You can feel the sound of big whitewater in your bones, and it shakes your brain on a reptilian level with a message that doesn’t need an intellectual explanation. Whether it’s the growl of a grizzly or the roar of an avalanche—some sounds just hit the alarm centre of our brains.
But I was 14, and my alarm centre wasn’t well enough developed to convert fear into useful action. The drop in front of me was bigger than anything I had paddled before—and I wanted it. I was stoked despite a lot stacked against me: the snow still adorning the frigid glacial riverbank, a combat roll that was good only for the first 180 degrees, my cold-water “protection” of a shorty wetsuit that might have been two millimetres thick before it was worn down to intermittent rubber chunks held together with the nylon backing, my boat that cost more in duct tape rolls than I had paid for it in cash and the fact that I’d never paddled a bigger drop before.
“How likely is it to kill me?” was my question.
Dennis, a mentor at the time, answered, “Not very, rafters swim this regularly. What do you think?”
I replied, “I don’t know enough to answer, but it looks cool, let’s fire it up!”
I was brave on the outside, but my guts were heaving and my stomach’s contents were soon going to be fish food when my brain caught up to my ego. I flew off the edge of the world with a lion’s roar in my throat and a kitten’s mew on my lips. I felt the overwhelming pure force of free-falling water for the first time. It was gorgeous, much better and more everything than anything in my previous 14 years of life. I didn’t know what was going to happen, and loved the uncertainty of chasing more. I popped out the bottom with a real roar and life was different. My mentors could see the change in my eyes, and I could feel it too. I went off the drop in fear and came out a stronger human.
THOSE INITIAL YEARS of kayaking were among the best in my life. I stuck classic drops on the glacial milky rivers near my house in Jasper, Alberta, and hundreds more across the nearby mountains. My skills grew rapidly thanks to a great group of older guys who not only taught me to paddle, but also to drive on logging roads, drink beer, sleep in the dirt and chase adventure as an antidote to the rules of modern life. Hello outdoor adventure world, I love ya! We had some close calls but received a lot of positive feedback about our judgement and skills. We mostly judged drops by consequence and when those consequences got too high, we walked around them. My mentors had very little ego about water. If you weren’t feeling it, then it was truly all good. If anything, they would try to come up with reasons not to run something, and I use that lesson every single day: It’s easy to find reasons to do something, but the reasons not to do it matter more. Eventually, I outgrew my mentors, and had to paddle with the town’s “Crazies”—so named because they ran “crazy” Class V rivers.
They weren’t actually crazy; they were some of the sanest people I’ve ever met—for their extreme world. Their standards just weren’t the “normal” world’s. They taught me a true combat approach to surviving ever-wilder rivers and life. As an adolescent, I needed more, and the river was a far better place to get it than what seemed like an arbitrary and shallow society around it. Capricious rules are everywhere as a teenager, but the river didn’t bullshit and the Crazies owned the very real possibility of death. They fought back with teamwork, relentless skill-development and ruthless performance feedback in every aspect of paddling. I couldn’t take Monday’s high school math exam seriously; these guys had eyes that had seen some shit and I studied hard in their School of Wet Knocks.
Poor performance was judged harshly. There were no excuses for swimming: Exiting your kayak was a physical, mental and moral failure, full stop. Their approach to learning to roll “properly” was unorthodox but effective. One Crazy would hold the end of my boat, flip me upside down and try to hold me under while another whacked me with his hands or paddle if I somehow popped up. I learned to roll up no matter what and only swam a few times in the next 40 years of paddling. Swimming could kill you. Don’t swim. That’s a rule I could respect.
Kayaking was far more than “fun” to the Crazies, it was literally life and death—and deserved deep respect and commitment. They didn’t talk about “knowing your limits,” they sought them out every single day with scientific precision. Most people never test for their limits, and as a result their definition of limits is meaningless. I writhe internally when I hear a confident but genuinely oblivious person say, “I know my limits and stay within them.” Most people have no idea of their limits. They could be walking on the edge of oblivion and feel nothing amiss, or nowhere near the edge and still fear oblivion. The Crazies looked for limits like a Labrador chases a tennis ball. We ran rivers like athletic chessboards: hit the smallest eddy in an “easy” Class IV drop and stick it like we were in Class Death whitewater. Heckle the guy who misses, mercilessly and creatively. Flip and roll on both sides in every boiling eddy line. I would rather inhale glacial silt water than swim; it was less painful. Toss your paddle in Class III drops and handroll up. Paddle Class V lines all the time, even if in a Class II drop, and you’ll have margin in Class V when you’ve got to do it for real.
Find limits. Train. Get better.
Relentless skill development added margin. Honesty about your ability added margin. Overconfidence killed people. Complaining was only allowed if it was funny; complaining didn’t add margin. The Crazies took me from the safe world of “fun” to the real world of risk engagement, not only in paddling, but also in climbing, paragliding, skiing and dating. “Fear is the mind killer” was a not just a quote from Dune, it was reality: Unresolved fear would kill you. The solution wasn’t to ignore fear,
it was to respect it and clean your mental and physical game up until you stood on a foundation of solid competence, not un- justified fail-reel confidence or weak-ass “positive thinking.”
FEAR DOESN’T LISTEN to false confidence—it listens to confidence built on a bedrock of competence. Fear feeds on delusion and starves on reality. Once I accepted that, I didn’t puke in eddies anymore.
I’ve taken that same approach to every sport I’ve ever learned: The goal isn’t mastery, it’s to get better every single day and to approach each day as a classroom. I will never be a master of anything wild; at best I’ll be better at reading wild environments, and as I get older, sharing those wild places with the next generation of Crazies. My first paddling mentors showed me the joy of wild rivers and had the humility to know they didn’t know a lot—and act accordingly. The Crazies wanted more but were humble enough to know they needed to also be more.
Both lessons are always with me: Be humble—and be better today. A huge thanks to the Jasper paddlers who took a 14-year-old boy and taught him how to manage more.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2023 issue. ("Gadd's Truth," page 18).