The river less paddled: personal first descent

Just below Junkyard on the Cascades. Dwight Houser Photo.

NANTAHALA RIVER–– As the crowd gathered to watch from dry land, I got in my kayak. A friend leaned over and asked me if my mother knew what I was about to do.

Sheepish, I replied, “No ma’am, I plan on telling her afterwards.”

My hands were shaking, and it took me a few tries to seal my sprayskirt around the cockpit.

It was my first experience with the Nantahala Cascades and my first descent of any Class IV-V creek, let alone any Class V rapid.

Adrenaline coursed throughout my body as I paddled cautiously toward the first rapid, “The Horns”. I tried to position myself carefully. A few tentative maneuvers around rocks and then paddling hard, wanting to punch through the first hole.

Instead of plowing through it, though, I got surfed just above the fall. Call it panic, skill, or just plain luck, I nailed my combat roll just before the lip of the 12-foot drop and whooosh…

Photo by Dwight Houser

After rolling again at the bottom of the fall, I emerged from the water with what must have been the biggest smile that ever spread across my face. Not only had I landed my roll twice, but I was alive, I was healthy, I was capable of paddling the river. I knew it, I felt it. After my near extinction above the fall, the feeling of confidence I got from making it through alright lasted the rest of the trip.

After the scare, I thought I’d be even more nervous, more hesitant, and even stiffer than before I put on the water, but it was the exact opposite. I was loose, comfortable, relaxed. The adrenaline still pounded through my chest, but it was a dramatic shift. My fear and uncertainty was gone. I felt refreshed and confident.

Okay, so it wasn’t the most perfect line. In fact, it probably looked sloppy, rookie-like. But was it success or failure? Maybe to some paddlers, some perfectionists, some professionals it was a joke.

For me, an average boater working hard to push my limits, it was success. I navigated, survived, moved through failure. I felt the relief of having faced my doubts.

But you can’t rest on your mountain laurels in the whitewater. On Chinese Feet, the last technical rapid on the river, I lost my paddle and got a nice bruise on my right shoulder thanks to a not-so-soft rock I happened to massage.

Coming off the water, though, the smile was still stretching my face. The bruise was a badge I’d wear proud. It was a huge step for me, something I never dreamed I would do.

So, for all you boaters that are nervous about stepping up the level of your paddling abilities, a message: You CAN do it.

If I can run the Cascades a mere five months into my paddling career, you can do the same. Kayak the river less paddled; face your doubt.

It’ll make for a good story and an even better memory.