Taking the Lead

As a woman whitewater kayaker, there’s nothing quite like being with fifty other women on a river, all willing to try something new and ready to get out of their comfort zones.

Teaching for the two day women’s whitewater kayaking clinic on the South Fork American River is something I look forward to every year. Saturday morning always starts off with a little trepidation, but by the time everyone is in their kayak, the stoke is feverishly high. By Sunday afternoon the group is a bonded unit, our shared efforts and experiences forming a kinship between us. Heads are high, hearts are full and celebration ensues.

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2017 CWWC South Fork American River kayak clinic

Even though I am an instructor at the California Women’s Watersport Collective event, I always learn from my co-instructors and the students themselves. The overwhelming energy generated by so many motivated women in one place inspires me to get out and get after it too.

Teaching is the ultimate test for what we think we know and can perform. My co-instructor, Lauren, and I divided our lessons based on our own strengths. While watching her teach about the technical anatomy of different strokes I felt my own desire to grow as a paddler.

It’s been three and one half years since my friends and family pitched in together to buy me a dry suit for my birthday and officially kick off what I saw as the true start of my year round paddling life. I’ve paddled around 100 days per year since then and have grown in leaps, bounds, and sometimes, just a millimeter at a time.

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Main Salmon, Idaho

Though I like to think I’m learning something new every time I’m on the water, it’s inevitable that we all fall into certain habits that hold us back from growing as paddlers and people. Spending time with women who ranged from never sitting in a kayak to women who paddled at high levels for over a decade, increasingly inspired my desire to break out of my own routine.

While I have a great crew of paddling buddies, my most regular partner is my sweetie Phil. Phil has been paddling about 25 years longer than I have and I swear that his body was just molded to a kayak in his teens. Everything about being in a kayak (or raft) on a river is completely part of his nature. That said, he is amazingly a great coach and hasn’t forgotten the little details that make his grace on the water possible. I’m incredibly lucky that he can translate these snippets of wisdom into bite sized lessons. But, while I’ve gotten much better and run a few big rapids, (spoiler alert) for all those people who might think I’m a class V boater just because I hang out with them, thanks for the vote of confidence, but, I’m not.

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Getting chundered in Horseshoe falls, Tuolumne River, 2016

Because Phil is so sure of himself, it’s been way too easy to fall in line behind him on unknown rivers or when I’m unsure of my line. He doesn’t always lead, but he will if I ask, and that has been keeping me in my comfort zone. The comfort zone feels pretty good, until you’re on your own, then it doesn’t.

Anxiety has been riding shotgun with me the past year on any new run that’s class IV and higher. It has felt debilitating at times and can take the fun out of paddling. It felt impossible to step up my game and take the lead more when I could barely keep from hitting paralysis at the top of a drop. I had to find a way to find a way to step up without completely freaking myself out.

I consider myself more of a default leader than a natural leader. I step up if no one else will, but I don’t usually prefer it. Whitewater is one of those places where you have to be alright with being the one to step up now and then. In the past few months Phil and I individually sensed we were falling into a comfort zone pattern and while he shrugged off more and more responsibility on the river I began to gobble up his slack.

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Locomotive rapid, Giant Gap, 2017

Part of my solution was to back down to easier new runs or runs that I am comfortable on, and respectively guide myself or a new paddler down at my own pace. It worked. I guided a gal pal Jessa, (who btw helped teach me to roll at the Arcata Pool in 2011!) down my backyard class IV run (and she nailed it), and I guided Phil down a section of class III-IV river I’d never seen. He played the part perfectly.

At a moment of uncertainty I would look to him with a question on my face to which he would simply shrug and ask, “Which way do I go?” I scouted when I felt unsure, even if at times it was just to pop out of my boat and take a look from a standing position.

When we took a trip to Idaho last week and set out on the South fork Salmon, neither of us mentioned this process. But soon I started to notice; he was not going to lead a single bit of this river. For the next three days he hung back, letting me guide us through class III and IV read-and-run boulder gardens. It was my call for when to scout. Often he didn’t even get out of his boat, he just asked for the line when I returned. I was growing giddy with our role reversal and my growing confidence.

When we did scout the bigger rapids together we bounced ideas off each other and then he would take some photos while I ran it first. I have to admit it felt pretty damn good to watch him follow my line from the bottom.

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Greyhound Rapid, SF Salmon, Idaho

By day two I finally said something about it. He was nonchalant and just said he was stoked to see me paddling so well. By this time I wouldn’t have relinquished the lead even if he wanted it. It felt that good. It turns out that confidence in leadership can be like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.

And this has been one drawback to paddling with class V boaters. They too often assume that they should lead. I take longer to assess a rapid as I come up on it and in that time I’ve seen friends float on by and take the lead. No big deal, except it does nothing to develop my own skills in reading the water and making choices. Phil even admits that he and his class V buddies often just assume that their less experienced buddies want them to lead. Or, they are so used to it, they just absentmindedly pull ahead.

There’s also a big difference here when padding with gal friends vs. guy friends. I fall into the more stereotypical “talking gal.” Meaning, when I’m debating something in my head, I’m more likely to say, “Hey, Lisa, I’m thinking the left looks better here, what do you think?”  Whereas guys will more often make a silent executive decision and either give a nod at the bottom or get royally beatered. I think it’s totally cool to discuss lines. It’s not a decision you have to make alone.

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Scouting Burnt Ranch Gorge #2 rapid at 3,300cfs, 2015

These are all things I try to convey to my students: be an active part of your team, talk to them, ask to lead if you don’t already. My past week in Idaho was a good dose of my own lessons. Of course there are life lessons in here, but I’ll let you draw your own correlations. I don’t always love being out in front, but knowing that I’m perfectly capable, even good at it, gives me more options. And that’s always a good thing on a river.

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South Fork Salmon Idaho, 2017

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Rodent proofing, SF Salmon, Idaho

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South Fork Salmon, below Fall Creek Rapids, Idaho

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At home on the river, SF Salmon, Idaho

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