Recently I had people dismiss my decision to send a rapid because ‘he doesn’t feel fear’. While I quite like the thought of being considered as some sort of autistic super (kayaking) man, nothing could be further than the truth.
I get scared, just like anybody else on this planet. Fear is an instinct that has developed over a millennia to allow us to know when we should avoid something. At this point in time, it is largely an outdated system that has trouble distinguishing between the traditionally scary (bears) and the revolutionary scary (credit cards, mortgages, etc). All of the processes for dealing with stressful stimulus are still hardwired in the brain and they care capable of being triggered at any time; when you’re at a job interview, when you are talking to someone attractive at the bar or perhaps when you are above Town Falls on the river Dee in your kayak.
The River Dee was the first time that I ever felt that deep-set fear, the type of fear that sits tightly in your chest and sends your brain racing to the worst conclusions. I was eleven years old and above Town Falls, it is not a big rapid by any means but for most UK kayakers it will be their first experience with a steeper, more stacked piece of whitewater.
The older kayakers in the group had been sharing horror stories about it all morning and the anxiety had been building up all day until we got to the eddy above it.
I remember looking the rapid, feeling that annoying voice in my head begin a long spiel of all the reasons why I should portage, which included ‘we’re too young to die’ and ‘mum would kill us if we died’. I remember looking a the line for what felt like an age, my palms getting sweatier and my knees getting weaker. I was most definitely scared but I had a much stronger sense of belief that I could pull off the line and be okay.
I remember giving the thumbs up to the older kayakers in the group, nervously putting on my spraydeck and launching in. At the top of the rapid, I felt for the first time that wonderful moment where everything slows down, the roar of the river fades away, you are hyper-aware and then – Whooosh, all of a sudden I was at the bottom.
I have been chasing this feeling for the past fourteen years, not an adrenaline rush as most people assume, but that unique mental state that is only accessible in these scary situations. The mental battle over the decision of whether to go or not go, the feeling of time slowing down, being hyper-aware and the surge of inner confidence when things go right and you are at the bottom of a 128 ft waterfall.
I realise that my love for finding whitewater that focuses me to that extent is perhaps not necessarily normal but I still feel a connection to the people I see on the water that are scared above their first grade 3 rapid because it was not too long ago that I was in their place. I find people predominately experience fear on the river in three ways.
When the rapid is relatively safe regardless of your route down it and yet you are still scared above it. Try to differentiate irrational fear from rational fear and work through the jigsaw pieces of whitewater logically.
Are you scared of any particular part of a rapid and should you actually be afraid of it? Do you have the skills to avoid it? Would you be okay if you swam? Separate what is the worst thing that could happen from what is the most likely thing to happen.
Fear of failure
Perhaps most pernicious, is the fear of looking stupid in front of our friends. Don’t let that put you off doing something, good friends will accept your mistakes, the people that don’t aren’t really your friends and it is much easier to brush off a strangers judgement than a close friend’s.
Realise that there will always be setbacks, it’s part of the learning curve and failure is okay. As long as it’s done safely and you nail lines more than you mess them up then you are bang on track.
It also makes your group work on essential safety skills other than just lacing lines and it also keeps things light-hearted. Everybody swims.
We are programmed as humans to be curious and I firmly believe it is better to give it a try and know than to not try and not know, unfortunately satisfying that curiosity can sometimes result in you taking a dunking.
Fear of the unknown
My analogy for any beginners that are nervous on the water is to think of it as your first day of school. You are small, nervous, in a new environment and you don’t fully know where your next science class is, much less the best path to take to reach it. A few years down the line you will be absentmindedly strolling through school, texting on your phone, talking to your friends and arriving outside your classroom door without ever really having to think about getting there. It takes a while to get comfortable with a new environment.
Enjoy those feelings of wonder at the unknown, because the river is an infinitely more enjoyable setting than a classroom and one day you may just look back fondly and laugh at those memories of being terrified above Town Falls.
Never feel pressured to send something you are not ready for, there is nothing wrong with portaging.
Be realistic, there are levels to progression and it is better to take it slow and steady than to advance too quickly, and find yourself on a piece of whitewater you are not ready for and have a bad experience that knocks your confidence.
Best of luck with your kayaking,
See you on the water, Bren