Families lounge in the rivers; at the put in’s and take out’s, to escape humidities ceaseless smothering of skin. Mango and pineapple stain my fingers and cheeks with a rare welcomed stickiness. We shake off the winding, curving residue in our stomachs from the drive here as we tighten our helmets and drag our borrowed boats behind our guide and new friend. This is Costa Rican kayaking.
Costa Rica, for me, was the humbling reminders of life’s simplicities, the willingness to accept and let go of the stresses of existence.. the releasing of ego. A lesson who’s vast teachers I have come to regularly seek and to crave. My perspective of Costa Rica’s Pura Vida state of mind, was one that I found transpiring both on the ground as I walked the small, colorful neighborhoods as well as on the five days spent traversing the local whitewater.
Whitewater kayaking, as you may or may not know, is an extreme sport. It entails a mental and physical, fortitude and awareness that although may bear the lightness of a sort of meditation; is likewise just as capable of ensuing an adrenaline of nervousness, fear and great intensity. It is the latter that at times has the ability to get the best of you and was a feeling that crept up on me from time to time as I experienced the unfamiliarity of the tight turns and diversity of Costa Rican whitewater.
But with all anxieties, comes a precious lesson.
The juxtaposition of inwardness and trust in your paddling group is one of the things that draws me back into my boat again and again, it is the art of allowing myself to let go of my stresses and welcome the openness of kayaking’s many lessons.
Paddling the rivers in Costa Rica next to both my partner’s ceaseless support and our guide, a boater who’s gracefulness and ease fine-tuned the validity of this art for me, while simultaneously solidifying my desires to consciously carry this wisdom with me onto every river, new and familiar, from then on.
So many moments in my kayaking endeavors are comprised with a NEED to reach a certain position; from catching an eddy as quickly as possible, to ferrying with the most success and fighting my way into a surf wave. So often, my focus on the necessity of these moves leaves my lines and pathways stumbled with jerkiness and a lack of grace. Yes, I can make that eddy, yes I’ll make it to the opposite bank, but will forcing my desires to succeed to the forefront of my mind really equate to the maximum progress attainable in these moves? Not necessarily.
It is not always about fighting your way to success, but rather, fine tuning the calmness you use to reach your goals.
I believe it to be both the unity between minute paddling techniques and a certain mental awareness, both, of course, being an exercise in time, to achieve this skill and aesthetic. Paddling the waters in Costa Rica taught me that the welcoming of these subtle teachings is a key element in learning to let go of the anxieties of the extremities and relishing in that inward meditation that kayaking and so many other physical activities can bring us.
There are many moments from our trip that I hope to hold clearly in my mind for the entirety of my paddling career as well as in my reminders of why I do the things that I love to do.
From experiencing the distinct and interactive Flora, the curling of the leaves as I reach out to touch, the imprinting of its shadow when placed upon my skin; to playing soccer with the locals and bonding with folks solely through half spoken Spanish and smiles alone.
While paddling a slower section of water one day, the question arises of why we love to paddle:
It allows me to release energy, be it of silliness, adrenaline or purely of a “fuck it” motivation.
It allows me, as an often shy and small character, to do something big, to remind myself of my power.. to feel.
It completely and honestly clears my mind. I don’t think of anything else but kayaking while on the water.
Affirmations like these followed us to dinner time that evening, and it is these affirmations that inspire me to practice and to continue to seek the activities that allow me to thrive.
If I could impart one thing to my readers, my fellow paddlers and my friends who strive to seek more from this life, it would be to seek that self-consciousness that imparts on us the ability to perceive explicitly, delicately and intimately.
Don’t hesitate to learn from surprising or unlikely places and experiences. Embrace all that you take up, all the places you find yourself and all the folks that surround you.
Graying clouds scattered the sky above to so perfectly juxtapose the almost sickening bright colors that speckle both the green grass and the many redressing bodies around me.
My stomach and heart simultaneously feel light and heavy while I tighten the gaskets around my neck and wrists; as I close my eyes and steady my breath; as I drag my boat to the take out spot and with the help of my partner, get skirted into my boat and pushed out onto the misleadingly slow moving water.
