Life is surprising. Sometimes the most significant events in a person's life might seem ordinary to an outside observer. What is possibly the most significant event in my life, caught me entirely by surprise. It was a canoe trip on the Nantahala River. It was the moment I was standing cold and naked on the bank of the river. To be more accurate the precise moment was just after I put clothes back on, but it sounds more dramatic to say when I was cold and naked. I didn't see this event coming, but life doesn't always happen as one plans it. So here's the condensed version.
The Nantahala is a whitewater river in western North Carolina. I went there for first time in August of '98 with my high school running coach, who taught me to paddle. I was taught old school, open canoes, not kayaks, no floation. I liked the larger rapids and bigger waves on the Nantahala. At the end of the eight mile paddle is Nantahala Falls, a Class III rapid with a tricky entry and a significant hydraulic at the end. On that first trip I ran the Falls upright and fairly correct, but took on too much water and ended up “swimming.” I flipped the canoe. That was my first time “swimming” in my 8 years or so of canoeing. Coach Mitchell said it was good to finally see me swim, I wouldn't say I felt the same. I went back in February of '99 to conquer the river. You can guess that things did not go as planned.
It was cold, probably 30s, but the river is always 45 degrees as water is dumped into the stream from the bottom of Nantahala Lake on top of the mountain. If I flipped at the Falls, it'd be no problem as it is at the takeout. Fortunately, I was not so arrogant as to not prepare for the unlikely possibility of overturning on the eight mile paddle down to the Falls. I had a change of clothes stashed in a dry bag, just in case. I would not have fared well being wet for an hour or more in 30 degree weather. I set out on the two hour trip with the river all to myself. I rolled through Patton's Run, Pyramid Rock, Delebar's Rock. This river was far too easy, was the water low? I was ready to get to the Falls and conquer, find a more challenging river. Of course, that is when life happened in the form of Quarry, a rapid with some of largest waves on the river. And I had always tended to aim at the biggest waves or toughest part of a rapid. The canoe went half airborne, I had done that before. Only now, the wave kicked the canoe tilted to the left. I knew I was in trouble as soon as the canoe shot up out of the wave. I was out of the canoe and in the water immediately. The tame river just moments ago didn't feel the same as I grappled for paddle and canoe. Getting to the shore was a struggle, the current was strong and volume was high, not low. When my feet found riverbed, they were met with the jolt of stationary rocks as my body was now part of the fast moving current. I finally got to the shore about ¼ mile downstream. I was cold. I grabbed the dry bag and stripped naked. I was colder. I got dry clothes on, packed up the wet ones, dumped water, and prepared to return to the river. Then life really happened and I paused. I had the strangest feeling and even stranger thoughts. It took me a moment to identify the sensation. Then I recognized it, it was fear.
Honestly, I don't think I had ever experienced real fear, at least not since childhood. I was a good paddler minutes before, I was now a sloppy paddler. I didn't act on instinct, I thought, I doubted. I made bad strokes. I was actually not a very good paddler for probably a year. I'm probably still not as good. (Or maybe just a different paddler?) I questioned if I could even make it down river to the Falls. I questioned if I should go over the Falls. The fear grew, I was afraid of what life held for me. I became more fearful about life than about the river. And then I knew life was about to send me a rapid that I was not going to run dry. I was going to “swim.” I prayed a lot on the rest of downstream ride and not about paddling. I believe in God, so personally this experience was God's preparation for me to not get trapped in a hydraulic of life and drown.
For the next hour, I continued to question whether to run Nantahala Falls or pull out above the Falls, give in to the fear and go home safe. Most canoe paddlers don't run the Falls anyway. People are often surprised to see a canoe try the Falls. But another thought began to echo in my head somewhere, “I didn't come here to not go over this Fall.” I did run the Falls, but badly. I'm not sure if I even made a single paddle stoke to orient the canoe correctly toward the Falls. I never had a chance, I was sideway and rolled in the hydraulic like a novice. I did save the canoe from getting wrapped around a rock, but got my hand trapped between the canoe and rock. A couple of new scars to add to my work beaten hands. Deciding to run the Nantahala Falls, knowing I was going to “swim,” was one of my best life decisions.
A week later I was in the river of life, no longer riding on it. I think I swam for years, not a ¼ mile. But the more significant life experience was being on the river, in the river, cold and naked on the shore, on the river a different person, and “swimming” again. Not the Class VI rapid of life that I eventually survived. I tipped over the precipice on February 28th, the marriage downturn that led to Kathy's and my divorce. Not sure of all the life lessons that began that cold February day. I did eventually learn to deal with fear. I did learn how to “swim” when forced or warranted. I learned that I don't control life as much as I thought. I became more human. When describing this experience to a teenager in our church youth group shortly afterwards, he said, “Welcome to being human. Not to be mean, but its good to see you fall off your pedestal.” I said that I had never tried to be on a pedestal, but he said I was on one nonetheless. I was definitely not on a pedestal any longer. When nerves hit on the starting line of races or doubt creeps in during a race, I sometimes think, “I didn't come here to not go over this Fall. Sink, swim, or conquer.” I say this phrase to myself often with various life experiences. I did go back and run the Nantahala again, almost 7 years later in December 2006. This time Alison was shuttling me, last time it was Kathy. I promise to post that story in March, a little tease. That trip had more life lessons and two unique twist at the end.
My advice is: Of course, run the rapid. You never know what might happen. You probably won't die.