So let me take a break from reporting on Alaska to recount my experience from this last weekend. But first you need some background information…
I’ve never been a good kayaker. Those who know me, who have watched me boat, can attest to this fact. I wasn’t necessarily a bad paddler, and could get down class II fairly competently (aka, not dying). Heck, I could even make it down class III if someone (cough, Brinn) would let me follow their lines. If I flipped, and didn’t manage to completely panic and bail, my roll would usually bring me up. I definitely wasn’t headed towards class IV or anything particularly hairy, but I could typically make it down the Ocoee with minimal swimming so long as I took the cheat lines (which included hiking around Table Saw).
Then I decided to have a baby.
I assumed that I would pick paddling back up the same way I’d picked riding back up.
Riding was a little rough immediately after birth as I’d lost more core strength than I’d realized, but with time my strength came back and once again I could hop on Reggie and go. Paddling was a bit trickier. Because I nursed Ian for a full year, and worked a forty hour week, time to fit in a full river trip was just too hard to come by. So a year went by without any time on the water. The next year, I was able to fit in one trip, then the following year Ian was ready to start going along with us, so I spent a lot of time in a funyak. By the time Ian turned four, I finally felt less guilty about leaving him behind to hit the river without him, and I thought I was ready to start stepping it back up, but a new experience confronted me at many outings.
Anxiety can absolutely cripple you. I’d never experienced it before, but my postpartum existence invited it to creep it slowly. I went from happily running my beloved Jett to Lilly on Clear Creek, to finding myself sitting on Spring Creek and unable to leave an eddy. Just a few weeks before this paralyzing trip, Brinn and I ran Spring Creek from Waterloo down to Tom’s house by ourselves and had a great run, despite one swim. But when we came back a few weeks later with Ben, I couldn’t make myself go through Meat Grinder. The same rapid I’d had no issues with just weeks prior seemed enormous and impossible. I realized that I couldn’t do it. I may have had the ability in me, but my brain and body were not cooperating well enough to get me through it on this day. It’s hard to describe the feeling, except to say that it was overwhelming, like an elephant sitting on my chest. I ended up walking around 3 or 4 rapids that day. The hike was twice as hard as the rapids would’ve been, but I just couldn’t do it. And I had more experiences like this to hit me . I couldn’t make myself get back on the Ocoee. We took the raft down, even the ducky, but I just couldn’t will myself to carry my kayak down the rails to get back on this river.
I needed help. Lots of it. And all kinds. The first step was to seek medical advice. I’ve never had anxiety issues before in my entire life. Rather than looking for a chemical option, I began a nutrition program to look for a holistic option. I’ll have plenty more to say about this program in a future post. The condensed version: getting a handle of my dietary needs and eating the right foods for my body, while taking food based supplements to satisfy deficiencies has helped bring my baby-growing hormone-wrecked body back together and drastically improved my outlook. So now I should be ready to get back on the water, except I still had that feeling of helplessness. I couldn’t make my boat do what I wanted it to do even through class IIs. Brinn, God bless him, tried so hard to help advise me on technique, but he just couldn’t dumb it down simply enough for me to get it. So I reached out to Joe Gudger of Ace Kayaking and he recommended a series of lessons. He finalized my schedule and last week sent me a reminder that I should meet Brandon at the Ocoee takeout on Saturday at 10:00. The Ocoee. With my kayak. Excitement warred with dread as I tried to convince myself that I was looking forward to my first lesson, but dread started pulling ahead. Despite my reluctance, I got in the truck Saturday morning with all my gear so Brinn could drop me off to meet Brandon Beaty.
Brandon is a superhero hiding in a Jackson Nirvana wearing a disguise of Kokatat and Sweet Protection while accessorizing with Werner. I hope Brandon didn’t find the day as exhausting as I did, but I fear he must have. Laughing and issuing the same advice to an inattentive audience has to be trying and tiresome. Saturday began with seemingly simple work on the lake where we quickly established that I didn’t know anything at all about kayaks or paddles, or how to combine the two for forward movement. Brandon patiently answered my dumb questions and showed me the same strokes again and again and again as I attempted to imitate his technique. Then we began going upriver while working on attainments. This kept me too short of breath to ask as many dumb questions, but don’t worry, I still thought of them. After this portion of the day, we floated back down to the take out ramp, took a break, and loaded up Brandon’s truck to head up river for some work in real current.
