This year I had planned to skip Christmas. My four-year-old son was going to his dad’s house, and the holidays didn’t seem nearly as amazing and joyful without him. I doubted I’d find the magic of the season without sharing his excitement on Christmas morning, and so I opted not to celebrate.

On Christmas Eve Santa delivered every paddler’s dream – lots of rain. My friend and his son were going paddling so I tagged along. We met up with two other boys and another dad in Hot Springs. All six of us piled into a car and headed to the put-in.

The boys swapped stories about where they’d paddled since the last time they saw one another. One had recently kayaaked the Green River Narrows, another had styled Wilson’s Creek for the first time.  We stopped at the Laurel River Store to check to gauge. The water kissed the marker a few inches above two feet and was on the rise. The dads conferred and decided that a swim would be long and cold so we opted for a Section 9 run of the French Broad instead of paddling the Laurel.

The river ran brown, carrying whole trees in its swirling rage. The waves loomed over our kayaks, casting shadows on our decks. The paddlers in front disappeared entirely from view. We high-fived and smiled at the bottom of the bigger rapids, all feeling happy to be on the water.

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We pulled our kayaks onto the bank at the confluence of Laurel River and the French Broad. The dads decided to add to the adventure by hiking the boats up the river trail and putting on so that the boys could have at least a little taste of the Laurel at high water.

Two of the boys glanced the rapids and started reconsidering whether they wanted anything to do with the creek at that level.  Their pace slowed and then they took a break to shuffle the boats from one shoulder to the other.

When the dads offered to help their boys, one of the boys told his father how scared he was by the Laurel River, which escalated into a general fear of paddling the last two rapids on the French Broad that day.

His dad said, “Take it one little adventure at a time.”  He assured his son that he didn’t have to paddle anything that he didn’t want to, but that he shouldn’t make a decision about the rest of the river until he got there.

A few minutes later we saw deer swimming down a rapid, their bodies nearly vertical as their heads bobbed amongst the waves. When the rapid subsided, they frantically swam toward the shore and scrambled up the bank. The boys and I watched their dads paddle the Laurel, and then all got into our boats to paddle the rest of the French Broad, pausing to gape at a bald eagle flying high above.

By the time we drove to the put-in, Christmas lights sparkled in the twilight. Carols looped in my head as we recounted the small adventures that unfolded that day.

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I spent Christmas day still basking in the afterglow of big water paddling and indulged in a poetry bender that lasted until the late afternoon when I finally peeled myself off my futon to join another family’s post-holiday hang out. Sitting in the easy company with people I barely knew, I felt a sense of peace that comes with understanding that the magic of Christmas doesn’t require spending time with any one person, not even my own sweet boy.

I thought about the conversation I had overheard between father and son, how I had been like the son, indulging my fear until it loomed so large I wanted to avoid the holiday. I realized that letting fear snowball results in missing out on the best parts of life.

By taking it one little adventure at a time, whether it’s paddling a river at a higher level than I’m accustomed to, diving into the quiet space of being alone, or spending a holiday with new friends, the joy of life on and off the river becomes more apparent.