For years I’ve been searching for a hobby to replace whitewater canoeing. I still haven’t found one — and I don’t think I ever will.
Oh, I’ve tried quite a few: hiking, mountain biking, road biking, hang gliding, glider flying, snowboarding — even golf. Nothing comes close to whitewater. But why?
For the last six years, I’ve been searching for the answer. What was it about whitewater boating that put such a hold on me?
Of course there are a lot of reasons. Let’s start with the fact that an early morning run down the New Haven Ledges in Vermont is the surest cure for a hangover I’ve found. And of course there’s the challenge of rapids, the natural beauty of rivers, and the exercise.
But digging deeper, the main thing I miss about boating is simple: the camaraderie. Nothing bonds a group of strangers like a river trip. It’s purposeful; you have to work through problems together, like shuttling or scouting. It’s just the right amount of socializing; you can chat in the eddy, or be alone in the current. The whole interaction has a clear beginning, middle and end point. You push each other to try stuff, get scared together, celebrate together. If the rapids are hard, the logistics demanding, or the river remote, all the better. It’s unity.
Think of the scene. Then think of how rare it is in the rest of your life: You call up a stranger and agree to meet at the take out. By the time you’re tying on boats together, you’re already cementing a bond, swapping war stories about rivers you’ve run and mutual friends you’ve run them with.
“Oh, sure, the Upper Blackwater . . . ”
“Yeah, I know him well. One time he put on the Gauley and he didn’t have his life jacket . . . ”
“That rapid has my number. On our first run, we tried to run it blind . . . ”
You climb into someone’s truck, boats in back, and you drive to the put in while exchanging that wonderful kind of nervous talk — feeling each other out, trying to pretend your heart isn’t racing. Every rite bonds you further. Zipping into equipment together makes you feel like you’re going into battle together. Then hiking down to the river gorge and paddling away takes you away from normal life. Then you’re scouting, deliberating together, holding a rope for each other (“Don’t worry, I got you!”) — communicating with simplified verbal cues (“right, left, right”), hand signals, following each other over horizonlines, giving yourself five seconds, battling through the chaos, following the blur of bright blue or orange, high-fiving at the bottom, feeling your heart rate finally start to slow, your conversation on the paddle out no longer nervous but effusive.
“Can you believe how big that was?”
“Next time I want to try the far left life.”
“It’s not as bad as people said it was!”
At the take out, you’re ready to sit on the tailgate and crack open a beer, trading war stories about this run you now share in common. This feeling is especially strong if this was a new river you’ve been wanting to do. Now you know what it’s like, it’s in your brain, and you can return and bring other people. Even if it’s a familiar river, it’s still a memorable experience you’ve shared. Everyone can talk about it at the take out, everyone had a role, everyone can add something about what it was like from their perspective to come through.
Ostensibly an individual sport, boating is actually the greatest team sport. In most team sports, you don’t really have common experiences. Not everyone’s involved in all the plays, and not everyone’s even on the field for the same parts of the game. Plus, you’re really not facing the same specific challenge; you’re facing a moving, swirling opponent composed of five or nine or eleven individual players with unique roles, constantly shifting in their attack or defense, rotating in and out of the game to be replaced by other players. Your experience may be much more frustrating, on the left wing against a good right back, than your teammate’s over on the right wing against a slow defender. Even your own experience against the same team may different from game to game, depending on the swells of the action, the whims of the player substitution, and the vagaries of team strategy. Individual identities are subverted to the team concept; it’s not unusual to get the end of a high school game and not be able to tell the other team’s players apart. While you’re technically facing the same opponent as your teammates, that opponent is fluid, ever-changing, and composed of parts designed to be interchangeable. It’s sometimes unifying, but not always.
But we boaters share highly unique, common adversaries: individual rivers and rapids. These obstacles, which tend to change little over time, often require a very specific, complex set of moves. Making these moves, having the courage to try these unique challenges, and having to travel to the same (often remote) physical location to do so, breeds an amazing unity of experience among boaters. There is an amazing kinship with two other people, floating in the eddy below Gorilla on the Green Narrows, knowing you’ve all just passed the difficult same test. There is also kinship between two boaters just meeting each other in a put in parking lot in Maine who both realize that they too share this experience of running Gorilla. So too is there a kinship across age gaps. I remember meeting John Sweet and Tom McEwan and feeling tremendous admiration for these men who had run rapids on the Gauley and Upper Yough that were just as challenging thirty years before. Rivers don’t get any easier. In fact, they were harder with primitive equipment. But we’re all united by the rapids and rivers we share, even though our experiences are highly unique and personal. It’s the ultimate individual team sport.
Of course, while these bonds with other boaters are deep, there is a superficiality to the whole experience — to the river chasing, the couch surfing, the gypsy life. Yes, you share an incredible bond at the take out of a hard river, but what are you really doing with your life? There’s always an element of escapism, of leisure time, to river adventures. This, of course, is the hypocrisy of the dirt bag: most “dirt bags” (as with most “starving artists”) are only playing at being poor, because they possess the sort of cultural (or actual) capital that allows them to spend time learning to boat, not learning to get by. For too many people in our society, just keeping the lights on and the fridge half-full is adventure enough. Meanwhile, most professional kayakers are doing little more than promoting plastic shells or brightly colored suits, filling the internet with videos (“content,” if we’re being pretentious), supporting the alcohol industry, and maybe occasionally teaching. It’s hard for me not to look at some of the guys still dirt bagging around past 30 as having stayed a little too long at the party. As I left my own twenties, I left behind the amazing closeness of the river gorge but gained newer, deeper relationships in other aspects of my life. I met my wife around the time I stopped chasing rain, started a career that allows me to give back, and began to cultivate professional and community relationships that, in their sense of shared purpose, sometimes feel a lot like the bonds I remember from my heavy paddling days — without the physical danger, of course.
And yet we need escapism, all of us. Now matter how rich and rewarding your life is, you need moments away. And no matter how privileged it is to be able to afford to kayak, no matter how superficial it may seem compared to other pursuits, it’s by no means unhealthy. I wish everyone of all social classes or backgrounds had enough money and leisure to be able to have active physical experiences outdoors. Paddling exercises your body, teaches you decision-making skills, and engenders a respect for our natural environment. We all need some kind of a escape, some kind of adventure in our lives, and what paddling does better than any other hobby I’ve experienced is to put us in a position to share this adventure with our fellow human beings. That’s something we need in an age of disconnection.
These days, I’m afraid that when I do boat, I mostly boat solo. It’s partly because I don’t have time, or I tell myself I don’t, to coordinate with others. Plus, I enjoy the exercise of biking or jogging shuttle, the solitude on a river all to myself after a busy day at work. But it struck me the other week, running into an old friend at the put in as I was about to run solo, how much richer adventures are when shared.
Right now, it’s raining. And tomorrow I’m going paddling with a group of three — more people than I’ve paddled with, combined, in a year. It’s not a hard river, but it doesn’t have to be. By the time we get to the take out, it’s a river we’ll have in common.
See you on the water.