Go big or go home.
Don’t be afraid of failing.
Suck it up.

Those were three of five pieces of advice I gave to a group of 100-some college sophomores last Friday. I’m sure that’s not entirely what they were expecting to hear, or maybe they weren’t expecting to hear anything at all, thinking instead that they would simply sit there and pass the time by staring blankly at their empty plate, contemplating life as a meatball or plugging away on their smart phone.

I’m not a big fan of public speaking, from the speaker’s or the viewers’ stance. Standing in front of a large audience, maybe with a stray hair sticking up or a bat in the cave, sweating despite the frigid air-conditioned room, blubbering through slides I thought would help but only distract…yeah. I understand now why a fear of public speaking ranks higher than a fear of death.

But because the speech was for my alma mater, Emory & Henry College, and because it only needed to be a quick 10-minute spiel, I agreed to be the keynote speaker for an honors induction ceremony.

The theme of my talk?

What would I tell my sophomore self if I could go back and do it all again?

And that’s how I came to these three things.

Go big or go home.
Don’t be afraid of failing.
Suck it up.

Obviously I added some personal reflection in there, what I managed to do right at a time when everything felt wrong. There were some corny jokes, a couple chuckles, lots of hand gesturing to my (whopping) five slides. I don’t know if my words hit home with the students. I doubt they heard my speech at all. Parents came up afterwards to tell me how great my advice was, how helpful it was to hear about my struggle to find purpose and direction in college. But what did the students think? Would they take my advice to heart?

Whether or not they did or do is no matter to me, for Sunday afternoon, I found myself revisiting those three bits of advice in my head, particularly that last one: suck it up. What caused me to channel my inner sensei that afternoon? Three words – Russell Fork Gorge.

This past weekend saw the first release of the season for the Russell Fork in Kentucky. From class II to class V, this river has a little something for everyone. The gorge section of the Russell Fork in particular is one of the whitewater gems in these parts, a must-paddle for any boater claiming the Southeast as home turf. I’d spent nearly every first weekend in October at the Russell Fork since I started paddling my freshman year five years ago, but it was always on the Upper class III section.

My very first trip down the river, I paddled an inflatable kayak and had never seen whitewater before.

“Don’t worry. You have the beer. We won’t let anything happen to you,” was all the group said to me before strapping a small cooler to my thwart and peeling out into the current.

Since then I’ve paddled that upper stretch of river a number of times in a variety of crafts. Though the group that initially introduced me to the river regularly paddle the Russell Fork Gorge, I had yet to paddle that middle class IV-V section, nor did I ever have much of a desire. But lately, especially after my run down the Upper Gauley, I started thinking that I might like to do the gorge one day at low water, not at release, and not any time soon.

 

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But, that’s exactly what I found myself contemplating Sunday afternoon: paddling the Russell Fork Gorge at release. Our group had decided to keep our weekend pretty chill – with a handful of young kids in tow, rafting the lower and upper sections seemed more feasible than trying to arrange who was going to watch the children while their Daddies paddled the gnar – but lo and behold, I stumbled into Dagger athlete Gareth Tate.

An all-around awesome guy, Gareth just-so-happens to have spent a considerable amount of this past year living out of a SylvanSport Go as well. He volunteered to show me down the gorge, convinced me that I was ready, and before I knew it, I was paddling downstream from Garden Hole (the Upper takeout, gorge put-in), waving a final farewell to my friends as they stood on the banks packing up their gear.

It felt strangely surreal. I could have just paddled the Upper with my friends, taken solace in a calm and stress-free Sunday afternoon. Again, I should emphasize that not once in a million years would I have ever envisioned myself paddling the Russell Fork Gorge, especially at release flows (~800cfs). Pushy water, scary undercuts, not my cup of tea. But there I was, in Gareth’s back pocket, purposefully taking stroke after stroke and without the crew that taught me to paddle.

Suck it up, I reminded myself at the lip of Towers.

And suck it up I did. Though I walked Fist and the 2nd drop at Triple Drop, flipped a couple times in Maize, and found myself in the middle of El Horrendo, the run went relatively incident-free. By the time we were above the last major rapid, Climax, I was feeling every bit of river we’d paddled that day. Tired, hungry, and running low on adrenaline, I was seriously doubting my abilities to hit the line Gareth was describing to me. Messing up wouldn’t be the end of the world necessarily, but I’d likely get pushed into an undercut wall, swallow a bunch of water, and maybe swim, which would suck.

“I don’t know if I’m feeling it,” I told Gareth. “But, this is the last rapid.”

“Yeah, if this wasn’t the last rapid I might agree with you. But, I think you should just suck it up.”

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So I did. I got back in my boat, shook off my fatigue, and rallied, nailing my line and cruising cleanly through the box move.

When I paddled into camp, some of my friends were still lingering around packing up. They greeted me with mixed looks of relief, concern, and stoke. Mainly though, they were all smiles as I relayed the run, rapid by rapid.

There’s still part of me that hasn’t entirely registered the fact that I finally did it – I finally paddled the Russell Fork Gorge. This year has proved exceptional beyond belief and in more ways than one, but I’d say that the trifecta of meeting new people, exploring new places, and pushing my personal limits has molded and will continue to shape my identity with every time I decide to suck it up instead of sit on the sidelines.

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A big shout out to Gareth for showing me the way! And a huge thanks to my D-town family for teaching me the basics and helping me get to this point in my paddling –  couldn’t have done it without the support of Bdale, Batman, Tiger Guy, JBo, and my Head Pappy and Mammy. Lots of love to that little corner of southwest Virginia.

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