Rolling With the Fear


Clara Agnes Ault is a typical 12-year-old girl with pretty blonde hair, braces and an iPod. For Christmas last year, she received the standard allotment of sweaters, scarves and belts.

She also got a bright yellow white-water kayak, helmet and paddle, all of which she promptly dragged upstairs to employ as cool accessories for her room.

Earlier this month, I connected with Clara Agnes (my niece) and her family as they ventured into the sport of paddling. Floating down the Tuckasegee River—an easy river with mild rapids—I found myself imploring her to intentionally flip her kayak upside down so she could practice her Eskimo roll.

It's a fairly straight-forward procedure in which you use the leverage of a sideways snap of the hip to pull the boat back under you. The toughest part is resisting the perfectly understandable urge to pull your head back up (and resume breathing)—before the rest of the boat is entirely upright again.

It's straight forward, that is, until you find yourself not in a warm, clear swimming pool but in a cool, dark river, with your helmet being dinged by rocks and your boat churning like it's in a washing machine. That's when it's more about keeping your cool than snapping your hips. (The Mississippi Canoe and Kayak Club offers introductory lessons from time to time.)

Clara Agnes was very resistant to practicing. In fact, she begged us to go on an even easier section of this river. She was clearly afraid and not having a good time. Her older brother William, by contrast, has taken to the sport without a moment's trepidation and is performing in just a few weeks maneuvers I spent years learning.

I've known more than a handful of people who have jumped into the sport of white-water kayaking, only to discover that it wasn't the fun they had anticipated. They were spending lots of time being cold, wet and anxious.

Some quit and found some perfectly reasonable alternative recreation.

Others are more like William—fearless and talented. I've often cautioned him not to let his skill level outrun his judgment.

As we floated down the river, I began thinking about the point in the learning curve where fear and anxiety can be stifling. I realized that I was far more like Clara Agnes than her big brother: cautious and at times reluctant to push it hard in big water. (I'm also 43 with a family to support, and I've already been through one surgery to repair a shoulder dislocated on a kayaking trip).

There have been other moments in the outdoors where fear, or least anxiety, has crept in. I recall hiking with a group of Boy Scouts on the Appalachian Trail, soaked by rain, with hypothermia lurking, while we searched in the dark for a shelter we thought was ahead. I remember searching for a fellow kayaker who had chosen to walk out through the forest in North Alabama rather than finish the river. I remember finding myself upside down in a churning rapid.

The first time I got on the Ocoee River—a big-water river in East Tennessee—I was so nervous I flipped my kayak within three seconds. I thought, "This is going to be a long day." It turned out to be one of my best, largely because I climbed back into the boat and continued downstream, forcing myself to push past the anxiety.

There is a measure of risk in tackling the outdoors, whether you're paddling, mountain climbing or scuba diving. In fact, it's often part of the attraction. It's part of what makes it "wild."

There's a measure of risk in life, as well, as anyone driving past the waterworks curve on I-55 around 8 a.m. knows well. Facing risks, and retaining the ability to make sound judgments about them in spite of our fear, is the key. Some days, you need to walk around a rapid. On others, you know you need to run it.

By the end of my weekend with Clara Agnes, we had stepped up, not down, on the river challenges, choosing a colder and faster-running river. Clara Agnes wasn't running all the rapids like her big brother, but she was performing maneuvers her parents are still trying to master. Before we knew it, we were at the take-out, loading our boats on the car.

"I like kayaking,'' she told her mom.


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