Lessons Learned from Whitewater Kayaking

Whitewater enthusiasts will often say that the river is the best teacher. I could not agree more. While this may be true within a kayaking context, I have also come to learn that the river’s lessons provide metaphors for life in general, and that wisdom gained in whitewater can extend far beyond the kayaking context. I will share pieces of river-proven advice that anyone, paddlers and non-paddlers alike, may find applicable to their lives.

Work smarter, not harder

One of the strongest paddlers I have ever met was a slender and unimposing 14-year-old girl who, upon looks alone, would not seem to model exceptional physical strength. Nonetheless, she beat me in every race we competed in together, and threw down freestyle tricks of a caliber that I could not come close to matching. She consistently out-performed a more physically powerful body because of how she applied her strength.

Physical strength in whitewater is relative first and foremost to the strength of the river, which in almost every instance will far surpass the strength of a person. In fact, trying to “muscle it” is often a problem for physically strong beginner paddlers. It works until they experience a current in which power can no longer substitute for technique—a point at which using the current’s power to their advantage, rather than their own, becomes essential. While there are certainly applications for muscle, real strength in whitewater is skill and experience, not the power behind each stroke.

This idea is not confined to the river. A talented skier, for example, will perform better while using less energy than would a beginner on the same run. Even in rock climbing, where strength and conditioning are so important, a powerful body is wasted without proper technique. Perhaps most importantly this applies to non-athletic endeavors in which doing more with less is beneficial. In these circumstances, how one works towards a goal often proves to be more impactful than how much one works. A river’s demand for technique over exertion mirrors the way in which, with any major effort, refining one’s approach ahead of time can improve both efficiency and outcome.

Improve more by biting off less

For my first time paddling Chile’s Maipo River, I followed a few experienced kayakers down the river’s harder upper section. Always aspiring to improve my kayaking abilities, I wanted a challenge. My wish was granted, and I found the rapids to be big and powerful enough that at times it was hard to stay in control. The necessary routes through the rapids were simple, but consequences of missing my line were significant, and finishing successfully was a relief. While the experience was positive, the take-out seemed to end an exercise in simply completing something safely, rather than an opportunity to build skills.

The next day, realizing this, one of the paddlers I had followed previously brought me to the river’s easier, lower stretch. The water here was tame, and instead of doing a full run we spent an hour on a short section that was particularly unimpressive. Fearing boredom, I was tasked with repeatedly working my way upriver—a common drill that relies on irregularities in the current and practicing the fundamentals of boat control.

At no point did I paddle anything thrilling or find myself in an inherently demanding situation. Still, I was challenged to perform at my highest possible level, and the result was incredibly productive. I learned more from that one short hour of working my skill-set in an otherwise unchallenging environment than I did during many hours of running bigger rapids. Building up experience in those inherently challenging situations does have its own unique value, and most paddlers eventually seek its appeal. The river proves, though, that a particular challenge created in a manageable environment—one in which failure is okay—can be far more constructive than learning under the most challenging circumstances one can tolerate.

Neoprene is awesome

Neoprene is that thick, stretchy material that wetsuits are made of, and kayakers are rightfully in love with it. It is one of the few materials that insulates when wet, and using it in contexts off the river has thoroughly warmed and enriched my life. ‘Nuff said. Apply this tidbit of wisdom to your broader set of hobbies as you see fit.

Fear of failure is sometimes justified

When paddling a rapid or drop, the opportunity to stop partway through and back out oftentimes does not exist. The kayaker is “committed,” as paddlers will often say. In these cases, even the most dangerous challenge is accessible to all, while appropriate for only a few; there is no way to turn around if one realizes too late that the challenge is too great to complete safely. A paddling mentor once summed it up for me: “Anyone can paddle off the lip of a huge waterfall. What matters is if you can go up and do it again.”

The paddler must know ahead of time how likely it is that he or she can pull off a successful line, and weigh that against the consequences of messing up. The same principle applies to approaching challenge in all sorts of contexts. As described before, removing consequence from a learning environment (while maintaining a certain level of difficulty) is oftentimes productive. Nonetheless, the consequences of failure—in serious or trivial matters—present themselves at every turn of life, and while fear of failure comes easily, it is hard to objectively examine the likelihood of failure against its consequence in the moment. A paddler is forced to step back and think through this on the river, but reflecting in this way elsewhere can be the key to good decision-making.

Visualize success during a crisis

At some point, every kayaker will run into a scary situation on the river. Whether it is a rescue to be made or a prolonged close call with a hazard, these situations evoke the natural human tendency to panic. In water, when the threat to natural breathing sometimes becomes real, this is even more pronounced and innate—yet the ability to perform under these circumstances is more crucial than ever.

The best response to these situations, as I was taught by a paddler far older and wiser than I, is to visualize exactly what needs to happen for a successful conclusion to the incident. Force out thoughts of the worst-case scenario, and focus only on the obstacles that are in the way of your ideal resolution. It seems simple, but visualizing success in a moment of distress is no easy task. Doing so, even if accomplished only partly, has helped me countless times on the river. Like much of the wisdom that the river rewards, though, it extends far beyond the whitewater context.

Jesse Metzger

Jesse Metzger

Jesse Metzger, class of '19, manages content for the Catalyst's website. A former contributor for the Active Life section, he is a Film & Media Studies major with a minor in Journalism. In his free time, Jesse enjoys spending time outdoors, cooking, and playing intense games of bananagrams.

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