A Journey Through Fear on the Colorado River in an Inflatable Kayak

A Journey Through Fear on the Colorado River in an Inflatable Kayak

“In big waves it’s easiest to catch a breath in the trough or low point of the wave instead of the top of the wave where it’s breaking” Dave said as we all encircled him brimming with excitement ready to start the whitewater part of our Cataract Canyon trip.

I was listening to the safety talk about what to do if we fell in the rapids, but my mind was also preoccupied wondering – will I really remember any of this if I find myself in this unfortunate situation? It’s the same thing I think with bear safety talks; I’m unsure how I will react if I encounter a bear on the trail even though I know what I’m supposed to do. Will I remember all of these breathing techniques, swimming techniques and hand signals Dave is talking about? I don’t know, but I’m trying to commit them to memory the best I can.

I wasn’t necessarily worried about the whitewater rafting, the OARS guides are so talented (yet anything can happen in rapids). What I was worried about is when I was planning on kayaking through the rapids by myself.

Kayaking is an option offered by OARS on their Cataract Canyon trip and I knew that I wanted to try it. However, one problem, I was scared. I was teetering on that precipice of fear and excitement.

Fear – the F Word

“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”

I recently heard this on a show I was watching and I had to quickly write it down. It’s so true. So often we let fear win and wonder why we aren’t living the life we want, in the job we desire, lost the weight we wanted to, or in the part of the world we want to live in.

Why aren’t we living the life we want? Fear.

You must learn how to tackle fear else you’ll spend your life looking over at the other side of fear and be envious of the people there.

One of the frequent questions people (normally other women) ask me about is how I overcome fear. I never quite know how to answer them. But I do know that something deep inside drives me simply because I want what’s on the other side so badly; confidence, self-esteem, newness, and even feeling younger.

Living in Discomfort and Pushing Through Fear

I know – getting to that other side isn’t easy – it’s uncomfortable to try to break through fear. However, discomfort helps you grow.

Keep in mind, we’ve been pushing through fear our whole lives – getting on the bus and going to kindergarten, learning how to drive, moving to college, interviewing your high school heart throb Andrew McCarthy as an adult – but as we get older we get more afraid because we think we have more to lose. But do we really?

What Kids Can Teach You About Fear

I love speaking at schools to kids about international travel. Mainly because it’s refreshing to see their eagerness to try things. After a number of these school presentations, I’m convinced that we grow into fear; we lose the excitement, intrigue and curiosity as we start to coast in our midlife. I get it – coasting is easier.

Doing these presentations always reminds me that adults have to get back into looking at things with the attitude of “I’ll try it”, instead of “I can’t do that!”

Practice Getting Used to Fear

I do a lot of adventure travel, and I am not necessarily a brave person. In fact, when I try new things – like kayaking through rapids, trying slab climbing, or repelling down a waterfall – I’m scared. However, because my mind and body are used to doing things that scare me, I’m normally able to follow through.

He said “Think like a guy – and just dont think.” And with that over the ledge of Empress Falls we went one by one. 80 ft repel with pounding water – I gave myself a pep talk the whole way down. When I landed in the waterfall and looked up from where I came thats when I could breathe in the pure joy.

That’s right – practice is important when it comes to overcoming and pushing through fear. Luckily, my travels have given me a lot of practice over the past 15 years! Just like running a marathon, you have to train and get your body and mind used to running for hours at a time. It’s the same thing with fear.

Grand Canyon in an Inflatable Kayak

Last year I practiced overcoming my kayaking through whitewater fear on my Grand Canyon rafting trip . It prepared me for another fear hurdle in the Cataract Canyon.

I often think about how I will feel if I don’t do something. Will I be mad at myself? Will I feel like I gave up? Will I wish I would’ve done it?

This is how I got my niece to bungee jump in New Zealand. When I asked her how she’d feel when she got home and everyone asked her if she bungee jumped and she had to answer ‘no’. That was what made her decide to tackle her fear and say yes to the iconic New Zealand plunge.

This is also how I was able to go through rapid 217 in the Grand Canyon in a Duckie last year.

What is a Duckie?

Duckies are inflatable sit-on-top kayaks that fall somewhere between a raft and a traditional kayak in terms of maneuverability. This makes them sort of like a small individual whitewater raft. Unlike a whitewater kayak – you can’t really roll a duckie. If the duckie tips, you will fall out and be swimming.

A duckie is an inflatable kayak

I had been kayaking in a duckie through some of the easy Grand Canyon rapids at the end of our trip and was loving it – however rapid 217 was going to be much harder and I was unsure if I could do it. I was scared – really scared. The rapid was a difficulty of 7 and had a 16 foot drop. However, there was an easier way through it if you just stayed to the left of the rapid and hugged the shoreline.

