How Whitewater Paddling Woke Me Up

The Life Calendar on my wall is a tall stack of 1080 rows divided into groups of 12. Vertical columns divide the rows (months) into 31 boxes each, creating a giant grid representing every day/month/year of a life spanning 90 years. I highlighted in green all the boxes corresponding to my past. Days I’ve lived. A thin band of rows remained at the bottom of the grid, which I highlighted in blue. These boxes represent my future, the days still to come.

There’s nothing quite like approaching a big rapid. A distant rumble precedes anything visible. Then, as you discern the splash zone, the current picks up. Suddenly there’s thunder everywhere.

On May 30, 2022, my nephew, Rob, died suddenly during the cyclocross leg of the Ski to Sea race. I was the kayaker waiting for his handoff. That was when I stopped paddling. Stopped doing much of anything.

Seven months later, a kayak buddy, Kathy, took me to task about my never-ending inertia. “You’re a woman of a certain age. Your body needs activity, or it shrivels up and collapses.” She suggested I enroll in the spring whitewater course offered by Washington Kayak Club.

It wasn’t an unexpected suggestion. About twelve years ago, we were part of a group of sea kayakers learning to paddle rivers to better our ocean skills. I loved it—such fun. Unfortunately, after a few bad swims, I stored the whitewater boat and returned to the sea kayak.

Kathy stayed with it and now travels for days, sometimes weeks, enjoying spectacular settings with her Class IV whitewater buddies. She always figured I gave up too soon.

Back to the present, I was turning into mush. Rob would be so disappointed in me. I had to shake things up. Go big. So, I took Kathy’s advice and signed up for the whitewater course as soon as the Washington Kayak Club posted it in January. Because it didn’t start until March, I’d need a big, hairy push to force me to show up. Enter the aforementioned Life Calendar. There’s nothing quite as disturbing as seeing your future compressed into a few rows of blue boxes at the bottom of a giant grid. Procrastination was no longer an option.

Photo by Simon Berger


March 4 found me standing in a Seattle conference room getting to know nineteen other whitewater wannabees. I was definitely the mushiest. The course syllabus was no-nonsense: Show up every weekend in March, no exceptions. Be on time, wearing proper gear. Saturdays were pool sessions, and Sundays were rivers.

After the morning meet-and-greet, I dragged my kayak into a scatter of fellow participants rinsing whitewater boats for entry into the pool. We practiced two hours of basic strokes and the beginnings of what would morph into kayak rolls. Good stuff but exhausting. I left wondering if I was out of shape or just plain old.  

Sunday was the first river day. I arrived tired but committed. We paddled in a light current, practicing a series of strokes and skill development games. The goal was to build confidence. We learned more than a skill’s how; we also learned the why. At the end of the day, I was dead tired but happy.

The second weekend, we put in at Power House, a classic beginner stretch on the Snoqualmie River. We practiced strokes, eddy turns, ferries, and wet exits in real current. Capsizing was expected. Experienced paddlers hovered nearby, ready to help. My confidence soared. I was already anticipating the following Saturday and Sunday.

The next morning I couldn’t raise my left arm.

A strained rotator cuff forced me to sit out the third weekend. I lost two critical days of skill development and practice. Anxiety bloomed. What if I couldn’t do the graduation paddle?

The final river day was at Big Eddy, a favorite play site on the Skykomish River with an ever-changing array of rapids and obstructions. I arrived nervous, my shoulder secured with athletic tape. Due to the lingering snowpack, spring runoff hadn’t started, and Big Eddy was a little on the low side. No matter. Exposed boulders and other hindrances would give us plenty of experience in what’s known as technical paddling. The teachers were excited.

The put-in was a gully under a bridge; kayaks balanced over rocks like a spill of crayons. The air was colder, and the water faster than we’d experienced, but three weeks of skill-building gave us confidence. Everyone was ready.

Everyone but me.

I was anxious because of missing the previous weekend and concerned about my injury. Lack of confidence causes the body to stiffen, raising the center of gravity and destabilizing the kayak. Predictably, I caught an eddy first thing and capsized. Despite an efficient wet exit and fast rescue, the water was frigid, and my shoulder ached from the cold.

I warmed up some during the next stretch but rapidly cooled again as we beached our boats to scout the day’s biggest rapid. To our inexperienced eyes, it was a maelstrom. Instructors analyzed the hydraulics, identified the best lines to paddle, and pointed out features to avoid, such as pour-overs, holes, and boulders. We had the option to portage on dry land, but nobody did.

I’d already discussed my concerns with the lead instructor, so he suggested I follow behind him. I was close behind when he headed downstream, chasing the bouncing boat.

There’s nothing quite like approaching a big rapid. A distant rumble precedes anything visible. Then, as you discern the splash zone, the current picks up. Suddenly there’s thunder everywhere. You jet into the churn hyper-focused, aggressive, paddling with everything you’ve got. Then it’s done.

The rapid was quick, maybe 15 seconds. I made it through without mishap, shivering with adrenaline as the teacher shouted congratulations and waited for others to follow suit.

As I calmed myself in the eddy, the fourth fingertip on my left hand started burning. Instinctively I shoved it into my mouth. Might as well have slammed it in a car door. Every nerve blew up. I clasped it to my chest and bent over the front of the cockpit. What the heck was happening? After an interminable amount of time, I could finally release my grip, sit up, and slide the hand sans glove into my left pogie. From there, I carefully navigated the remaining rapids with a modicum of aplomb.

By the time we celebrated our success at the takeout, I‘d managed to ignore the damn pain. I later learned that I’d had my first experience with frostbite. Frostbite! Who knew? The doctor told me that once a body part is frostbitten, it’s more vulnerable to the same, only worse. So much for mid-winter sports.

One might think the combination of anxiety, cold temperatures, shoulder pain, and a bizarre frostbite situation would sour me on the sport. It didn’t. I love the river, and unlike many paddlers who choose one over the other, I still enjoy sea kayaking.

Whitewater is like downhill skiing: fast, fun, and intensely social. Sea kayaking is like cross-country skiing: Internal, rhythmic, and physically satisfying. After a day on the sea, I feel good about myself. Calm and capable. But when I finish a day on the river, only one word captures how I feel: younger. No more mush.  

Rob would be proud. Take that, blue boxes.

Washington State Whitewater Kayaking Resources

Dawn Groves is a Bellingham writer who loves the Pacific Northwest and the Salish Sea. She is tricking out her Subaru, so she can work from all manner of lovely and weird locales. 

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