If you've spent any time in the whitewater world, you’ve undoubtedly heard rallying cries to “Go bigger!” and “Step it up!” Boundary-pushing mantras of bravado like this pervade the sport, from professionals facing un-run rapids, to friends pushing each other over their first drop.
As a river runner for nearly four decades, it’s exciting to see the sport evolve with new skills and challenges. But the consequences of what happens when beginners and intermediates think in clichés are disturbing.
Whitewater kayaking is one of the smallest adventure sports there is. The Nantahala Outdoor Center estimates there are roughly 40,000 regular whitewater kayakers in the U.S., defined as people who own a kayak and paddle once a year. Compare that to 20 million skiers and two million rock climbers and you realize just how small our clan really is.
One reason for our minority is the huge attrition coming from bad experiences. Plenty of people think kayaking looks fun and they try it out. However, they are set up for failure by expecting success with little preparation, and dealing with fear using artificial bravado.
Consider the guy whose friends take him on the local run (“Dude, it’s easy!”). He flips, flails upside down, gasping and scared. He has no skills but they say, “Get back on the horse!”
Or the anxious intermediate woman looking at her first class IV. She doesn’t have confidence but her friends urge her, “Step it up, go bigger!”
For every person I know who paddled whitewater for a season, many more have told me they got scared and quit. No wonder our sport is so small.
These mantras are part of the problem. You don’t deal with fear by denying it. You don’t get confident or improve skills by acting with false bravado under peer pressure.
These same clicés undermine people’s sense of belonging. Countless times paddlers have confessed to me, “I’m not a real paddler—I only do class II.” Instead of feeling joy and accomplishment, the default attitudes pervading our sport make people feel insecure and dissatisfied.
That’s the sound of the future of our sport washing away. Whitewater kayaking can survive without class V daredevils, it can’t survive without beginners and intermediates.
Fast progression to bigger and more difficult rapids isn’t everyone’s goal. That assumption takes a rich sport and narrows it to one dimension. Idolizing hard whitewater leaves out what the vast majority of whitewater paddlers do—catching a nice eddy, surfing a beautiful wave, and just enjoying a day on the river.
Water carries infinite beauty and moods, and our sport includes all of them. There are days bouncing down rapids shouting with friends, times listening to the rain fall on the water, or watching otters play—a million things the magic of rivers give us that don’t involve “stepping it up”. Don’t let the default clichés make your world smaller.
Nobody should think they aren’t a real paddler because they don’t chase big rapids or waterfalls. If you have a paddle in your hands and you are in your boat, once you push off into the river you are a real paddler. Go explore.
A world-class paddler and intellectual badass, Doug Ammons made the first solo descent of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine in 1992.