Now. On Water.
I recently had the opportunity to paddle the Upper Nantahala for the first time. This is referred to as a personal first descent or a PFD in the jargon of whitewater. I’ve not had that experience – a PFD – in over a decade, and it was a revelatory reminder of why I do this... a reminder of what can unfold when I suit up, stretch the skirt over the boat’s deck, and push off the earth into a liquid wilderness.
Each river has a spirit... a personality that it manifests; its moods changing with conditions and volume of water. A first descent down a whitewater river is akin to dancing with a partner that you’ve just met: thrilling yet a little awkward. And much like a first dance, it’s critical to pay attention - to be sensitive to what is unfolding.
The Upper Nantahala is described as a “creek” run meaning that it has a relatively steep gradient and a smaller channel of water running through a rock maze. Horizon lines (places where you cannot see what’s downstream because of a steep drop off) are frequent and close by. Paddling a river like this, most certainly when it’s your PFD, demands complete focus. And that’s where it can start to get interesting.
A friend recently equated paddling whitewater with a craving for adrenaline. While there is a grain of truth there, it is a far cry from my experience now. I no longer want to see how far I can push things. I am at peace with the truth that there are some stretches of river that I will never navigate. The potential cost of missing a line or making a mistake are too high as is the price of acquiring the needed skills – measured in time, effort, and exposure to injury. But still, I will nudge myself in small increments and a PFD down a Class 3+ creek after spending the season on water well within my comfort zone was a welcome reminder of how a river can become a sacred space.
To push off from the earth and into the chaos, to punch out of that first eddy and feel the current take the bow of the boat while leaning downstream, is truly an act of surrender. It means letting go of my sense of safety... letting go of the illusion of control. Now it’s me and the river engaging in the dance and she’s going to lead.
And if everything aligns... if I’m centered and present and relaxed... if I’m able to lean into the movement and the chaos of the swift water, my perception of reality shifts.
I’ve mentioned before the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly and his work around the concept of ‘flow’. It is a state of focused consciousness where everything falls away apart from the experience of the present moment... the now... a state where the subject/object dualism vanishes. Effortlessly, you suddenly experience yourself as one with a greater reality; you witness yourself moving and taking action almost as if that something apart from (little) you is guiding the process. It is both an unsettling and sacred experience.
In order to navigate whitewater, I learned the skill of “reading” water - seeing how liquid flows over surfaces and how you need to respond and react. But the flows on the Upper Nanty are complex. The normal rules don’t apply when the water is moving in three or four directions at once with cross currents and diagonal holes and pour-overs and submerged trip rocks. There’s no time to run the mental math and come up with the correct next action. It all must happen... now. And it does. I glance off the trip rock, tilt the edge and push through the cross current, plant the right stroke to keep from being spun around upstream, brace and lean to stay upright. Above all else, I balance and I dance right on the edge... on the edge of catastrophe. It is a holy experience because I (the little ego-bound ‘I’) am not making things happen. Things. Just. Happen.
And then I reach the end of the rapid, punch into the next eddy, spin around, look back upstream and am struck with wonder. How did that all unfold without (what I perceive to be) me controlling everything?
I know of fellow paddlers who have had similar experiences. Conversely, one can certainly find more than a smattering of recklessly inflated egos congregating around whitewater. I’ve learned that I can either come to the river with humility or she will serve it up to me freshly made on a platter of carnage. And there are, or course, days where nothing feels right and I’m making one wrong move after another – unable to follow the river’s lead in the dance. We always bring who we are in the moment to the experience. And the river always meets us right where we are.
I know that navigating whitewater is not for everyone. Shifting metaphors for the moment, I’ve oft made the comparison between paddling whitewater rivers and boxing (even though, for the record, I have never been in a boxing ring in my life): As you engage in either activity... at some point in your progression... you’re going to get the shit beaten of out you. At that fork, you either have a sane, rational response and say “Enough! I’m done with this!”- or - you pick yourself up, bloodied with one eye swollen shut and a huge grin on your face and say, “Damn! That was fun! Let’s do it again!”. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.
But the objective, of course, is not to seek out an adventure sport that frightens you or places you at risk. The goal should be to find a practice or activity that completely absorbs you to the point that you merge with the moment – whether it’s playing an instrument or writing or simply walking in nature being fully present and aware. A friend recently shared that she experienced this phenomena during childbirth. In whatever form that portal manifests, my hope is that you discover it, walk through it, and lose yourself in the moment... in that sacred place.