This past week at ALF we lost a member of our community. I received a Facebook message that day; a dispatch from the river that shook my core. Steve Senior had come out of his boat, was flushed into a hydraulic, and his foot became entrapped. Just about the worst combination of events possible became possible. And an unlikely outcome for that particular rapid, became a reality.
The paddlers on the rescue team were second to none. I know many of them personally and can attest to their skill level, training and commitment to swiftwater rescue. Each individual is one who would do anything within their means to perform a rescue; I can only imagine the magic that happened when they came together as a team. They got him out after several minutes submerged and performed CPR. He responded at the scene but died later in hospital.
This incident left me reeling. My heart goes out to Steve’s family, to those who love him, and to his fellow paddlers and rescuers who witnessed a death on a river. It is haunting to lose someone this way. It is too sudden, too unreal, too tragic.
For the past week I have been pondering why it is we do what we do – why we paddle whitewater rivers. There is the beauty of the land and water for sure, but there is something else. There is the rush, the adrenaline, the risk factor. Activities like paddling whitewater expose us to risk in ways we avoid in everyday life. Why are we drawn to risk? And is it worth it? Perhaps some risk is necessary to feel alive, vital and real. Perhaps it is psychologically necessary. Is it?
There is a zone, a sweet-spot for risk. A place where there is enough risk to push our limits, but not so much that we are paralyzed with fear. This is a place where we can push the boundaries of our comfort zones and learn. In this place risk is calculated, mitigated, but not eliminated. As a teacher I spent years trying to create this space and bring my students there. I have witnessed immense growth of character and spirit in the cradle of this space. The experience of calculated risk has become a fundamental value that I have taken into parenthood.
But risk is not without, well, risk. Steve was in that zone of calculated and mitigated risk and he had a freak accident. And he’s gone. Without risk, he would still be with us today, but would he have lived the life he wanted to live? Would he have enjoyed the sport he had come to love? Would he have seen and done the things he was able to do in a canoe? Would he have grown into the person he was?
So here’s the dilemma: it could have been any of us. It could have been you. It could have been me, father of three little boys who need me to watch them grow up. Is it still worth the risk? Should I stay home? Or should I steady my nerves and get back out to the magic place of growth-through-risk?
This tragedy leaves me with more questions than answers. I will continue to paddle, continue to mitigate risk for myself and my students. I will still embrace a certain amount of risk, because that’s why we paddle whitewater.
I will also be more wary next time I am on the water. And I will spend a moment in silence in memory of Steve Senior.