• Nat

Finding Clarity Through Pushing Limits: Whitewater Life Lessons

I hit the New River for the first time this past weekend with work fam. It was beyond beautiful, even more breathtaking than I'd imagined (which is saying a lot, because while bikepacking the New River Trail a couple years back, I got to know its loveliness from land).

finding clarity through pushing limits: whitewater life lessons
Paddling the Lower New (photo by J. Jimenez)

Still, nothing prepares you for that first float under the bridge. Soaking in the fall colors was surreal. They covered absolutely everything in gold. I don't think I've ever witnessed such vibrant leaves.

We also ran the Upper Gauley on Sunday. It was my second time down, the first being last year's Gauley Fest. To be honest, there's a lot I don't remember about that trip. The Big 5 (the five Class V rapids of the Upper G) were wall after wall of overwhelming whitewater.

My face says it all (tight-lipped blue helmet up front):

finding clarity through pushing limits: whitewater life lessons
Pillow Rock rapid in 2019: scared shitless, disoriented, loving it (photo by wh2ophoto.com)

From chaos to clarity

Last year, our floppy steed, an old Sunburst raft, had a deflated tube AND thwart. We spent every stretch of flatwater hand pumping our hearts out to stay afloat.

Our guide, a friend of a friend, went by Wild Man, and he does the name justice. Straw hat under helmet, moonshine in hand, Tennessee drawl. He inspired confidence by telling us he hadn't guided this part of the Gauley in six years, but he's "sure it'll come back..."

As it turned out, whether the lines came back to him or he completely winged it, that trip was hands-down the best of my life.

I don't know how Wild Man did it, but to his credit, I couldn't grasp how anyone guided Class V at the time. It seemed like an indecipherable (but thrilling, and addictive) mess. I just couldn't wrap my mind around it.

Pushing limits with some good ol' graduated exposure therapy

Fast forward to this past Sunday, paddling the same section. With more river miles under my belt, more hours reading water, less fear and more focus, I can happily say that the same features felt... More nuanced. Clearer. In sharp relief as opposed to a blur of imposing chaos.

And that's how many of life's challenges present themselves to us. Shit gets real, and fight, flight, or freeze kicks in. Next time things get scary in a similar way (if we don't shut down but keep higher consciousness online), maybe we're a little more aware of what's happening, more prepared. We've seen this before.

After the second, third, tenth time, we're more and more ready. We've not only seen it but gotten through this before, and we know we can do it again. "Systematic desensitization," by one name- a type of behavioral therapy that applies coping techniques to situations of increasing fear.

In adventure, this adapted "graduated exposure therapy" occurs informally when you slowly work your way through harder challenges, consistently climbing slightly scarier routes, charging gradually steeper drops, until before you know it, what once seemed insurmountable becomes an afternoon ritual.

finding clarity through pushing limits: whitewater life lessons
Pillow in 2020: having the wherewithal to slap the rock this time around (photo by wh2ophoto.com)

I'm not at a place where I could guide Class V... yet. But I did hop in the guide seat this weekend to on-sight Wood's Ferry (Class IV), which I would not have been confident enough to do last year.

And with these incremental accomplishments, these small but significant milestones, I gain a bit more trust in myself, deeper confidence in my ability to handle shit on and off the water. And that feeling is indescribably empowering.