Usually we don’t have to defend our reasons for paddling because it is so obvious to us why we do it, but a funeral is different. Some time ago a friend of mine went to a funeral for a young man who had been a fellow kayaker. The man had been caught on a log on a difficult run, trapped, and drowned in his kayak. My friend tried to say a few words about him. He found himself talking about how much the man enjoyed kayaking, how he celebrated his time on the river and how much fun he had there.
He thought he’d done a good job explaining, until afterwards several members of the family cornered him and challenged him in an attempt to understand their grief.
How could taking such risks be worth it when it ended this way—a smart 22-year-old with his whole life ahead of him, gone, drowned doing something for fun?
My friend struggled for answers, and slipped into clichés, “At least he died doing what he loved.” At which the mother broke down in tears and said, “I miss my son. Dying isn’t loving.”
Tongue-tied and embarrassed, my friend did the best he could, but later confided to me, “They kept asking questions and I didn’t know what to say. Looking at the mother, I said all the things we normally do but it sounded stupid with her standing there crying.”
When somebody dies paddling, the entire house of cards—the laughter, exhilaration, friendships and good times—suddenly collapses. We’re left with a feeling of pain that is utterly foreign to everything that seems so special about the sport.
We need to try to find answers and dump the clichés in the trash where they belong. Clichés are thoughtless denials whose purpose is to save us from facing the disconnect between what we want to believe and the death that is staring at us. Statements like “that’s the price of pushing the envelope” beg a lot of questions: Why is this envelope so important that its price is death?
I don’t hear many answers on any of today’s blogs or videos. If someone thinks that this cliché is an answer, then he should try it out on the mother of a friend who has died. Hopefully before the words escape his lips, he’ll realize how dumb the statement really is.
We choose to go on the river of our own free will; we don’t have to be there. We aren’t saving our family or waging war against an evil empire. We aren’t doing anything that has value in the outside world. However, we are doing something that can have huge personal value, suffuse our lives with energy and challenge and beauty. But little of that is expressed in the usual reasons that people give, and it certainly isn’t expressed in any cliché I’ve ever heard.
Please, from now on if you hear somebody saying a cheap, unthinking cliché, ask him what he really means. Demand an answer. If we’ve got our finger on the pulse of this wondrous thing called a river, and if we are going to go places where death is a possibility, then we need to think more deeply about why we’re there. Because when you add death into the equation, the answers change.
Doug Ammons has been a world-class kayaker for 25 years, and is a PhD in psychology, musician and martial artist. He was recently named “one of the ten greatest adventurers since 1900” by Outside magazine for his audacious class V solo expeditions.