Dear Mountain Mama:

I’m writing to you about fear. A week before kayaking I make plans and am excited. Then the doubts set in. My mind thinks of all the holes, undercuts, and hazards on a river and magnifies them. I visualize my head thrashing around, banging against rocks and my roll failing.

All of a sudden the stack of laundry becomes pressing, and I think about how much I need to get some cardio in or go for a ride. “You’re too tired to kayak well.” My stomach churns on the way to the river, and I silently rehearse excuses for running shuttle instead of paddling.

I fought fear. I ignored it. Nothing worked, so eventually I stopped paddling. But I missed the intoxication of nailing a perfect line and chatting with other paddlers in eddies.

So I’ve started kayaking again. All that nervous chatter has resumed. How can I make all that noise stop?

Yours, Anxious Paddler

Dear Anxious Paddler:

I had the privilege to attend Elizabeth Gilbert’s reading of her book Eat, Pray, Love and she spoke about her acceptance of fear.

She compared the start of every new creative endeavor to a road trip and recognized that fear comes along. But she lay downs the law. “Oh I know, fear, you won’t shut your mouth. Talk all you want, but you’re not going to have a say in anything. You’re not going to touch the radio dial. You’re not even going to pick any of the snacks.”

Fear comes along on my paddling trips too. And fear is like my toddler — the more I try to ignore it, the louder and more insistent fear becomes.

So I decided to test out Elizabeth Gilbert’s tactic of acknowledging fear and creating healthy boundaries about the role it was going to play when I went to this year’s Boater Chic Fest.

I’d been telling myself paddling and working and parenting were too much to balance. I’d stepped back my paddling, and like you, I missed getting out on the river. I signed up for the Cheoah clinic despite fear and his cousin, doubt, whispering in both ears. That night I had difficulty sleeping, imagining the water cascading over Bear Creek Falls.

The next day I met dozens of friendly women, and we spent the ride to the put-in telling stories and laughing. Several paddlers volunteered to lead less experienced paddlers down. They clapped and whistled for us when we styled a boof. Their smiling faces greeted us at the end of every rapid.

The biggest lesson I learned at this year’s festival had nothing to do with paddle strokes or boat handling. On the way to the put-in we talked about books we read and yoga studios, rivers we wanted to paddle and the brownie cookies we’d brought to snack on at the take-out. As we paddled we pointed out turtles, butterflies, herons, dragonflies, and, snakes. On the drive back to camp, we looked up their animal meanings and joked about which animal we most closely resembled.

Between swapping stories and laughing with new friends, I was reminded that if fear is going to be a passenger on my paddling road trips, that I should make an extra effort to invite some other more positive voices too. And this year’s Boater Chic Fest introduced me to lots of great women who love to boat. There are few weekends where I return home and immediately mark off my calendar for the event the following year. Boater Chic Fest is one of them!

Fear is always going to be part of your boating equation. Anxious Paddler, lessen fear’s input by surrounding yourself with fun paddling partners and find some other subjects to chat about on the way to the river.

Paddle On!
Mountain Mama

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