Sunday, 29 June 2014

Head Games

At my happiest on a sunny day on the Awe. Photo by Ben McKeown.

It's been a long time since I hopped in a boat. The last time was with my friend Astrid last June, when I took a deep breath and launched back onto the awesome River Garry. It might even be my favourite river - big, bouncy, and every rapid memorable. I always see it as a challenge to make my way down it without swimming, and if I manage then I know my paddling is in OK form. Adding to the fun is the number of people bumbling down in front and behind, particularly at Wet West, and the friends alongside me. There's always enough carnage to feel that I alone wouldn't be in the spotlight should I flip. Yet it's been a year since then, and my boat FantaBucket has been ignored. Poor FantaBucket.

I guess it's fair to say that I have a love-hate relationship with paddling. Well, perhaps "hate" is too strong a word, but I certainly fall in and out of love with the sport. And once I've fallen out of the habit of getting out regularly, I find it very hard to persuade myself to go again. I worry that over the time I haven't been boating, I'll have lost what few skills I had, and that something terrible will happen. I think I've heard this feeling referred to as "the fear" before. It's funny how it's something that seems to grow on people too. When I started boating it was all laughs, and swims were no big deal. Yet over time, swims became something entirely different. All manner of concerns pestered my brain - what if I can't get out of my boat? What if I get stuck in a strainer, or pinned upside down? And alongside that was always the worry that I was being a pain in the arse. Someone would be chasing me, helping to haul my boat out of the river, patiently waiting while I struggle to empty the heavy brute, and persuading me that it's all good and to hop back on the river and continue downstream. Yup, swims are a pain in the backside.

Put frankly, I am a terrible sufferer of head games.

Nerves showing as I follow Sandy down a rapid on the Findhorn. Photo by Ben McKeown.

At University there was always someone encouraging me that I am capable of that grade 4 rapid, telling me "go on, else you'll be pissed later that you didn't try", and suddenly -  yes! I can do this! I go for it, and on many occasions I get to the bottom and it's like a weight's been lifted, and I get that amazing feeling of accomplishment that I really got something out of the day. Other days I'd be following someone down a new, unknown and more technical rapid and "the fear" would become too much for me, and before I knew it I'd be upside down. There's no calm in me to even comprehend trying a roll - in a split second my hand's pulled the grab loop and I'm out, taking in the big, panicked gasp of air. Those days would lead me to wonder what I was playing at. I'd spend the rest of the outing a big ball of stress, the enjoyment of the adventure sucked out of me.

Over the past year or two, once Uni was done and dusted and I left the dear Canoe Club behind, I've come to accept what kind of boater I am, and what I want to get out of whitewater kayaking. I'm not fearless. My roll remains hopeless after years of practice. But that doesn't mean I can't still enjoy the sport. Johnie Gall, the wonderful creator of the blog Dirtbag Darling, described it as being a "perpetual beginner", and I love that expression.  I've come to realise that my kind of river is the more mellow kind. Ideally, grade 2 and 3 to keep me on my toes. I no longer want to feel bad if I choose to walk round something. I want to feel that I made the right decision for how I'm feeling and how I'm paddling. I want to be able to hop back on the river with a smile on my face. More than anything, I want to defeat my head games.

Good river, good weather and a good group. What more can you ask for? Photo by Ben McKeown.

Lately, I've come to miss paddling. I miss seeing the world from a different view, and bouncing over waves with a big smile on my face. I miss being on the river with friends. And I miss that tired, accomplished feeling I get after a day of adventuring. Don't fear FantaBucket, I will get back out again, and I will smile my way down a river again!

Thoughts by Rachael Haylett, whose thanks go out to all the people who have put up with her head games and swims over the years.