Don’t think of moving water past the boat. Think of moving yourself and the boat past the paddle,” my instructor said during my first formal paddling lesson as a kid. On many occasions since I’ve heard similar tips.
“Think of the water like concrete. Bury your paddle and imagine it doesn’t move.”
This concept of moving past the paddle took on new meaning for me recently, not just kinesthetically but also metaphorically.
Even after all these decades of paddling, my paddling technique wasn’t great. I was confident I was an excellent paddler, but I was underperforming in races. Race results don’t lie, so I hired a professional coach to do a video analysis of my stroke. Then I filed the videos away on my hard drive and was far too busy to look at them for several weeks. I was avoiding the doctor for fear of bad news, far too comfortable in my ego as an expert paddler who didn’t need any advice.
First, the blow. The bad news sinks in. Then the eventual dawning I’ve just opened up a blind spot.
After internalizing the video feedback, the “move-the-boat” feeling finally clicked.
On the water, I’ve started to imagine I’m on a skateboard. The paddle is a tree or a post I grab to slingshot myself forward, like when snowboarders grab things to haul themselves along the flats.
There’s a shockwave passed through my body, from my palms on the blade through to my feet that zings my boat forward. The energy translates into pure speed. It’s electric and addictive. And when strung into a consistent rhythm it’s often the jolt I need to get me through the day, even stronger than my morning cup of coffee. I’ve felt it myself and I’ve seen it in the eyes of my family—when one of us hits the breaking point and then sets off with a paddle and boat or board and comes home with a smile, a complete reset. It’s just one of the reasons we do this sport. It changes us. This is the other meaning of moving yourself past the paddle.
The other day my eight-year-old, George, was having a terrible time. School’s out, and his high expectations of endless summer fun crashed on the realities of all his friends being out of town and our strict limits on his use of the family iPad. He was sullen, moping around with, in my wife’s coarse parlance, “a turd in his pocket,” until I offered to take him paddling, slathered him in sunscreen and squeezed him into his wetsuit.
We headed out into huge waves on the lake, found a beach with water so high we had to throw our paddleboards into the trees. We swam in the waves, then relaunched and surfed back to the car. George was happily running off at the mouth about the birds we saw, a dead fish, everything.
“Dad, smokestacks are like cigarettes. Dad, that boat has a barbecue. Dad, did you get pooed on by those cormorants?”
For the beginner, the illusion of moving water
with your paddle gradually yields to the realization
that, in essence, the water is moving you.
Maybe it is always ourselves we manipulate through outdoor pursuits. What else could we be doing when climbing a rock or paddling on the ocean? The rock doesn’t care. The sea doesn’t change because we dipped our paddles into it. Perhaps unique compared to some other human endeavors is these activities have no useful effect on the world. They make no tangible difference. And, according to the no-trace ethic, success is defined by having zero impact on the environment at all. So, what are we doing out there, exactly?
The water is changing us.
There’s a famous quote from John Muir that showed up, funnily enough, on the wrapper of a teabag I’d packed for a long coastal journey: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out until sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Forgive me the wilderness cliché, but like the maxim of moving the boat past the paddle, it’s worth letting it steep until you fully understand—or maybe seeking some external feedback, and seeing whether you’re doing as well as you think you are.
For the beginner, the illusion of moving water with your paddle gradually yields to the realization that, in essence, the water is moving you. Or rather, by acting on the water, you are acting on yourself. Imagine the rock climber, trying to unlock a complex sequence of moves, really working to unlock something in herself—mastery, a feeling of triumph, the momentary satisfaction of feeling perfectly at home in the world.
Only when you understand it’s yourself you are moving do you really begin to paddle well. The water and the paddle are stationary, you are the one who is moving, changing. You are transformed. You see new things. You get tired. You are renewed. You have revelations. You travel and arrive at new destinations and conclusions.
When I was putting off looking at the videos, resisting the harsh truth of my paddling flaws, I was trapped in a fixed mindset, determined I wasn’t the factor that had to change. I was going to keep pushing the water past the paddle, dammit. It took a shift in mindset to grow—a painful transition. I had to swallow my pride.
Once I opened up to the idea of changing myself, it was liberating and revelatory. It’s a lot easier than changing the world. It’s a lot easier to send a kayak skipping along the surface of an ocean than move the ocean itself. And in the end, relatively speaking, it has the same effect.
Our minds are easily moved. The world is intractable, but our brains are fluid. As if we are sorcerers, and we can dip our paddles into the concrete of the ocean and send the earth spinning on its axis, feel the rush of space zinging past our ears.
Tim Shuff is a former editor of Adventure Kayak magazine.
Nothing is forever except change. And kayaks. | Photo: JP DANKO