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I’d be lying if I said that the lockdown resulting from Covid-19 hadn’t disrupted my plans for the kayaking season, even if some of those plans were only in my head. I’d also be lying if I said that Coronavirus hasn’t seriously messed with my self-confidence and decision-making on the river.

I flew back to the states in early March, right before things really kicked off, and North America started to understand they weren’t immune to a global pandemic. I had moved to White Salmon, WA fairly recently, and was excited to come back strong after a season on the Kaituna, hoping to get back on the Truss and the Little White. Fortunately for me, my first week back, no one seemed too concerned about Covid-19 or the fact that I had just flown through several international airports. I was able to get in a wonderful Truss lap with a few friends before my roommates lost their jobs at Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, and the coronavirus panic hit home. In the weeks that followed, the Truss (and other sections of the White Salmon) technically shut, and I made the hard decision to put my ego aside and shift my paddling focus to stretches of river that were still open, and I felt 100 % confident on solo.

Whitewater Kayaking | Lessons from Covid-19

I am fortunate to have a river running through my backyard, and I was able to get out on the water fairly frequently. Still, it was hard feeling uncomfortable jumping on unfamiliar runs that I considered to be consequential grade IV-V even though others paddled these same sections casually. While I know that I made the best decision for me at the time, watching other paddlers (even friends) make different choices rankled and left me questioning my decision making and confidence. Was I doing the right thing, or was I just scared?

Now that stay at home orders are easing, and states and rivers are opening back up, I thought it was worth taking a look at some of my insecurities from the past few months. I asked myself, were there any lessons I learned during these Coronavirus times that I want to hold on to?

Whitewater Kayaking | Lessons from Covid-19

1. Focus on you, and only you.

After getting particularly frustrated by seeing a fellow paddler who I believe to a similar skill level to myself jumping on a section of river I still didn’t feel 100% confident on, I got mad at myself for comparing where I was in my boating- emotionally, physically, mentally- to anyone else. I often feel self-conscious about being a “sponsored kayaker” when there are so many talented paddlers out there and can struggle with a sense of expectations about what I “should” be comfortable paddling. It can be hard not to use others as a gauge for this. But, as a friend helped remind me, you never know what history people have with a region or section, and what their familiarity and comfort with a particular run are. Instead of being frustrated that I wasn’t willing to go casually jump on certain sections that others were, I needed to focus on developing the skills that let me feel confident tackling unfamiliar runs when the time is right.

2. Take your time.

Once rivers opened, “Pick a crew you feel comfortable with, find a good warm day with plenty of daylight, and tell them you want to want to go nice and slow,” my same friend advised. It was a reminder to slow down and to minimize stress by reducing things that contribute to feeling stressed on the river so I could focus solely on the river. I think it is important to recognize that every time you paddle, no matter the river grade, there is an element of risk involved. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work to build your confidence and set yourself for success in smaller steps.

Whitewater Kayaking | Lessons from Covid-19

3. Evaluate Risk & Be Informed

During all of this, I feel like I have evaluated risk differently. I didn’t want to end up in the hospital or be a burden on the healthcare system by getting hurt doing something dumb, whether it be on the river or my way there. This made me far more aware of details that I might have disregarded previously. I was better about checking river levels and trying to keep better track of how different features changed with the level. I joined and started paying more attention to local forums, where I was able to stay up to date about access and hazards, like new wood. It also made me look at sections differently as I evaluated what a rescue would look like if no one could help me, which shaped what I felt comfortable paddling. I asked myself, how well did I know the lines? Was I willing to lose a boat or paddle but could get myself safely to shore? Did I have working float bags? What safety equipment do I carry with me daily? How well do my shoes fit? Where was the nearest access point? Who knew I was on the river, and what time did they expect me where? It was a good reminder that while these are all questions I ask on new, unfamiliar runs, sometimes I get complacent and forget to ask them on the stretches I paddle most.

4. Play it Up

I’ve done a lot of solo paddling during these #quarantinetimes, always on sections that I felt 100% comfortable on. It meant a lot of grade II-III, and it meant a lot of time paddling the 100- meter section in my backyard, but it also meant I got to take out my Antix and get squirty. I found new eddies on my home run; I played in different eddylines, worked on my stern squirt. I tried the same eddylines from different angles, and tried moves like kickflips on a variety of features, focusing on my body position rather than caring if they would work. Playing around as much as possible on grade II helped me see the river differently, get comfortable flipping over in the COLD water of the PNW, and work on my roll. I tried rock spins and splats and remembered that there are a bajillion ways to make grade II-III harder and that all of them make you a better kayaker.

Whitewater Kayaking | Lessons from Covid-19

5. Off Water Training

In a lot of ways, I approached the last two weeks like an off-season. I’ve focused on building strength and fitness, and re-found time to have a more regular yoga practice. I kept track of the days and alternated between flatwater interval sessions, going for runs, or doing HIIT fitness mini workouts. (Thanks, Emily!) I have been getting more sleep, and I’ve learned how much better I function (and paddle!) when I’m both hydrated and rested. Even though I only paddled 2-4 days a week instead of my usual 6-7, when I did get in my boat, I often felt stronger and better in it. I might not be able to maintain a full workout regime come paddling season, but it was a good reminder that sometimes paddling less doesn’t have to mean paddling worse.

6. Use Social Media as Tool, Don’t Let it Steal Your Joy

Social media can be great, and it is a great way to find inspiration for things you want to work on, new moves to try, or even for watching and learning from other people’s lines. But sometimes, seeing other’s current paddling missions or #throwback posts also left me questioning everything I have “achieved” in my kayak. I couldn’t help but compare myself to others, their footage and photos painfully defining what I felt I should have done or should be able to do in a kayak. Ask yourself, am I watching these posts and learning, or is it making me feel bad about my paddling? Does what this person can do change how much I enjoy the time I spend on the river? Hopefully, the answer to that last question is always, “No.”

Ultimately, I don’t feel like the stay at home mandate or Coronavirus has made me a worse paddler, even though it meant I paddled less. In a lot of ways, I think it has made me a better, more aware, and more versatile paddler. While I still have so much to learn and improve on, and there will always be days where I feel insecure, what this experience has really reminded me is how much I love kayaking. Whether a flatwater session in a slalom boat, flopping around in a freestyle boat, falling on my head trying stern squirts, or running whitewater that scares me, every day that I am on the water brings a massive smile to face. I appreciate this now more than ever. Regardless of what others are doing, I’m going to continue to (try to!) focus on me and my joy.

Happy paddling.