From the depths of the Colorado River a random swirl bubbles its way to the surface as if some leviathan of the deep pushes the water with its tail. The river seems alive, its heart beating with each lapping wave on the sandy beach next to me. The many currents and surges of the river act like a gear box, pushing and pulling water this way and that. It appears to be chaotic at times and to have no order. But if one looks hard enough they can see lines and shapes of movement in the water. In that tangle of current there is a purpose and reason for all of its actions. The river is a great teacher for those willing to pay attention to it and in it there is potential for personal growth.
In September 2014, I was privileged to kayak 277 miles through the Grand Canyon with blind kayakers Erik Weihenmayer and Lonnie Bedwell, as well as a crew of other amazing people. Watching Lonnie and Erik kayak was an inspiration and I learned just how much of our sport involves simply feeling the river below. I was one of Lonnie's guides and we acted as his eyes, giving him direction by yelling, "On me! On me!" or,"Over here Lonnie!"For twenty-one days our team negotiated the many rapids of the Colorado River in this manner.
A couple years back I took a kayak trip to Ecuador. On the Upano River I told my buddy, Mike, about some blind kayakers I'd heard of. We took turns closing our eyes as the other yelled directions. With my eyes closed I quickly became disoriented and the river took on a different characteristic. I could feel a distinct rhythm below my boat. Up and down the wave trains pulled me as if I were apart of the river. It felt like an amusement ride in my gut and my senses heightened from my lack of sight. Feeling out of control and for fear of my safety I opened my eyes.
Lonnie told me it was the freedom that he liked about kayaking some of the rapids alone. We'd line him up above a couple rapids and set safety at the bottom and watch him paddle hard through the mess of currents and waves. I was impressed with how fearlessly he approached all the rapids. He would be swept down into them, reacting to the chaos by instinct and feel. The waves would crash on him from all sides, and he'd hit paddle braces to stay upright. Other times waves would turn him over but he'd roll up and continue on. In those moments, kayaking appeared to have freed Lonnie form his dark world. A world which can rely so much on others for mobility. In the rapids he was in control of his boat using the currents below him to determine what would happen next. Sometimes he'd go downriver backwards. He must of felt truly alive. At the bottom I'd find him sitting in an eddy. His sunglasses would push his ears out from under his helmet and his mustached smile went from ear to ear. Watching Lonnie and Erik kayak has inspired me to no end!
Rivers have humbled me, challenged me, and scared me. They have been my source of income and they have given me great joy and peace. Beyond the thrill and the pure enjoyment of kayaking is a wrestling match with a moving force. It is bigger and stronger than we will ever be and there is no sense in fighting it. In this contest, winning takes the form of conceding to the struggle by simply going with the flow and accepting who we are and what we can do with our situations. If whitewater represents chaos and obstacles in life than kayaking is a tool that helps make sense of it.
The beauty of our sport is in the lines.