Embrace the Swim


IMG_0257To swim in the world of white water kayaking means to exit the boat and literally swim through the rapid. Depending on the rapid it can be quite scary and depending on the circumstances it can be quite defeating. Swimming can take an amazing weekend of paddling and turn it into a weekend of self-doubt, regret and anger instantaneously.  One weekend kayaking on the Lower Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle, PA, helped me to learn to embrace the swim. Some names have been changed to respect friends’ anonymity.

This is happiness. I professed this to myself as I was having an epiphany in the back of a Chevrolet Astro. I had just taken off the river on the Lower Yough with a victory beer in hand, sitting on the floor of my Uncle Sammy’s van.  Sammy and Gary, two of my paddling buddies, were in the front seat and  I was sitting on the floor in the back, all of us jamming out to a classic rock cassette tape as the van carting our kayaks hustled up the hill. The van swayed back and fourth, mimicking the rocking of the waves on the river as it hit every bump on the gravel road.

We were stoked. We had a stellar day on the river surfing waves, successfully hitting combat rolls, punching through rapids and cherished camaraderie with friends. My Uncle Sammy and I needed to have a successful day on the river. We had both walked off the river after taking some gnarly swims the day prior.

The Lower Youghiogheny’s water level had been extremely high that week leading up to our paddling adventure. Our first day on the river the water level was at 3.58, more than double the level on a typical release weekend. I had no business being on the river at that level. I was paddling a Dagger Agent 6.0, my little red play boat that I had bought the previous season. I had only paddled the Yough when the water level was at 1.5 the summer prior, and had barely made it down successfully. With only one year of paddling experience under my belt, deep down I knew paddling the river at this level was going to be quite a challenge, but I wanted to prove I could do it.

As I was unloading my gear from my car, I was listening intently to my friends Craig, Lori and Katie, all experienced paddlers, commenting on how the increased level was going to change the river.

It’ll be pushier. 

There will be bigger wave trains.

The higher level will wash out the small waves and yet significantly increase others.

I was nervous as I took in the beta, but continued readying my gear, determined to test my skill on the river.

When I put on the water, I was uneasy to say the least. My nerves took hold of me as I decided to practiced my roll, asking my friends to hang out for a bow rescue if needed. Although I was able to roll back up each time, I could feel that my roll was inconsistent. The lack of practice during the off season was definitely to blame. I could also tell that I had lost my repose with being upside down under water, a comfortability that is definitely worth having in white water kayaking.

Bound and determined to paddle the river and prove myself as a kayaker, I decided to press on anyways. The first of the big rapids was Entrance, a long stretch of rocks that creates holes, pour overs and surfing waves as far as the eye can see. I decided to catch the first surfing wave at Entrance in order to get comfortable in my boat. After catching the first eddy (still water behind a rock), I paddled as hard as I could past the eddy line and ferried over to catch the wave. My boat caught the pillow as I surfed for a couple of seconds. As I surfed from side to side, my nerves subsided as I continued to feel more relaxed in the boat. I ferried across the river to catch the next eddy, where all of my friends were waiting. I observed  my Uncle Sammy paddle out to catch the second wave, and as he went to turn in the wave, the water caught his tail and flipped him immediately. I watched in disbelief as Sammy tried to roll, but for whatever reason he missed the roll, popped out of his boat as the current carried him and his boat down stream. The look on his face was one of confusion, disappointment and concern. Watching Sammy swim, was alarming and rocked me to my core, compounding my anxiety.

To understand the reasons why Sammy’s swim affected me so greatly, one must understand how I came to know Uncle Sammy. I met him during my first trip on the Lower Youghiogheny River. I was invited out by members of the Philadelphia Canoe Club to stay on his plot of land in Ohiopyle, known as “The Ranch”. My first time being on that river in a hard boat, he took my under his wing and guided me down the easy lines, describing in detail each rapid and how I was to approach them. He was well acquainted with the river, its features and you could tell by his strokes, he was very comfortable on the water. His first words of advice to me besides spending more time in the boat, was to allow myself to feel the rhythm of the river, as he explained paddling was “all a dance”. His strokes were fluid, relaxed, a zen-like motion, slicing through the water. His personality just was just as laid back and we bonded over our similar life philosophies and our love of whiskey. After that weekend, I started calling him Uncle Sammy.

My eyes were fixed on Sammy’s swim and rescue as I thought, if he can swim through Entrance, then I, being the novice, am screwed! As I realized that all of the experienced paddlers in my group, all of the people I could follow through Entrance, were down river,  my heart began to beat rapidly. I now had to rely on my own skill as a paddler, reading the river features, to get me through the rapids safely. Before heading out, I remembered the line I had taken through Entrance the few times I’ve paddled on the Lower Yough before. Stay to the left. That was my instinct as I peeled out of the eddy and started heading down river. I tried to scout and find the safe, “V” shaped tongues through the rock garden of Entrance. But as hurriedly as the river was pushing me, I had no time to scout my line properly. My boat was fixed to hit a pour over with a sticky hole at the bottom. As instantaneous as I saw it,  my boat slid over the pour over, pushed forward and was pulled back, catching my stern and flipping me upside down. I tried to punch my paddle to the surface in an attempt to roll but the current was strong and I panicked. I pulled my skirt and popped to the surface, struggling to see the quarter mile rock garden that made up Entrance, all of the consequences I needed to avoid. Frantically, I tried to keep my head afloat and swim to the side of the river, but the current was strong. I was about 200 yards down from where I had exited the boat and my boat was another 50 yards down river.

