even three days after climbing the Grand an impromptu stop at a local boating supply store resulted in me buying my first whitewater kayak. As soon as the boat was mine I decided that this was what my new focus would be. I would practice as much as I could and become the best boater I could be before heading off to New Zealand. I had roughly a month to learn as much as I could. “That should be plenty of time,” I thought to myself.

I am writing now, a month later, and can say with confidence that I am still a rather crappy kayaker. My boating has certainly improved, and I feel more confident in the water, but my goal of being a fully independent kayaker by the end of the month is far from happening. The main issue is that I cannot roll to save my life. What is even more frustrating is that I seem to have regressed in this specific skill pretty dramatically. It is not fun to suck at something, and suck at this I do. While this new sport can be extremely frustrating to learn I have no doubt in my mind that the practice it will require will be entirely worth it.

The whitewater on the Snake River is certainly fun, but it leaves quite a lot to be desired in terms of technical whitewater boating.  There are no real hazards that are tough to avoid, no technical maneuvers to make mid-rapid, no fear rooted in the certainty of nasty consequences should one make even a small mistake. I had been yearning all summer to do some real, challenging boating. When a buddy asked if I wanted to make a quick trip to Bozeman Montana and yak the Gallatin River, I was more than excited to finally see some new water.

With minimal research we made the four-hour drive up through Yellowstone, racing to make it to Chipotle before 10 (it’s been months). The next day we awoke to weather that would not exactly scream “Let’s go kayaking!”. Driving through the canyon gave us our first glimpse of what we would be up against. The water was low, but the river looked tight, technical, and doable—all you need to have a good time on the water. I cannot lie, I was buzzing to get on the river and really test myself. When we put on our car thermometer read 49 degrees, there was not a ray of sunshine to be found. Within ten minutes of navigating our first rapid Ryan and I realized that we were a long way from the Snake River. The water was no more than 10 inches deep in most spots. The rapids themselves consisted of mostly three-to-five-foot drops with boulders lurking on either side and sometimes right in the middle. We were having a great time, absolutely buzzing. Until we began the mad mile.

An important for this story and somewhat paradoxical aspect of my life is that I am terrified of water. Some of my earliest memories are nightmares related to water. As a child I would refuse to jump in lakes when I couldn’t see the bottom, refuse to swim into the ocean where I couldn’t touch, hell I was afraid of the deep end of pools. I recognize that being a raft guide and picking up kayaking as a new hobby would then seem like the two worst things I could have possibly done. I agree, and that is in part why I have jumped into them so heavily. I am no philosopher or life coach, but I fervently believe that all you can do is lean into fear to overcome it, especially in the world of outdoor adventure. Fear has always made me focus, lock-in, and perform in ways I never thought possible. Most of the best moments of my life began with fear. I would bet that if you thought back you would find the same is true for you. With that in mind, I try to never let fear win. When I am afraid of anything I strive to push through and trust that that fear is pointing me in the right direction.

The mad mile is, as the name would suggest, a mile of continuous, class 3 whitewater with little room for error. There are boulders everywhere and a swim could easily become disastrous. I full and well knew this as we dropped in and within only five minutes I found myself upside down in a rather terrible spot. As the wave knocked me over all I saw before going under was another rock directly in my path no more than 15 feet downriver. In this moment I went into a mental space I have only been in a handful of times in my life. Maybe it’s fight or flight? Maybe it is some survival instinct? I am not sure. What I am sure about is that whenever I find myself to slip into this version of myself, I thrive. I do not panic, I do not freeze, I perform in ways I wish I could replicate in regular life. This may all sound dramatic but one of the first thoughts that ran through my mind upon flipping my boat was “Well this is how kayakers die. This sucks”. With that fear in my mind, I was able to get out of my boat, compose myself, swim a few more sizeable rapids without injuring myself, and safely get to shore. As soon as I was on land that childhood fear of water returned and I found myself to be rather shocked at what had just happened. It was a position I never hoped to be in and I was angry for putting myself there. At the same time, I had reacted almost flawlessly and was proud of my ability to remain calm in an extremely stressful situation.

After emptying my boat Ryan and I continued down the river and for the most part, crushed it. From where we had been only a month ago, I was proud of both of us for navigating that river almost flawlessly. It certainly felt like we had gotten lucky in a few spots but we were safe nonetheless. This trip confirmed yet again that fear had led me in the right direction, and I was as excited as ever to go and kayak as many rivers as I could.

Another lesson that this little adventure solidified for me was that no one is truly fearless. I think that this term has led many to believe that people we see as ‘fearless’ have some special ability to block out fear. I don’t believe this to be the case. I think that these people still have that fear. That they are still aware of it and yet find a way to suppress it just enough to push through. And this is not only for fear that is say life or death, but fear in everyday life. Fear of going to a party, applying for a job, trying a new activity, or any tiny thing that makes us all afraid. We are not weak or lesser because of this fear, everyone experiences it and we should never feel incapable of something for having it. We should learn to acknowledge and use it just as we use more comfortable emotions like excitement or joy. Let fear guide just as desire does, and I believe that we will all find ourselves to be so much more capable than we expect.

My time in Jackson is rapidly coming to a close. The mountains are covered in snow and I am rather tired of waking up in a freezing car every morning. I feel sad and scared to be leaving this place. The future is full of almost nothing but question marks, but I would be a hypocrite to not follow my own advice of following the fear. I am choosing to look into the future and see all the excitement and possibilities on the horizon. I am not yet sure how, but I am confident that everything will fall into place just as it is meant to.

Music from this time:

“when sunday comes around” – Marlon Funaki

“Light” – Nu Aspect

“Funkn Oath” – Peach Fur


“Trespassing Across America” by Ken Ilgunas 5/5

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