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It was mid-September. Despite the sun gracing us with it’s afternoon rays, I was shivering a little. The water temperature in the Deschutes River had dropped notably over the previous weeks, developing that all too familiar bite indicative of the summer season drawing to a close. Quinn Martell, Noah Bader-Fourney, Megan Somloi, and I were trying to capitalize on some much-needed sunshine and fresh air following a full week of hazardous air quality caused by the devastating wildfires that had enveloped much of the west coast. Needless to say, after a week of closed windows, shallow breathing, and air filters taped to box fans, we were hungry for some whitewater.

We were at Benham Falls, the uppermost and largest rapid on the Deschutes. “Benham Falls remains a formidable class V+ rapid that is rarely run above 1000cfs,” reads the American Whitewater page dedicated to the drop. A difficult, intimidating rapid in any regard, we’d all run it previously at higher water and were fired up to return for a few laps on the beast. The crew and I had spent much of the morning scouting and paddling some of the rapids closer to town, warming up for what we anticipated would be a stout afternoon.

Arriving at Benham, it was immediately apparent that the river had dropped substantially from our previous descents (we had run laps of the falls at ~1700cfs and ~1300cfs a couple weeks prior; the gauge now read closer to 1000cfs). We began our scout from a classic overlook located right in the middle of the rapid, maybe 50ft above river level. We knew this was a great spot to gain a bird’s eye view of nearly the entire drop. From here, Megan would take pictures and act as a communications liaison between those of us at the bottom of the falls and those above, still waiting to drop in. After consulting with one another about how the falls had changed with dropping water levels and how we’d each have to adjust our lines as a result, Quinn, Noah, and I agreed to gear up and continue scouting upstream.

When in Doubt, Get Out: A Short Story About Instinct

Gear on, boats shouldered, we began the short hike up to the put-in. We stopped at the halfway point, above the crux moves in the falls but below the class IV lead-in. This would be a good perspective to spot our mid-rapid markers from upstream, ideally making them more recognizable as we dropped in. At this point, the nerves had set in for all of us. We were closer to river level and had been reminded of the true magnitude of the falls. Still, we discussed which features we’d be using to our advantage and which we’d avoid, how we planned to position ourselves for each move, and laid out a contingency plan (a few of them, actually) in case something didn’t go as expected.

When in Doubt, Get Out: A Short Story About Instinct

The general consensus was to run the quarter-mile lead-in as a group, eddy out above the meat, then drop in one at a time. We each shared how we planned to run the crux sequence. We all had more or less the same interpretation: left to right through the first two curlers before charging hard right to boof over the last two (admittedly very intimidating) hydraulics. Nervous but stoked, we continued upstream. Another few hundred yards up the trail, we arrived at the flatwater where we’d put in. As we approached the river bank, something changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Maybe we all felt it at the same time, maybe not, but Noah was the first to call it out. “Something doesn’t feel right, guys.” We set our boats on the shore and took a second to re-evaluate. Still feeling generally confident in our game plan, we discussed the option of paddling the lead-in before making a final decision to drop into the meat of Benham itself. We knew there was an opportunity to take out from an eddy just above the falls on river left if we were still feeling uneasy. At this point, Quinn had exclaimed that he too was wrestling with a negative gut feeling. I was having trouble evaluating my nerves; were they just normal, healthy nerves above a stout rapid? Or was my “lizard brain” trying to tell me something more?

We decided to run the lead in and catch an eddy on river right in order regroup and reevaluate how we were feeling. We made it to the eddy largely without issue, dry hair for all of us, but I could tell by the look on Noah’s face when he pulled in that he’d made up his mind. “I’m out, dude” he said. “Just doesn’t feel right.” That’s all the reason he needed. To be clear, that’s all the reason anyone should need to not run something. Quinn pulled into the eddy shortly thereafter and shared Noah’s sentiments. I was still feeling good and wanted to run the rest of the falls, but encouraged the boys to listen to their guts and agreed to wait for them to get out and set safety at the bottom before I dropped in. I certainly didn’t mind the extra ropes.

We paddled around the corner to the last eddy before the falls. Quinn and Noah got out, wished me luck, and started up the river bank to a trail that would take them down to a good safety position. While I waited in the eddy up top, I felt a distinct uneasiness growing in my gut. Could it have simply been nerves from sitting in by myself above a substantial piece of whitewater? Sure. But I’d been in the same position a few weeks prior, and at higher, presumably more consequential flows. This felt different.

When in Doubt, Get Out: A Short Story About Instinct

I got out of my kayak and pulled it onto a small shelf so I could take another look at the crux move, this time from river level. I saw all the same markers I’d chosen from our initial scouting, felt confident I could make all the moves to be where I wanted relative to each feature, and knew if worst came to worst, Quinn and Noah would be waiting for me down below. Still, I couldn’t shake that dark, churning feeling in my gut.