On the banks of the river I tried to stand up and take a deep breath, but I was exhausted, coughing up water and shaking in shock. I took a few minutes to gather myself and then floated safely down the banks of river to get my boat. I spoke to my friends Craig, Lori and Katie to calm myself down. I asked about Sammy’s rescue. During his rescue, his boat took on so much water that it was difficult to take to shore. His boat ended up below Cucumber and he was more than 500 feet above the rapid. Realizing he had no choice but to walk out of the gorge to catch a trail down to the eddy below Cucumber, he motioned to us that he was walking off.

With his swim, my swim and now Sammy walking off the river, the circumstances injected doubt over my ability to continue on, especially with the biggest vertical drop on the river directly in front of me. Cucumber had always invoked some fear and self-doubt, even at a normal release level. With the higher level of water, the pushiness of the river and now having missed my roll and swimming 200 feet through Entrance, my anxiety was so high that I could barely keep myself together. Craig, Lori and Katie discussed the line to take through Cucumber while I tried to appear calm. When all was decided, we pressed on. I was to follow behind Katie and Craig and then Lori followed me. Katie and Craig, in their large river runner boats, were so fast they left me behind unintentionally. I was so distracted by fear that I hit a small rock above Cucumber and flipped immediately. Without hesitation I pulled my skirt, exited my boat, and again tried to keep my feet pointed down steam and my head above the water. A paralyzing panic ran through my body as I realized I’d be swimming through Cucumber. The last time I swam through Cucumber I cracked my helmet on the large submerged rock, therefore I knew the potential consequences in front of  me. I saw the enormous waves in my view and took a deep breath while my body flailed vertically,the momentum of the wave tumbling me ass over elbow. I washed out of the wave and my friends rushed to save me.

In the eddy below Cucumber, I sat there for a few minutes while  I collected my gear as well as my emotions. The combination of overwhelming fear and adrenaline put me on the verge of tears as I tried to contain them while describing my swim to my friends. In an effort to distract myself and others from my swim, I asked about Sammy, and what the plan was to reunite him with his boat. We decided to take his boat and gear and stash it near the photographer’s perch on the boulder next to Cucumber. Sammy could walk the steep trail down from the road to Cucumber and hopefully rejoin us on the river. We weighed the option of waiting for him, but decided that for sake of time, he would want us to continue our run without him. At this point, our group started considering the possibility of taking out at the Loop, cutting our run short due to the number of swims and the overall demeanor of our group.

When we decided to continue on, Katie came to me and told me to stay on her stern, to drive hard with each paddle stroke, as she was determined that I wasn’t going to swim anymore that day. I was appreciative of her taking initiative which gave me added confidence, a fire, that propelled my determination to continue paddling.

I followed her down Camel Walrus, slotting the Camel rock jutting out to my right and the Walrus rock laying to the left. I leaned forward and drove my paddle into the water in order to brace, while plunging into the sticky hole. Drive, drive, drive. I told myself this as I punched the hole and landed safely in the still water below. Staying upright in the kayak through the rapid was a small victory, providing some added confidence which I desperately needed.

Flying by Eddy Turn, a bunch of rocks and eddies, avoiding it altogether by going river left,  we approached Dartmouth. Katie prepared me for the huge hole by reiterating the need to lean forward and drive. Despite my best effort to follow Katie’s advice, I flipped when I hit the hole, panicked and again swam. My third swim on the river solidified my intent to take off at the Loop and head into town to grab a drink.  Lori, Katie and Craig agreed to the plan.

Paddling up to the Loop take out, we spotted Sammy, waiting for us to get word on the location of his boat. He seemed cool and collected when we told him we had stashed it at Cucumber, meaning he would have to hike back up to the parking lot from the Loop take out, walk through town and then descend the steep trail down to Cucumber, a solid hour and a half adventure that lay ahead of him. Sammy departed on his quest to find his boat as Katie, Craig, Lori and I got out of ours. Getting out  at the Loop Take out was bittersweet. I watched as other boaters I knew continued on, and I couldn’t help but to feel defeated.

The agony of defeat was reiterated by every strained step carrying my boat and gear up the steep trail from the Loop takeout. After all of the boats and gear were situated, our group decided we deserved a beer and a much needed venting session so we headed to the Falls City Pub. The beer and whiskey helped numb my bruised ego, while we recounted the days events. It was particularly frustrating to hear Craig tell me that he believed that with my paddling ability and skill, I was perfectly capable of successfully kayaking the Lower Yough at that level. He suspected I had already defeated myself before putting on the river that day.

