Dear Mountain Mama,

Lately a lot of talk among kayakers revolves around how to calculate risk. As a Class IV paddler who aspires to run Class V, I am interested in safely taking on more challenging runs.

Do you have any advice about deciding to paddle more difficult, Class V whitewater?

Thanks,
Aspiring Class V Boater

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Dear Aspiring Class V Boater,

I applaud you for your desire to improve. Realizing that failure walks hand-in-hand with success is fundamental for growth. But the real question is the type of risk that is appropriate for a paddler to take, which is an intensely individual decision. The path I personally advocate is the natural evolution that occurs when one pushes herself in small ways every day on the river, not one big blind leap of faith.

Intelligently assessing risk necessitates getting really intimate with fear. As tempting as it might first appear to numb anxiety, I’d counsel you against it. Whenever I see boaters smoke or drink at the put-in of challenging runs, my stomach churns for them. Ignoring feelings doesn’t make them disappear, but rather empowers them. A small seed of fear buried deep in the soul festers into an ugly monster who might lash out with disastrous consequences.

Instead, cozy up with fear until you transform those negative feelings into something positive like motivation, creativity, and, ultimately, joy from thriving in new situations. I’m by no means advocating that you indulge your fears, but rather exactly the opposite. Start by identifying the source and naming it. Is it a particular rapid? Or the undercut rocks? Or that you’ve just broken up with your girlfriend? Or that you slept a total of two hours the previous night?

Sit with your fears as you might with a good friend and have a chat. The result of which might be that you portage a rapid or opt to paddle something else. Or the result might mean seeing a line that you feel confident about paddling.

Either way, you’ve made a decision that’s put you in touch with your most authentic self instead of your ego. At the end of the day, nobody cares what rapids or rivers you did or didn’t paddle. And nobody who matters likes you any better for being a Class V boater, or if you even paddle at all for that matter.

Be courageous enough to be imperfect. Embracing your own humanity makes you Class V in my book. By being real, you allow others around you to do the same. Portage, paddle, sit on a rock, or run shuttle, just be sure whatever you do, you do it with intention.

Best,

Mountain Mama

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