What Whitewater Kayaking with My Son Taught Me About Fear

4 Min. Read
What Whitewater Kayaking with my Young Son Taught Me About Fear

On a whim, I recently signed up for a whitewater kayaking intensive weekend course with my twelve-year-old son. While neither of us had ever kayaked in whitewater, we both wrote it off as an easy, fun weekend playing together on the Rio Azul in Argentine Patagonia.

I doubt I’ve ever gone into a situation more naively in my life.  Neither “easy” nor “fun” would be words I would use to describe the experience, although “absolutely terrifying” turning into “surprisingly gratifying” would be.

The first shock came when I entered the water. I’d previously only kayaked in balmy waters in Mexico where the plan was to stay upright in the kayak the whole time. This glacial water was a slap in the face that had me in full-body shivers despite the wetsuit. Not to mention, the instructor was helping me flip my kayak. On purpose.  Over and over again.  While I was stuck inside.

Logically, I understood this was what I signed up for.  It’s kind of a big part of the sport.  But around this time I came to the realization that I have an intense fear of being held under water.  This one came as a shocker because I surf and seem to spend more time underwater than on the board, yet I love it. But with surfing I feel comforted by the freedom to move my legs, to rip the cord off if needed and have the ability to quickly swim to the surface. That whole “flip your kayak, get waterboarded by ice water, not know how to surface, and not even have the presence of mind while panicking to figure out how to rip the skirt off” thing?  Not so fun. I went into full panic attack mode within the first ten minutes of my supposed “fun” and “easy” weekend.

Not exactly proud of how I handled it. I silently began to shed tears. I got out of the water on the pretense that I wanted to take photos of my son, but really my intention was to sprint from the fear. This coming from a grown woman who until this very moment considered herself an adventurous, courageous warrior.

I got home that night and went out with a dear friend and tried to dilute the intense feelings that came up earlier in the day with some fabulous red wine and live music.  It did nothing except make me feel more like a coward, trying to escape myself.

In the morning when we had to go back to the river, I was actually trying to convince myself that I was ill and shouldn’t expose myself to such cold water. That kayaking was probably not a good idea for my shoulder that acts up at times.  I came up with every lame excuse in the book.

Rio Azul, Patagonia

Then my son made me a strong cup of coffee and point blank called me out on my crap.

“I’m nervous, too, Mom.  But if we don’t go, we’ll always be scared. The only way to not be scared anymore is to just keep doing it. I don’t want to be scared of this the rest of my life and I don’t want you to have to be scared forever, either. So drink your coffee and let’s go rock this.”

On that note we got in the car.

While I won’t exactly say that I rocked it, I faced my fears head on. I allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to be honest with my instructor about what emotions were coming up, and I set my pride aside while he sweetly treated me like a scared child. He held my hand as we slowly flipped the kayak so I could always feel his presence. I cried openly in front of him.  I acknowledged and honored every facet of my fear, but I did so as I was in the water with my head held high, doing something about it.  Seeing my son look over, smile, and give me a proud thumb’s up sign after I successfully rolled is something I will carry with me forever.

We went into this course thinking we were there to learn how to kayak, but what we took away from that weekend about confronting fears was a million times more valuable.

Rio Azul photo courtesy of Jill Anderson

Cathy Brown

Cathy lives on a self-sustainable farm in the Andes of Patagonia with her three kids. She's an editor at Matador Network, writes for Fodor's and Lonely Planet, and works closely with the Adventure Travel Trade Association. She's an avid gardener, surfer, and loves to hike.

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