video: Yannick Lockhead
I am sure that most of my students are convinced I never come out of my boat. They are, of course, quite wrong. I try to swim at least once a season whether I need it or not. It keeps me humbled before the river gods. It means that I am pushing myself. It reminds me that there is more to learn, improve upon. It also means that I have been paddling for myself, which I hail with great satisfaction.
The reason my students don’t think I ever swim is that I don’t teach on water that pushes my limits. I teach on water that I am very comfortable in and I am very unlikely to swim and rarely even flip over. This is not a poke at the river gods. This is simply saying that you teach on water that is well below your limits, that if you are pushed by the water you are teaching on then nobody is going to learn anything that day.
Okay, enough of that. Let’s get to the swimming bit. I have long said that two things improved my paddling: a dry suit and a roll. This combination meant that I would try things that I never would have before; if I flip over then no problem, I will roll up and still be warm. I have also maintained that I am better off in my boat than out of it, so I hang on tenaciously when upside down until I can roll. But sometimes you just cannot roll up. Perhaps you are in a nasty hole, or pushed up against a wall, or your outfitting came off or broke, or your paddle broke, or your friends are holding your boat upside down… this can all happen, you know.
So this past weekend I was paddling on the Independence River in upstate New York and we came to the take out where there was a great little drop of 4 or 5 feet that looked very clean and runnable. We had to try it. In setting up safety, I got all cocky and stated that there was really no need for downstream safety as it was the hole at the bottom of the drop that was an issue and not the slow water downstream that led into a class 5 set. I went first and, of course, I swam out the bottom in the slow water. I flipped at the bottom and came out of my outfitting, and while I swam easily to shore, my boat was now heading downstream into class 5.
The boat made the run better than I could have, but it did it upside down, breaking a thwart, an inwale and an outwale- relatively light damage considering where it went. But completely avoidable if I had thought a bit more about all the ways I can swim. The water was not a big problem- I can usually roll easily in that kind of water, I just didn’t count on the fact that stuff happens on a river. We take calculated risks every time we put onto a river, and this was not reckless, just avoidable.
I do, however, take heart in the swim. As I stated off the top, it means that I am pushing myself a bit. As an instructor- and most of my paddling these days is while I am instructing, I do not get the opportunity to push myself that often. There is a strange badge of honour that paddlers wear when not coming out of their boat- I know I have worn it proudly. But swimming means learning, pushing, and trying new sets and moves. It means running a new river where the lines have not had a groove worn in them by my canoe, where I am excited and nervous for what is around the corner. It means that I have been out paddling for fun. I look forward to more swimming, if it can mean all that.