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Conquering Fear on the River

Posted: 10.17.2014

Fear has the power to paralyze us. It sneaks up unsuspected stops our hearts, steals our faith and sends us deep without breath. The river presents the ultimate training ground for conquering fear and those experiences often bring us more confidence both on and off the water.

Kayak long enough and you will undoubtedly encounter fear.  Staring down the gullet of something so powerful and destructive that you question whether you possess the capabilities to navigate through it. Or losing control and being swept into a place you don’t want to go without trusting you can escape it.  The moment when your heart beat thunders, your hands shake, your memory lapses and a sudden urge to crawl to dry land overcomes you is the precise moment you must summon your courage and paddle your best. 

Everyone copes with these climactic moments differently.  Some hunger for it and search it out at greater and greater levels like an addict in search of their next high.  Some shut down and run away.  While most of us land somewhere in the middle of the pack and with practice and training we can learn to deal with our fears and transform them into life-giving moments that define our destinies. 


Kayaking is the skilled art of letting go to the overwhelming power of nature.  A boater trusts in their abilities, experience and the water to follow a chosen line downstream to the next rapid.    Your thoughts directly impact your level of faith in any moment.  Sometimes saying a mantra can create the emotions of trust.  For example, when I was learning to kayak I would repeat the old cheer, “Be Aggressive, Be, Be Aggressive!!!”, over and over again in my head.   Without realizing it I sat up straighter, paddled harder and smiled more. 


Without breath we would be 9 minutes away from death.  As a yoga student and teacher I know the value of deep breathing and its ability to induce relaxation and the parasympathetic state.     Breath connects our mind and body and focusing on it deliberately will help you think more clearly and your body perform at its optimum.  Also, getting used to suspended time without breath will prepare you for underwater episodes.  For example, breath out all your air and submerge yourself underwater to get comfortable with the sensation of being out of breath under the water.  Practice it again and again. 


I’ve always had a busy work life and often find myself on the river with other paddlers who have more consecutive days on the river.  I deal with this limitation by cross-training when I can’t get on the water.  Running, biking and weight lifting help keep the burst stamina needed in paddling.


“Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance,” was a phrase beaten into my head as a sales rep but it’s also words I try and live by.  Showing up unprepared off the water can lead to problems on the water it can lead to death.  Constantly developing your craft and preparing for your trips will keep you more confident and less likely to reach overwhelming levels of fear.  Pre-pave your destiny.  Visualize your lines before ever getting on the water.  Practice your skill set and learn the rivers your run by reading guidebooks and talking to other boaters about lines through rapids.