Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Stepping Back

This is a very personal post for me. It's not a reaction to anything in particular, but something that's been on my mind for the past few years and I'm writing this not to prescribe or advise, but to help me crystallize my own thoughts and feelings. I've stepped back my paddling, both in quantity and difficulty, and I'm no longer an extreme kayaker by any measure. It's been a conscious choice, but with a number of unconscious elements involved.

I don't think I ever really paddled on the edge. Sure, I run class V, but not the gnar. I've done some serious sea kayak trips and played in some rough conditions, including solo adventures, but I've never felt like it was at great risk. Adrenaline was never my goal, and I'm a pretty conservative person, more of a control freak than a free spirit. But there has always been danger involved in what I do and I am well aware that risk is a part of challenging paddling. I've had my share of injuries, and while I haven't lost any close friends to the sport, I do know people who've been seriously injured or killed while kayaking.

I accepted those risks and had a few close calls over the years (like this), but I never considered my life so precious that it needed to be held back, safe in a protected box, for fear of scratching it. I used my body like my gear - hard and with purpose, treating it with respect but knowing I pushed it to its limits and failure was a possibility. My life was my own and I made the payments on it. I didn't answer to anyone else and I would be the one to deal with its loss.

But I'm married now. I have a partner who shares my life with me, on and off the water. When we paddle together I feel more concern for her safety, even when there's no significant risk, than I ever cared for my own. When she's not around and I paddle harder stuff, I still think about her more than myself. I no longer worry about what an injury would do to me, but how it would affect her. I feel no urge to risk my life because I can't bear to think about the impact its loss would have on her. My life is not just my own, and I treat it like it borrowed gear, something that I am free to use but I need to bring it back whole and sound at the end of the day.

(Let me make this very clear now: she's very understanding and appreciative of my skill and experience, and while she worries about me as any wife would, she's never asked me to curtail what I do or limit my paddling for her sake. My actions and decisions are based upon what I choose to do and not in response to what others may expect of me.)

I have read many accounts of those who've died pursuing their passion. Lots of talk about how they died doing what they love, that it was their nature, and their loved ones understood that risk was a part of their life. How loving someone who does extreme sports means accepting the potential consequences. That a person shouldn't change who they are for the sake of those around them and those who live life on the edge experience it in a way that can't be appreciated from a safe vantage point. Lots of crap like that.

You see, I don't agree. I'm not criticizing those who make that choice. If you want to pursue adventures that have a serious risk of death, that's a choice you are free to make. I won't say it's wrong for you or a mistake. I'll gladly support my friends who run harder drops and venture further into the void, all the while knowing I'll miss them terribly if something goes wrong. But I won't hold their choice up as superior, I won't acknowledge that it's a necessity and I won't credit them for a life worth more than my own. It's a choice, we all make them, and sometimes what's right for us is not right for others, and sometimes we make a choice we think is right when it probably isn't. I strive to make my choices deliberately and with care, knowing what they might mean for me and weighing what they mean for those around me.

I've chosen to step back. I don't need to justify that to anyone else, and justification is not what I seek. I seek understanding.

When I look at a hard drop, or consider a new run to push myself, I no longer feel the excitement of the challenge. My life isn't focused on testing myself in sport and proving to myself that I can master what it takes. And that's what drew me to kayaking, whitewater in particular - the difficulty. I've always wanted to test myself and succeed, to conquer what originally limited me. The risk was a necessary side effect, but never a goal. It's not something I'll miss.

These days I have plenty of challenges in other aspects of my life. Writing is hard, in a way that you can't know if you don't do it seriously, with more obstacles and rejection than I ever thought I could face. The joy I find in improving my craft matches anything I've ever felt in a boat. Being married, planning a family, contributing to my local community, and building a life centered around others all are new and revelatory challenges, eclipsing the importance of becoming a better kayaker.

Other people kayak for different reasons; they push themselves because they feel an inner need and take away something different than I do. Their motivation is not the same as mine and their choices need to reflect their own rewards. Some of them will play it safe and still face tragedy, some will choose poorly and never face the consequences. Life can be arbitrary and harsh or random and lucky. All we can do - all we should do - is make the choices that are right in the moment and learn and grow from them without regret.

When I was a full time kayak instructor many of my students would tell me I was living the dream: getting paid to do what I was passionate about, working in beautiful settings among people having fun. I took the compliment but never agreed. I was living a life, with good moments and bad, fun times and hard work, and I enjoyed it immensely. But it wasn't a dream. It was a choice I made, a life just like anyone else's. Nowadays I live the life of many: I go to work in an office, I try to play a little on the weekend, I worry about car payments and retirement funds. This feels like a dream - a grand a glorious dream where my happiness exceeds what I thought was possible. And I don't want to wake up.

That's why I stepped back. Not out of fear, not out of a sense of responsibility or any pressure to become an adult. I simply don't want to do anything that might cut short the beautiful life I now have, or somehow hurt the one person who makes this all possible for me. I'm still being just as selfish as always, but I manage to see it from a wider perspective.

I'm glad there are people out there living on the edge. I like to know that others can experience the same joy I do, whether they find it on a waterfall's lip, a high mountaintop, or watching a little league game. I am no less passionate about kayaking, but my passion derives from a different source. It comes from seeing others develop and grow as paddlers, helping them overcome their fear or limitations. It comes from sharing the quiet and solitude of the wilderness with people I care deeply about. It comes from having nothing left to prove.

I like the view from my seat, safely buckled into the minivan of life. But don't be surprised if I still manage to get some dirt on the paint, or get a flat in the middle of nowhere. And I look forward to running into you all wherever our paths may cross, whatever vehicle you're in. So go paddle, take a risk, and know that all of life is an adventure that should be experienced to the fullest.


  1. Nice write-up. Sometimes it's better and make the choice to step back before the choice is made on your behalf. As long as you are still happy with the changes, that's totally cool.

  2. I agree with the sentiment of what you have written here. For me kayaking is about having fun. It started as a way of pushing myself a bit and giving me water confidence, but in the end it is all down to having fun. I'm not in it for an adrenaline kick. No amount of fun is worth the heartache that could be caused to relatives from something that has gone wrong. Having been single for a long time, but now in a relationship with someone who also paddles, I can relate directly to being concerned for their safety. While I was never an extreme paddler I have still pulled back a bit from where I was heading before.

  3. Excellent article! And I feel the same way.