Dear Mountain Mama,
My friend passed away in a paddling accident two weekends ago on the Cheoah River. Although there was a release this weekend and the weather was beautiful, I just couldn’t bring myself to paddle. Michael was an incredible friend and a man who was passionate about many things – his family, music, and kayaking. I miss him dearly.
But even more troubling is the not knowing. Michael hitched a shuttle ride and paddled with two people going down in a dynamic duo. They paddled most of the river together, but took separate lines on Bear Falls. Michael’s body was recovered an hour later and nobody witnessed his passing.
I’m having a tough time understanding what happened and am writing in search of closure.
Dear Kayaker Mourning,
I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Michael, but reading of his death made an imprint on my heart. I asked others about him. A twenty-something college student told me she’d met him at music festivals and estimated he was in his late thirties. Turns out he was sixty-four. When you let your light shine on the world and live with the passion that Michael did, it’s an easy mistake to make. I can only hope when I’m in my sixties people guess I’m thirty-eight.
Sometimes we need reason or logic to provide us closure. But in this case, the details of what happened are between Michael, the Cheoah River, and God, not ours to ever know. Take solace in the fact that he spent his final time on this beautiful earth doing something he loved.
Finding a lesson or a gentle reminder sometimes helps me process loss. Without knowing the details of the actual incident, we must rely on what we do know to find a lesson. We know that Michael hitched a ride at the take out and paddled with two people. According to one of the guys that gave him a ride and reported the conversation on American Whitewater, it went something like this:
“Can I impose on you by accompanying you down the river?” Michael asked.
Michael climbed in the back seat. “I’ve paddled this river many times and know my way down.”
The driver started coughing.
Michael said, “You must have the same thing I do.”
“I just started coughing last night. Allergies I’m guessing,” the driver replied.
“Well mine is a little worse than that.”
One of my favorite things about the kayaking community is the welcoming attitude. The willingness of paddling with new people is the only way we expand our circle of paddling partners and get to experience new rivers.
But our open-arms must be tempered with tough conversations. I have no idea whether or not those difficult words were said. But I do know that the other paddlers didn’t know Michael was suffering from bronchitis. And I know how often I feel reluctant to be transparent and communicate my own paddling skills, expectations, health, and current mindset. I’ve worried about everything from making myself more nervous to talking others out of paddling with me. Those hard conversations are the only way to determine whether everyone is up for paddling the river and what the group’s expectations of one another are.
Kayaker Mourning, everything I’ve come to know about Michael Huggins makes me think he’d want you to get outside and on a river. Find a way to celebrate his life and learn from his passing. I’ve been reminded to let go of the reasons things may go unsaid and instead talk with openness as if my life depends on it. Someday it might.