Brandon carried my boat down the bank to put in below Slice and Dice and immediately put me to work on ferrying across some very minimal current near the bank on river right. He tweaked and adjusted while always encouraging. He’d remind me to rotate while I would insist that I was rotating –picture me sitting stiff and rigid from hip to head with not one degree of rotation in there anywhere. I’d start across the current and lose my angle and he’d patiently remind me to use my stern draw. Too bad I wouldn’t listen to him until seconds before I hit my new eddy. But despite my best efforts to stemmy Brandon’s efforts to fix me, his commands were actually starting to sink in! So he led me across the pushier current coming from the bottom hole of S&D to the big eddy on river left. From here, the goal was to go to the top of the eddy and practice ferrying across the slightly pushier water. And here is where fear found me again. The current looked so strong. I knew I’d lose the angle of my ferry and get pushed down river and have to make a sloppy S turn to hit the new eddy, if I didn’t blow right past it. Brandon talked me through our goal and method of execution and reassured me that I was over thinking it, and the current wasn’t nearly as bad as I was building it up to be. And I sat and over thought and worked myself up. Brandon never yelled at me (as I deserved), nor pushed me to jump out before I was ready. He patiently waited for me to speak or indicate my readiness. And I finally identified the source of my fear: the bow draw. This one, seemingly simple paddle stroke still confused me in flat water. Now I’m supposed to put it all together, leave the eddy with forward strokes to initiate my ferry, use a stern draw on the left to maintain my ferry, then throw in a bow draw to turn my boat before charging my new eddy. Easy, right? Sure, except for that bow draw. So I finally shared this with Brandon, and rather than telling me to suck it up or dismissing my fear, he simply announced “then don’t do the bow draw.” And he graciously left the eddy to show me how to complete the exercise without the bow draw.
Finally, after much internal dialogue, I left the eddy. And it was nothing! The rushing current I’d worried about felt more manageable than I expected, and I found myself following Brandon’s instructions (to an extent) and was able to join him in the next eddy. It wasn’t pretty. There was lots of yuckiness. But it was starting to come together! Now he changed it up a bit to go back across the current, leaving from a different eddy than the last time we ferried this direction, and ferried through a different section of the current. I followed a bit more quickly this time and didn’t require as much coddling to jump out there. More yuckiness ensued, but some good stuff started surfacing too. Then the rafts showed up. And they kept coming. Starting to feel more confident about myself and my newfound abilities, I decided I could be brave enough to jump out between rafts. I reviewed Brandon’s commands in my head: “leave the eddy and hit the current in the second trough, right below the big trough, then let my bow drop to charge the eddy. Don’t pause between my forward stroke and my stern draw. Rotate at the waist AND LOOK WHERE I’M GOING.” I spotted my opening in the rafts and I shot out towards the current…and proceeded to let every single one of Brandon’s instructions leak out of my ears. I left the eddy with too high of an angle, didn’t let the current drop my bow at all, never looked at where I wanted to go, and found myself landing right in the first trough…on top of another kayaker who had been merrily surfing before I came to town. I immediately apologized to him and he reached out to touch my arm and tell me not to worry about it, that it was completely okay. At this point I frantically tried to reverse my ferry (bear with me, my brain is leaking, remember?) to get off of him, so I yank away from his hold and then I hear splashing and maybe even a chuckle out of Brandon. Kayaker manages to roll so at least I haven’t caused someone to swim, but he was snorting and spluttering a bit. While this was probably the worst of my gaffe’s, it certainly wasn’t the only one. Some of them were bad enough that Brandon would just shake his head and say “we’re not going to discuss that one.” Other times he’d start with “well, do you know what you did wrong?”
By Sunday morning Brandon had correctly assessed that my brain couldn’t hold any new information, so rather than trying to teach me more strokes and concepts, we headed up river to practice the programming he’d attempted to install on Saturday. Some parts were really yucky, and some parts were great. I had a few moments where the light bulb would go off, and several instances where I realized how lost I was. By jumping around to different places on the river, Brandon subtly began working us down river so that we finally went through a few rapids and did a short section of the Ocoee. Anxiety backed off and was replaced with apprehension, which I found easier to push through. As we prepared to hit the waves below Flipper on river right, my heart raced and my muscles constricted with fear. For lack of a better expression, I kept a nervous grin on my face and let Brandon lead me out of the eddy…and I blew my instructions again and hit the swifter current and blasted past my fearless leader. But he calmly issued a few commands, and somehow I managed to follow them, and my control returned. At this point, my boat climbed over the waves smoothly, and I found success. My nerves still caused my whole body to shake, but I’d done it. I know it’s a tiny achievement to most, but it’s a mountain of an achievement for me. Now I actually feel excited to return to the Ocoee in two weeks for my next lesson with a new instructor. Thank you Brandon, for helping me ease back onto the Ocoee and move out of the blinding fog.