5 Things I Learned from Whitewater Kayakers

Thanks to my husband’s proclivity for taking small boats down fast-moving water, I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of getting to know a number of whitewater kayakers over the past few years. I’ve even dabbled in the adventure activity myself, though on the tame end of the spectrum. Through my own limited river experiences, interactions with paddler friends, and hanging-in-the-background observations, I’ve come away with a few key lessons that I find instrumental to life in general, and writing in particular.

1. Community is crucial.

The whitewater paddling community is tight. Supportive. Welcoming to newbies. Always willing to lend a hand, a bit of advice, a word of encouragement. Professional kayakers are as approachable as the amateurs, and many events bring together paddlers of varied skill and experience.

Bonds forged on tough rapids strengthen between rocks and hard places, and extend beyond the banks of any river. Lasting friendships develop. On and off the river, kayakers build each other up, commiserate in hard times, and enjoy their moments together to the fullest.

When I took up whitewater kayaking, I was struck by the fact that every boater around wanted to help me. They wanted to give me pointers on my roll (getting a kayak right side up after flipping over), show me the best lines on new rapids, and even lead me down rivers they knew by heart.

A strong supportive community is critical to almost any passion. Because heart-led things can be intimidating.

Writing can be both intimidating and isolating. So it’s important to have at least a handful of close-knit writer friends — or an amazing writing critique group — with whom to share the ups and downs, both in your craft and in life. And also to extend that camaraderie and nurturing to new writers.

Whether talking shop, batting around ideas for how to get out of a corner into which you’ve written yourself, or simply venting about some aspect of the writing/revision/publishing process, a strong writing community is indispensable.

2. Practice is fundamental.

Whether they are pros, amateurs with pro aspirations, or perfectly contented “soul-boaters”, those who are even halfway serious about whitewater kayaking practice their skills every chance they get. From mid-week roll sessions in community pools, to drilling the same moves dozens of times at their local whitewater park or hole.

They practice because they want to improve, but also because they simply love spending time in their boats. They know that practice is not just about building muscle memory, but also about discovering new ways to understand everything from the water, to the boat, to their own bodies’ capabilities.

Practice is sometimes about attaining perfection (the perfect line on a rapid, the perfect loop in a play wave), but it can also be about engrossing yourself in that thing you love for a few hours. Bettering your present self and besting your past self.

For writers, practice comes in many forms, under many guises. Something as simple as journaling or free writing is practice. So is something as precise as conforming to a rigid poetic meter, or writing a story that contains no adverbs.

Sometimes it’s about getting back to basics. Sometimes it’s about aiming for that next rung on the ladder. Always, it’s about spending time immersed in the thing you love. Even when it frustrates you. (Especially when it frustrates you.)

3. Time and space for your passion are not negotiable.

Kayakers are impeccably committed to whitewater boating. They wake up at the crack of dawn to paddle before work; they don heavy, stifling, stinky gear to paddle in near-freezing temperatures; they drive half a day to catch a beloved river when recent rain has made conditions just right.

This level of dedication may seem foolish to some, but it is a testament to how “all in” whitewater kayakers can be. It’s not a hobby; it’s a lifestyle.

And it’s a lesson.

As a writer, it’s easy to make excuses. We’ve all done it. My brain is tired. Work was rough today. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the energy.

But, as I’ve learned from whitewater boaters, time can be made and energy can be found. If you’re serious about your passion, you owe it to yourself to feed it what it needs to thrive, every chance you get. It’s not always easy, or convenient, or comfortable.

But, it’s worth it.

4. Get back in the boat.

Whitewater kayakers, especially novice ones, swim out of their boats sometimes. Ok…frequently. And for the most part — with help from their paddling groups — they gather their floating paddles, empty their water-logged boats, cinch into their seats, and paddle on to the end of the run.

If they do walk off a river due to injury, fatigue, or other reasons, they regroup and return another day. They get back in their boats, as soon as possible, with the understanding that setbacks are part of the improvement process.

There are speed bumps, roadblocks, and setbacks in anything worth doing. The important thing is not letting them stop you from engaging in what you love.

Rejection letters, writer’s block, bad critiques…all of these things threaten to silence writers’ voices. We can’t let them.

We all have days when words don’t quite flow and everything we pen is garbage. Days when our best attempts aren’t good enough.

But if we truly love the thing (the writing thing, the kayaking thing, whatever the thing), we have to give it another go. After the bruises to our bodies, our minds, and our egos have started to heal, we must get back in the boat and paddle on.

5. Laugh off embarrassment & celebrate failures.

Swimming can be embarrassing for a whitewater kayaker, especially an experienced kayaker who swims an easy portion of river. Swimming, in may kayaking circles, is atoned for with a “booty beer”, which entails drinking a beer out of your river shoes, while your friends cheer you on.

It’s a little gross.

But it’s also funny. And a great, humbling reminder that even the most seasoned boaters sometimes find themselves in precarious positions.

The truth is, no matter how good you get at something, you can always make a rookie mistake. You can always underestimate a situation and fail to give it — be it a rapid, a literary magazine submission or something else — its due respect and attention. And because no one is above minor failures, owning our flubs makes them less embarrassing.

The best way to greet an embarrassing situation, then, is to laugh at yourself. Realize you are human, and flawed, and still figuring it out. Let your friends give you a well-meaning and warm-hearted ribbing (all the while commiserating and offering up pointers on doing it better next time). Let the levity be at your expense for a little while, and don’t forget to join in.

Remember that “messing up” means you did something amazing to begin with: You tried; you took a chance. You won’t get any rejection letters if you never submit your work, but you’ll also never get the sweet satisfaction of having work accepted for publication. Rejections, bad reviews, typos that make you cringe, they’re all testaments to trying. So tape them to your wall, draw funny faces on them, throw darts at them. And let your friends help you salve the sting with humor.

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