The activities, chances and groups that life throws at us are endlessly interesting. Never before had I imagined that kayaking would be the sport that I would latch onto or that this act; of attaching my body to a piece of plastic being carried down a river, would be one to boundlessly share lessons with me every time I allowed my nerves to partake.
DISCLAIMER: Slight paranoia and discomfort may persist upon reading the story below. This is whitewater after all.
Kayaking is an intimidating activity. Like all things in life it demands devotion and much practice to relish in it’s vast possibilities. It demands an intuitiveness to both the ways of the water; it’s levels, eddies and familiarity with the angles of crashing waves amongst boulders and rocks; as well as a trust and belief in your own body and those who share the river around you. Above all else, kayaking asks of you to relinquish your ego, find power in failure and teaches that it is only in your drive to accept those failures that you will make space for growth.
The river banks on either side of me begin to narrow, as the boaters paddle ahead of me towards, what in my mind I can only picture as an almost vertical descent. An image that quickly flashes before me as I recall my backwards paddle down it the day before; one where I flip almost immediately and swim the entirety of after a failed attempt to roll in the belly of a wave, that at that moment I can only compare with the strength of a soul crushing deity.
Knees bruised and shins aching. I swam five times that day…
I would be dishonest with myself if I said I reentered my boat and paddled away from each of those swims with a positive lesson about why it happened. Although in hindsight, I believe that those swims only made me better; in those moments I was at times overwhelmed with how much my ego resembled my bruised body.
Nonetheless, I persist.
Five swims in, two combat rolls (Successfully flipping myself back over while staying in my boat mid rapid. No swimming! I swear its harder then it sounds.) and with an extremely achey body I leave the Stoney creek river, the longest and most difficult river I’ve ran yet, grinning ear to ear and proud of my exercise in beatering.
The next morning we are geared up and back for round two. That oh so ominous rapid only feet ahead of me yet again. I slowly approach it, allowing those of my group to paddle the decent ahead of me, a determination to defeat this beast attempts to quench my fluttering nerves. Leaning forward, paddle strong, I make it past the first large rapid (“Oh, this doesn’t look so bad!”), I continue down the slope while the mantra of directions repeats in my mind; “stick left, stick left, stick le-” I’m engulfed in water. My paddle is being stolen from my grip by that same frothing beast who ate me the day before, I attempt my roll nonetheless.. Nope. Oh shit, I’m swimming…
Again, I find myself in that familiar realm of failure. Except this time, I couldn’t be happier with where I am. I grasp onto an upright kayakers boat and am brought to shores safety. Once there I shake off the cold water, paddle still in hand and laugh to myself about how completely awesome that was. I failed again… and it felt fucking great!
Although this wasn’t my only swim of the day it was by far a more productive time spent in my boat as well as one of the greatest days spent on the water so far. In accepting my prior failures and acknowledging with positivity that these failures will indeed transpire again, I in turn, achieved.
When I stopped worrying so much about having to excel and be the best at everything I do, I became honest with myself and more in tune of the subtleties of success. So yes, I may have swam two times on this second day but with those two swims I felt myself transcend and grow in countless other ways, both in my paddling skills as well as in my mental game, my self confidence and my ability to dig deep and lean forward with a smile on my face.
This is the wisdom that kayaking imparts on me in some form or fashion every time that I get into my boat. Whether it is divulged to me by the river itself, my own inner workings or through the incessant smiles and encouragement from my partner and peers who support a at times, unlikely candidate in a male dominated sport. Who too, recognize my failures as progression and remind me with their efforts and drive that I have that same power within me to beast these rivers.
Honestly, I likely wouldn’t be experiencing this sport at all if it wasn’t for the awesome people who support me and so patiently teach.
With these lessons and stories, I encourage you:
In whatever it is you partake in; embrace it’s difficulties, seek out those who inspire you to grow and find inspiration from the wounds that are necessary in meeting your goals. If it is whitewater that spurs you, then I challenge you to the rollings, the beaterings and the swims. Become the best version of yourself, but most of all, be YOU.