Posted in 2016, “Klickitat River” from Native Fish Society, accessed July 17th, 2021

No one likes to be bad at something. It makes us feel stupid and we feel self-conscious. The problem is you can’t learn a new skill without going through “the beginner phase”. And generally in “the beginner phase,” you’re not good at the thing.

I like to try something new every other year or so to keep myself humble and to explore all the fun ways of living out there. A few years ago, it was Cyclocross. Last year (when I say last year, I mean 2019…) it was West Coast Swing. This year, it’s white water kayaking.

White water kayaking has always looked like fun. It’s like hiking except in the middle of a river. I’ve always liked looking at rivers. How much more fun to look at them from in the middle of them?

The problem is that if you do it wrong, you can die. I don’t want to die. So I’ve always been a little concerned about white water kayaking.

But 2021 is a good year to get out there and do new things, so I thought… why not kayaking?

To dip the toe in the water (no pun intended… okay, pun intended), I signed up for a class. Classes are great- you get to meet new people, the instructors tell you what to do, and given the state of our sue- happy country, there’s a pretty strong likelihood that they’re not going to let you go off a waterfall accidentally.

The problem with a class is… there are other people. Other people to watch you be stupid, not know what you’re doing, and possibly do it better. Gah!

So! My top three take away lessons from trying something new:

  1. Just keep paddling.

The class was three days long and started out with everyone gearing up in the borrowed gear- boat, personal flotation device (life jacket), paddle, splash pad. Then the instructors said, “Alright everyone. Get in the water and follow me!” and started paddling across the little bay where we were starting.

The class had 8 beginners in it. 5 of us paddled swiftly across the river. 3 of us spun around in circles while the others grew smaller and smaller in the distance. I’ll leave it to your imagination which group I was in.

It was a frustrating start, but I didn’t come because I knew what I was doing. I came to learn. This is day one, this is class one. Gotta start somewhere.

Just keep paddling.

2. Turns out people are kind. Just keep paddling.

On day one they taught us first how to escape if you tip over upside down in the boat. I guess that’s a good thing to learn first (reference above goal of learning how to not die in the river). Second, they taught us how to paddle.

We spent a lot of time through the whole class practicing paddle techniques to try and go straight. Kayaks are made to be nimble. This is helpful so that you can slide over and around rocks without tipping over. This is also unhelpful because if you’re new, it’s hard to keep it going in a straight line.

We practiced, played some games, had a lot of fun. I was not the first person to tip over! Someone else won that prize and came out alive. Proof that our first lesson works.

I was, however, probably the worst in the class at having control over the boat.

They’d tell us to “come over here” and I’d float swiftly “over there.”

They’d gather us around for instruction and I’d be stuck backward far away from the leader.

We’d practice crossing the current and I’d look like a dying spider frantically trying to follow instructions and instead spinning wildly and crashing into the group.

I started getting a lot of encouragement. Excessive encouragement in a beginner class is a sign that you’re the stand out newbie beginner of the beginner group. I think it’s a reverse psychology tactic. Tell them they’re doing good so they’ll start doing good.

But turns out it works. A little positivity goes a long way and suddenly the paddling was a little less frantic and the bumper boats happened only as much as everyone else.

A little embarrassing. A little frustrating. But you gotta start somewhere. And it turns out most people are kind and generous when you’re learning together. Even if you’re the slowest learner.

Just keep paddling.

3. Sometimes you spin in circles. Just keep paddling.

Day two, included a little more practice and then jump in the deep end. Turns out kayaking is a lot easier when the water is moving. I guess that’s what the boats are made for.

First we went through some pretty low stress rapids. A few rocks, a bit of speed, but nothing to worry about. The focus is just to use the techniques we’ve been learning to keep the boat pointed forward and paddle through.

It was tons of fun. Another couple of people capsized and they, again, survived with nothing more than a little brain freeze.

On the last day, they upped the ante a little. Still nothing crazy, but big enough rapids to get the adrenaline flowing for us newbies. The climax was the last rapid called “Ishy Pishy”. It had by far the biggest rocks and biggest drop in grade which makes for faster, whiter water.

We were all a little nervous, but the guides talked us through it and we got stoked to have some fun. Just keep the boat pointing forward and keep paddling.

Once you start, there’s no going back. Things started off well for me for about the first 1.5 seconds.

Then, my same old problem reared it’s head again. The boat started turning. I frantically paddle to straighten it out to no avail. 90 degrees, 180 degrees. Going backwards down Ishy Pishy. Just waiting to flip at any second. Getting ready to swim. 270 degrees and back straight.

Time is moving in slow motion. I paddle to stay straight, feeling like I got lucky. But it doesn’t stop. 90 degrees- oh boy, here it goes again- 180- surly I’m going down- 270 and back to front.

Somehow I managed to make it through without going upside down. Adrenaline running and wondering how I made it without getting soaked, I watched as others come through. One guy flipped but most made it just fine. I was the only one spinning uncontrollably through the rapids. But we were all thrilled and dragged the boats back up the shore to the beginning to try again.

Just keep paddling.

I finished the three day class exhausted but quite satisfied. I am far from ready for the novice class, but feel like I could survive if I went back to that river and stuck with the basics.

Going down a river in a kayak is everything I hoped it would be. Peaceful, scenic, fresh air, trees hanging over the river as you sail through the middle, sheer rock walls to admire from below, an otter running on the shore, and a good work out along the way.

The group went to grab beers afterwards and recounted the adventures of the previous three days. We swapped numbers to make plans for another adventure. New friends.

Was it intimidating? Yes. Was it embarrassing? Repeatedly. Was it frustrating? I woke up sore in places I forgot could be sore. Was it worth it? 100%.

You can’t be good at something without being bad at it first. But there’s so much of this world to explore and so many people to meet along the way that it’s worth being a beginner to get to experience more of it.

Just keep paddling.