Whitewater kayaking as a metaphor for life

Life has been so good these past two weeks. My small group came over for dinner on Friday night, friends came over for homemade yogurt on Saturday, I FINALLY climbed at Stone Summit, went on some runs (the weather is a bit cooler in the AM), heard the Vega Quartet play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 and (last but not least) spent some quality time with Neil Gaiman on Friday and Saturday night.

But that’s not what I want to focus on for the rest of the blog post. I want to rewind to last weekend. I’ve been itching to write about last weekend’s trip to Bryson City, NC where I went whitewater kayaking with some other med students. Seven M1s and two M2s went on the trip. Right after our exam, we left for NC. Three hours later, we pulled up to our cabin. That night, Maddie and I slept in her tent. It was a wonderfully clear night so we didn’t put the fly up and we could see the sky and stars.

In the morning, we went to Dr. Eley’s cabin for pancakes. Y’all. Dr. Eley is living THE DREAM. He has a beautiful cabin that’s a mix of both modern and traditional. His cabin has wood-paneled ceilings, great big wooden beams, an old-fashioned fireplace, a comfortable modern kitchen, light-colored wood floors, white walls (one painted a faint blue), a mason jar chandelier (so hip), and best of all, a sun room with GIANT windows overlooking the forest surrounding his cabin. Wait. Revision. Best of all, 15 acres of farm land where he grows everything! Corn! Tomatoes! Watermelon! Canteloupe! Strawberries!

When we arrived, a soft sunlight lit up the cabin. Dr. Eley made blueberry pancakes that were fluffy and delicious. I ate 6 (no shame). Stepping into Dr. Eley’s cabin was like being wrapped in a blanket of calmness. He joked that hearing a car drive up the gravel was “an event.” I loved learning about how often he goes to his cabin: every weekend from spring to fall to garden and kayak. I still can’t wrap my head around how he has time to be an oncologist, a dean, AND a farmer and kayaker and everything else that he is. It was comforting to see in practice that physicians can cultivate and balance all these different parts of their lives.

After filling up on pancakes, we made our way over to the shop to get all the kayaking gear. Then we went out to the lake and learned some basic skills like how to wet exit a kayak, ask for a bow rescue, do a bow rescue, steer, and finally, how to roll a kayak. (I didn’t get the rolling until the second day.) In the afternoon, we kayaked a 2 mile stretch of the Nantahala. In the evening, Maddie and I went on a little run (all the hills!!) before we ate dinner, made s’mores, and bonded around the campfire. It rained that night and Maddie and I fell asleep to the sound of the storm.

On Sunday, we went back to the lake to practice our kayaking skills before we went down a 5 mile stretch of the Nantahala. It was a beautiful day-the sun shined through the trees and glinted off the water. At the end, we had the option to go down the class 3 rapid. As we went down, we were supposed to eddy out and wait for our guide, Juliette, to go first. Unfortunately the current swept me too far too fast. I grabbed onto a rock in an attempt to turn my kayak back upstream and paddle into the eddy. Instead, when I turned upstream, I saw a raft full of screaming 11 and 12 year old girls heading straight for my kayak. They hit me (I leaned into the rock). After they hit me, I lost my grip on the rock and proceeded to go down the rapids backwards. And then I flipped. I wet-exited and grabbed onto a rope. It was quite a sight to see a giant raft full of screaming girls barreling toward me.

After our day on the water, we made our way home (stopping by for Mexican food) and got home pretty late (9:30 to 10:00 pm ish). “Oofta.” That’s how I felt. Apparently in Minnesota, people say “oofta” to describe a feeling of complete and utter exhaustion. It’s best when said cathartically while sinking into a chair or couch. Oofta. I felt simultaneously fulfilled from all my time outdoors and on the water AND drained from having non-stop social interaction.

Ok so now onto how kayaking is a metaphor for life.

When we were on the river, I often felt no sense of control over my boat. I felt my boat turn too much to the left or right. In the beginning, I tried to constantly correct my boat direction. Several times, I almost fell in due to all the correcting. After some time, I just let go and I found myself spinning in circles while going down the river since it was easier to follow (instead of fight) the will of the river. My general direction was correct and spinning in circles allowed me to get a nice retrospective view of the river. Life is like the river. It will bring you to such unexpected places. Sometimes life will push you in one direction and if you try to correct it too much, you might end up struggling. If you just go with the flow of life, you’ll get some pretty great views you never expected you’d see. It’s so much easier to flow than to fight.

While kayaking, you need to lean downstream, with the current to avoid flipping over. It seems counterintuitive to lean in the downstream direction because it seems like you’re leaning right into trouble. But going with the flow of the current actually prevents you from falling into the river.

And finally, when you flip (because you will flip), the best thing you can do for yourself is to remain calm. When you’re calm, you’re able to think about what you need to do to get right-side up. “Ok, I need to move my paddle. I need to flick my hip. This will get me out of the water.” Or, “I need to bang on the side of my kayak. I need to continue to hold my breath and someone will come help me.” Or, “it’s time to call it quits and help myself. I need to wet exit.” Panicking while upside down in the river does nothing but upset oneself. Likewise, in life when things are not going as planned or are frankly terrible, it’s best to NOT PANIC. (Channel Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “DON’T PANIC (and carry a towel)”) When you don’t panic, everything is easer. There’s less stress and things that aren’t right get righted more quickly and smoothly.

So that’s all I’ve got for now. Go with the flow and there’s a smaller chance you’ll end up wet and overturned in the rapids of life. And if you do find yourself upside down, don’t panic and things will right themselves. (I keep using the pronoun “you/your” but really it’s meant as a reminder to myself.)

The river’s always flowing, whether we’re in it or not. Let’s kayak friends!


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