Although it was tough to admit, I knew he was correct. This wasn’t the first time I had sabotaged myself with a defeatist attitude, giving up out of fear before I even tried. I wanted to ensure that I killed my fear right then and there, that I wouldn’t allow it to affect my paddling the following day. I started to reflect on how I could change my perspective in order to have a better day on the river as I recognized that I let my fear of the unknown affect my paddling. Instead of being proactive, paddling aggressively, I was reactive and even passive. The two times I flipped was when I had the “deer in headlights” look as I held my paddle parallel to the water instead of having one blade in the foam. Additionally, my best paddling experiences have been when I was jovial, joking around, being a straight up goofball on the water. The fear of paddling in such big water flooded my brain with negative thoughts, leaving little room for my positive, daffy demeanor.

Later at the Ranch, I caught up with Uncle Sammy, and we shared our recounts of the day’s events over shots of whiskey. He told me about his “walk of shame” through town, laughing as he described the amount of people willing to point out that he was walking with only one shoe, (the other he had lost during his swim) as if he had no idea. When we last left him on the river, he was walking to Cucumber to get his boat, but another mutual friend had tackled the task of towing his boat down river to the Loop takeout, thinking he was there waiting for it. The miscommunication of the location of his boat prolonged his misadventure so much so that he even stopped in town to help his wife shop at the local market, still with one shoe, before enlisting her to help drive him back to the Loop to get his boat.

Despite his bad luck that day, and his inevitable frustrations, Sammy was all smiles. He sipped his whiskey, enjoyed the company of his fellow paddlers and retold his story around the campfire at the Ranch and wore it like a badge of honor. His temperament inspired me to remain enthusiastic. Sammy and I swore that night over whiskey shots that we would not walk off the river the next day.

The next day came and Sammy and I were ready for our mulligan, our much needed redemption on the river. We made sure to practice our rolls at the put in and feel confident in our ability to execute. As Sammy stated, “one should always have a roll in the back pocket, just in case you need it.”

We dove head first into the demon that destroyed us the day prior. Entrance. I watched as Uncle Sammy attacked the wave that wiped him out, surfing confidently, settling him in to the day of paddling that awaited. Past the play wave, I followed Craig river right thru Entrance, missing the pour over that shook me and my confidence the previous morning. When our group made it through Entrance, Uncle Sammy and I exchanged glances and head nods, acknowledging our accomplishment, providing a small bit of confidence going into the next rapid.

My next hurdle was to get through Cucumber, that menacing white pillow of water that always cultivated doubt and fear within me. Following Lori and Craig, I took a deep breath and repeated my mantra: drive, drive, drive. Although I paddled with force and aggressively leaned forward, my tiny play boat was spun by the rushing water converging at Cucumber. When I ended up facing upstream, all kayaking knowledge left my brain, and in slow motion I plopped over in the swirling suds. Again I swam at Cucumber, but I was satisfied that I had made it nine tenths of the way down before swimming.

Standing up to get in my boat, I was laughing and joking about how I was literally tossed around in the wave, my boat spinning 180° and how I was so brazen to paddle through Cucumber backwards. Although I swam at Cucumber, my attitude flipped 180° from the previous day. As fate would have it, that was my last swim that day. Both Uncle Sammy and I kept our promise and finished the Lower Yough without walking off. On the shuttle back to the cars, Uncle Sammy and I reveled in our performance as the rickety bus full of kayakers advanced up the hill. At the cars, Sammy and Garry handed me a beer and we toasted to our accomplishment.

As I sat in the back of the Chevy Astro van, reveling in my happiness, I reflected on my swims and knew there were lessons I needed to understand. I realized if I was to continue to be successful in this sport I had to, as my friend Lori stated,”Embrace the swim.”

As I continue tackling challenging rivers and bigger water, inevitably there will be more swims. One of the friendly reminders that my PCC friends often tell me is that if I’m not swimming, then I’m not trying hard enough. Some of the best kayakers I know swim, even on rivers they have paddled numerous times before. Unfortunately the act of swimming can bring self-doubt over one’s ability, one’s worth and even one’s passion for the sport. But the attitude during the swim and the action following the swim are crucial. Embracing the swim means laughing at the mistake you made, learning from it or being able to shake it off  and not letting it affect your paddling the rest of the run. After the swim, you have two options, to give up, letting the swim get the best of you, or to get back in the boat, letting your determination drown the fear and instead enjoy the river’s many gifts. Although it was in my best interest to hike off the river the first day, I knew I had to get back in my boat the second day and conquer my fear. If I hadn’t, I might have never gone back to the Lower Yough, and for me that wasn’t an option. Conquering my fear, enjoying the gifts of the river, along with some inspiring and helpful friends was enough to make me declare: This is happiness. And it made the victory beer taste that much sweeter.