After yet another thorough examination of both the rapid and my plan, I realized that I was ignoring my own advice from earlier. Here I was, at the lip of a certifiably stout drop, trying to talk myself out of my own intuition. I looked up and saw Megan perched on her overlook, looked down and saw Quinn and Noah in an eddy holding ropes. What on earth was giving me such pause?

When in Doubt, Get Out: A Short Story About Instinct

Suddenly, I thought of the book I was reading, “The Nature Instinct” by Tristan Gooley. In it, Gooley discusses the importance of listening to our intuition and the difficulty of getting the fast-thinking, instinctive part of our brain to communicate fluidly with the slow-thinking, process-oriented part. Even if we have trouble putting it into words, our “instincts” are nothing more than thought processes happening at a rate so fast our conscious minds don’t even register them. For a simple example, let’s say you walk out of the office with a coworker at the end of the day and they note, “feels like it’s gonna rain.” Your coworker’s brain has likely not glimpsed into the future, but instead sensed the darker color of the clouds above, the chaotic wind patterns in the parking lot, maybe a drop in temperature compared to earlier in the day. They didn’t have to consciously map out what each of those signs indicates, their “lizard brain” automatically recognized the pattern from previous experiences and formed a “feeling.” When we experience a gut feeling, it’s because our brain has received input from the world around us (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) and recognized a pattern in one form or another.

What bothered me most while I stood above Benham was that I didn’t know why I was experiencing such a negative gut feeling. In the end, it didn’t matter, nor should it have. My instincts were telling me one thing: don’t run it. Boom, simple, end of story. I realized that, though it could have been helpful in the moment, I didn’t need to know exactly what my lizard brain had seen to understand the point of what it was telling me. Reluctantly, I rock-hopped back to my kayak, paddled to the side of the river, and hiked out.

When in Doubt, Get Out: A Short Story About Instinct

I was determined to find the reason for my instinctive desire not to run the rest of the rapid. I dropped my boat back at the car, met up with Megan on the trail, and walked down to meet the boys below, hoping to spot with the slow-thinking portion of my brain whatever hazard the fast-thinking part had picked up earlier. We all spent a few long minutes looking back up at Benham, tediously reanalyzing every boil, every eddyline, every rock, every minute aspect of every feature we could see. Noah noticed the line he’d picked for himself would have forced him over a shallow knuckle (which he hadn’t seen from above, at least not consciously), killing his speed and sending him into a burly hydraulic. Quinn realized that he’d confused two of the markers he’d seen while scouting from above, a mistake that would have put him way further left through the meat than he would have liked. I still couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe I was surprised by how big the falls still looked at lower water, maybe I knew somehow that the colder temperature would sap more of my energy should I have to swim, maybe I saw the main hydraulic crashing in a way that my lizard brain recognized as something I wouldn’t be able to surf out of. Regardless, I was satisfied with my decision to take a step back for the day.

We loaded up the car feeling justified in our actions. As we drove away, we discussed at length the importance not only of listening to your gut, but using situations like the one we’d been in as opportunities to train our instincts and conscious thoughts to communicate with one another. By taking time after hiking out to intentionally look for the obstacles and hazards that we’d “sensed” earlier, we were forming a line of communication between both parts of our brains. Practicing this doesn’t mean we’ll lose the ability to subconsciously evaluate these features in the future, it merely prepares us to recognize the gut feelings associated with them should we encounter them again.

There is a two-part moral to this story. First, LISTEN TO YOUR GUT. There’s always a reason behind your lizard brain sounding the alarm. Be it a minor shift in a rock that is now backing up a hydraulic, a sneaky strainer just under the surface, or simply your own lack of energy, our lizard brain has to have seen (or heard, or felt) something that it understood as hazardous in order to speak up. Second, if we can learn to consciously recognize the reason for such an alarm, we can work to mitigate the risks associated with a previously unseen hazard, share our thought processes more readily with others, and ultimately build a bridge between instinct and deliberation. Doing so will better equip us to share beta, assess and mitigate risk, and ultimately have a safer, more enjoyable time on the water.

As a final note, following your gut and hiking out above or portaging a rapid, any rapid, doesn’t mean you’re a bad kayaker, nor a worse kayaker than someone who decided to run it. I’ve watched phenomenal kayakers walk around rapids that they’ve cleaned in the past and I’ve watched people get thrashed in rapids that they only ran because they thought it was time for them to step up, or because they watched someone they thought was worse than them run it first. Getting out also doesn’t make you a wimp, or a wuss, or any of the other expletive-laced labels some paddlers might try to throw on you for not running something. It doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, or not brave enough, just that you decided to follow your instincts, regardless of the reason behind them. When in doubt, get out. The river will be waiting for you when you return.