Aislinn and I met in college and bonded over cappuccinos and boiled perogies. She worried like a mother about my regular diet of Pop-Tarts and Lucky Charms. We shared a penchant for dreaming about far-away places too remote to make Outside magazine’s 50 Trips of a Lifetime and trying our luck at things that scared us.

That’s how I find myself scouting from a slippery bank as my first class IV resonates like the third beer on an empty stomach. A kaleidoscope of frantic foam, lashing tongues of dark water and air saturated with the river’s breath. The din of the whitewater drowns out the voice of my instructor—a callow hotshot who turns away to gaze at the wave for vital, entirely inaudible periods of his briefing.

My stomach flutters. A rabble of butterflies is trying to escape from its knotted clutch. With blissful ignorance and naïve optimism, I conjure an image of my boat slipping cleanly through the galloping whitewater. My faith in my fellow paddlers is unquestioning. Kayakers are transformed into knights; their boats are loyal steeds. Smelly neoprene is shining armour. Besides, nothing will go wrong, Aislinn assures me.

We are opposites in many ways. Aislinn is lanky and graceful where I am powerful and clumsy. As a climber, she moves up rock like a feather caught in a rising thermal. I scrabble below her, using brawn and grit without technique or strategy. She takes to kayaking with equal elegance.

Above the rapid, our instructor disappears over the drop without a word. Aislinn is calmly coaching, as if I am her personal responsibility. The sequence to the roll she taught me just three days earlier flickers like a dying light bulb in the dim labyrinth of my memory.

“Just follow me.”

I see her slip gracefully up the massive green tongue and slide effortlessly across the wave into the eddy below. The curling wave arcs above me. Water rushes my face and chest like a schoolyard bully in a game of Reeds. My boat stalls on its stern, then pirouettes and rolls upside down in what amounts to the only graceful part of my run.

I swim

Boils claw at my feet and threaten to hold me forever in the deep, black water. I drag myself onto a rock, shaking and swearing. Adrenaline courses through numb limbs. I’m a fighter who’s just lost after 15 rounds in the ring.

I might have left kayaking forever right then. But Aislinn wouldn’t let me. When my wit had fled to hide in vaulted towers high above the water, she brought me back to the river. And when I did my first combat roll later that day, I quietly thanked her.

We now live at opposite ends of the country. Our lives still revolve around paddling—hers in giving instruction and advice, mine in telling stories. Perhaps we have each other to thank.


This article on whitewater kayak instruction was published in the Early Summer 2009 issue of Rapid magazine.

This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2009 issue of Rapid Magazine.



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