Sunday, September 2, 2007

Bad hydraulics are like bad relationships

Have you ever noticed that holes are never placed in a very fortuitous position in a rapid? Very rarely are they situated up against the bank on the opposite side of the river, safely isolated from where you’re trying to navigate and cordoned off with yellow police tape. No, most of the time they’re positioned somewhere in your direct line of travel, transforming a relatively easy line into some sort obstacle course, which by the time you’ve safely completed, leaves you with a feeling of vertigo as you’ve just utilized fourteen strokes to turn eight times in a rapid that’s only twenty yards long - all for the sake of avoiding holes.

It is my contention that of all the hazards one may find on a river, it is a hole which gives the common paddler the greatest concern. In scouting a rapid we might see an undercut, a pin rock, a strainer, a hole, and al-Qaeda on the bank (scary rapid indeed) – yet it is the hole that we will focus on the most. The reason for this is that most paddlers have experience with the unpleasantries of holes, and very little experience with the other aforementioned hazards. We know exactly what will happen if we get stuck in that hole, because it has happened before – we flip, we struggle to roll, we get windowshaded again, we pop the skirt, get recirculated a bit, and end up swimming through the rest of the shallow, crummy rapid while everything inside of our boat becomes flotsam in the froth. It is our brain’s evolutionary duty to remind us of these past experiences, in hopes of persuading us to not make the same life-threatening mistake again. We are therefore victims of past experience.

In this aspect, bad kayaking experiences are similar to bad relationship experiences. Kayak carnage stories share all the same themes of relationship carnage stories – you didn’t see it coming, you were taking it all for granted, not paying attention, couldn’t find the surface, were fighting for your life, and left the encounter with fewer positions than you started with. In both kayaking and relationships, sometimes you just need to pull the skirt and swim for it. The problem is that after a bad experience in a hole or in a relationship we become gun-shy and don’t want to have anything to do with either for a long time. And while we may be able to avoid dating for a while, we certainly can’t avoid holes for any extended length of time, unless we want to give up boating all together.

I could tell you to get back on the horse but that’s a dumb analogy. There’s a reason you just got your lunch handed to you in that hole – it was mean, it was tough, and it didn’t like you. Don’t go back in that same hole right away. Seek out smaller holes in safe areas of the river, preferably with some flat water behind them. Try sidesurfing. Try flipping. Try rolling very slowly and relaxed. Try only paddling on the downstream side. Try to fix your vision on a downstream point. Try leaning forward, engaging the abs and obliques to hold the boat on edge instead of your paddle (you need that to dig your way out).

This last point is something you can practice without a hole. Put the boat on edge and lean all the way forward until your head touches the deck. Without using your paddle slowly sit up. Where does it feel like you have the most control of the edge? Where can you hold the boat on edge without it wobbling? (It’s probably half-way between all the way forward and sitting up straight. This is the position you should be in when in a hole. It’s also a position conducive to shoulder safety.)

Why is it that we feel perfectly comfortable executing a forward stroke but not swimming out of holes? Is it because we practice one but not the other? Probably. Practice swimming out of mild holes. The Devil’s Dip is a popular play spot on the Tuck. On my last ride of the day I’ll always flip and swim intentionally in the hole to practice such things as tucking, “balling up”, holding on to my paddle, and swimming my gear to shore. We are quick to tell beginners the importance of learning to wet-exit and swim in whitewater, yet we often forget to apply that lesson to ourselves.

The bottom line is that if you want to be more comfortable in holes you’ve got to spend more time in them – both in and out of your boat. Yes, this is scary. But it is also extremely rewarding as you come to the realization that the majority of holes (unlike my first girlfriend) aren’t man-eaters and you don’t need to fixate on them or always avoid them.

Part 1 of 2. Next week: How to punch through holes.


Todd McGinnis said...

Where is devil's dip located? I assume it is on the Cedar Cliff portion but not sure. Directions would be great.


Port said...

The Divils Dip is on the Tuckaseegee River right in Bryson City, North Carolina. Take the second Bryson City exit #64, go straight through the first light, cross the Tuckaseegee river and turn right at the post office. Go through the next light and you will end up at Island Park. Go across the walking bridge to the other side of the island and you will see the Devils Dip hole just upstream.