I’m still not sure how I feel about you.
I could learn to love you. But it will have to be that creepy-upy kind of love.
You see, rock climbing took me in right away. It was love at first sight.
Climbing provided me with a constant stream of reassurance. Each time I climbed a little higher, it said, see, you’re already improving. It said, isn’t this fun? It said, failure is fine, I’ll catch you if you fall. It said you got this, you’re strong.
Climbing beamed out a unconditional love like a happy labrador puppy.
Kayaking on the other hand, has been more like the next door neighbor’s angry cat.
Sometimes it just ignores you. Sometimes the claws come out. You always have to work for its affection. If you’re really lucky, it will curl itself around your legs for a quick pat. A brief warm fuzzy moment, then it’s gone again.
My complicated relationship with kayaking started in the swimming pool at the local university.
Dirtbagjens invited me to learn how to roll.
On Wednesday nights, I would make plans to leave early, then get inundated by emails that tied me to my desk longer than I hoped. I would race home, then race around my apartment throwing towels and swimmers into bags. I would arrive at the pool, late, heart racing.
My teachers helped me to puuuuuuuuuuullll the neoprene skirt over the lip of my borrowed kayak. Now I was locked in. Was I safer now? Or was I trapped?
The kayak and I would plop into the water each week. We would get tangled in the lane rope, then bang into the side of the pool, then crash into another boat. I was convinced that I would need a degree in fluid dynamics before I could ever hope to paddle in a straight line.
My teachers patiently explained how to roll a kayak.
Find your set up position. Engage that knee. Nice snappy hip flick. Nice wide sweep. Keep your head down and voila!
All those things that made sense when I was calmly sitting in my boat right-way-up
But as soon as I flipped upside down, all those words fell back out my ears and sunk to the bottom of the pool.
Was I setting up on the left or the right this time? Which was is left anyway?
My eyes were shut tight. My brain screamed that I needed to breathe. I clawed at my skirt, ripped it off and swam to freedom.
My patient teachers helped me the water out of the boat and snap me and my neoprene skirt back into place. They tried to convince me that I wasn’t going to drown. They promised they’d flip me back up if I needed help.
They pinky promised… because I was still dubious.
I had three sessions in all.
I made tiny little bits of progress each time. Tiny tiny steps that were hard to see at the time, because the failures were so much bigger and more obvious.
I was so frustrated.
My waterlogged head raced with unhelpful thoughts. Everyone else in the pool was progressing well. Except me. I was just wasting everyone’s time.
Everything felt so foreign and unattainable. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to learn this ridiculous skill anyway. When would I ever find myself flying down a river in raging white water? I’d be absolutely terrified. I’d be a liability for the competent kids. Better to just leave it to the boys.
As I left the pool each night, I’d think, oh well, I gave it a go, but this kayaking thing is not for me.
Between sessions, my poor old brain would stew on questions about whether I wanted to persevere, or give it up and do something more enjoyable with my weeknights.
Was I giving up because it was hard or because I was scared of failure? Or was I being realistic? Eventually these questions swirled around into a huge tornado of confusion. I tearfully explained to Dirtbagjens that I wasn’t going to any more sessions. I couldn’t do it. I was never going to be able to do it. I didn’t want to do it. It sucked, I sucked blah blah blah.
After my emotional outburst, Dirtbagjens continued his training. I enjoyed a few Wednesday nights cooking dinner, reading good books and playing guitar at full volume in the empty apartment.
Eventually, I made peace with my decision to leave kayaking behind as a failed experiment.
I have a short memory though. And a few weeks later I found myself at the whitewater stadium at Penrith.
I zoomed down the rapids in an inflatable two-person-kayak. Will sat in the back and did his best to keep us both right-side-up.
I spent the whole day laughing like a hyena. The whitewater took me wherever the hell it wanted to take me. I splashed my paddle around at random and hoped that willpower (and Will’s power) would be enough to keep our boat pointing in the right direction.
Will spent the day yelling “PADDLE, PADDLE, PADDLE LEFT, LEFT, LEEEEEFFFFTTT, SHHHHHHHHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIITTTTT”.
Will and I did a lot of swimming that day.
I came home slightly sunburned, slightly banged up from my swims and beaming from ear to ear.
Maybe this ridiculous bastard of a sport could actually be fun… Maybe.
I tested that theory out recently on the Barrington River. The water level was almost comically low. The local outdoor centre tried to talk us out of paddling on that particular weekend. They weren’t worried about our safety. They were worried that we’d be bored.
I ignored their advice and borrowed an old perception dancer.
I borrowed paddle from a local scout club. It weighed about a tonne.
I wore my climbing helmet and a swimming top that I’d used once before in a corporate triathlon. Law firm logos were emblazoned across my shoulder blades.
I certainly didn’t look like a competent whitewater athlete with all that mis-matched gear. But I was really keen to explore the river.
I spent two days on the river.
I played in the baby rapids.
I learned a few new strokes.
I scraped across rocks when the water level got too low.
At some points I had to get out of the boat and drag it through ankle deep water.
I tried so so hard to paddle in a straight line. Eventually I just embraced my unique brand of unpredictable zigzags. They allowed me to become closely acquainted with the water dragons who live on the banks of the river.
I even did a few practice T-rescues off the front of Dirtbagjens’ boat. If I stayed underwater too long, I’d start to panic and splash around like a madwoman. But each time, I’d get my head back above the water and find that the river was calm and peaceful and pretty damn good looking.
I loved the whole weekend.
Back in the real world, I’ve found myself looking up weather reports more regularly. If I hear rain falling, I smile and checked the river level.
Maybe this kayaking thing is growing on me.
Time will tell.