Yet I knew deep down I would be mad at myself for retreating to the easier side of the rapid and skirting the hard part. Suddenly (after a few curse words) I found myself following the other kayak down the tongue of the rapid. Armed with the knowledge that I just had to keep the kayak perpendicular to the giant waves…I went into the chaos and heart of the rapid.

Success is the Recipe for Confidence

Once you accomplish the thing you are fearful of, your confidence grows, and you use the new confidence to push through the next thing. It’s like taking baby steps – taking on challenges and pushing yourself gets easier every time.

But if you don’t keep pushing yourself through fear, it’s likely you’ll lose the confidence that you worked so hard building up.

I look at taking on fear like training…training for a fulfilling life.
When you stop this process – that’s when you get old.

Challenging yourself can also be a bit addicting. That’s how I ended up back on a duckie on the Cataract Canyon 8 months later.

Cataract Canyon in an Inflatable Kayak

On my week long Cataract Canyon rafting trip, we split the rapids across 2 days taking on the Big Drop Rapids on day 1, leaving the remaining Class II and III rapids for the next day. We also did that so that people who wanted to kayak the last day could challenge themselves on these smaller, yet still very serious rapids. Thanks to my practice and success in the Grand Canyon, I was excited to attempt these remaining rapids in a single kayak.

Fear Always Creeps In

As we stood on the riverbank waiting for the guides to finish packing their rafts and get everything tied down, big gusts of wind blew the sand into us. It felt like little needles hitting you; I was getting an exfoliation treatment whether I wanted it or not. As the wind gained strength, I was subsequently feeling my strength wane.

After successfully conquering my fears in the Grand Canyon, I knew kayaking was something I wanted to do more of – and here was my chance. I had decided to kayak this morning to finish out Cataract Canyon rapids 27 to 34.

The wind blew sand into my face as I tried to turn away from the painful pellets, and my hand gripped the kayak rope a little harder. I want to do this…but what if I can’t? What it I don’t have the strength to fight this wind and control my duckie in the rapids? Doubt was creeping in.

But I also thought about how great I felt when I completed the challenging run in the Grand Canyon. Conquering your fears is like taking a magic pill; it gives you confidence, strength, and even youth. I wanted that again. I wanted to do this.

A Small Win

We pushed off from the shore.

The kayakers were tucked in between the guide rafts so that they could help out if any of us ran into trouble. I did the first few rapids but struggled to get control of the kayak in the horrible wind. In fact – on one of the rapids I went through I was supposed to pull over into the eddy to wait for other people, however with the strong wind I couldn’t get into the eddy. I was fighting so hard trying to get there, and was losing all of my strength. I made eye contact with one of our guides in a regular raft, Ernie, and he saw me struggling and motioned for me to just go on through the next rapid.

Following the other boats

This meant I was going through alone – not sandwiched safely between the guide boats – I was leading the way. My heart rate heightened even more; if I tipped there would be no one downstream to rescue me. I entered the rapid and just fought…fought with everything I had to keep it perpendicular to the wave train.

I made it through and that confidence started to grow like the Grinch’s heart…I had 3 times the confidence! But…I was exhausted. I hadn’t worked that hard paddling ever – and my arms felt like noodles.

I Met My Match at The Chutes

The Colorado river makes a right-hand bend above the Chute (Rapid 29 on Cataract Canyon), making it tough to see exactly what you’re in for, and as you round the corner and head into the wave train, it doesn’t look like much… but each wave gets a little bigger until the final one, which if hit at just the right moment can turn any raft into a submarine and drench everyone on board, taking away anything not buckled down as sacrifice to the river gods! (Top 10 whitewater rapids in Utah)

We’ve all heard about Lake Powell and it’s low water levels due to less water in the Colorado River. Lake Powell’s low water levels means that previously flooded rapids along Cataract Canyon are being ‘reclaimed’ and revealed. The Chutes, a once tamed rapid, is once again a churning wave train.

And I was headed right for it.

Whitewater Rescue

I followed the raft ahead of me through the Chutes trying to keep to their line through the turbulent waves. I was feeling great – powerful – capable.

As I was basking in that adrenaline, I looked to my right and saw a wave churning towards me like a bulldozer from the side. Suddenly I was under water and time slowed down to a crawl. What was literally seconds (you can see in the video) from when I tipped over and fell in to when I got my first breath of air felt like 5 minutes.

The wave that side-swiped me…

This was the moment – that moment when my brain tried to recall the tips Dave gave us yesterday about how to deal with ‘swimming through the rapids’.

Dave said don’t panic…check.

I was under the kayak. I put my hands over my head, felt the duckie, felt my way to the side and pushed underneath it flipping it back over and holding on to it for dear life trying to get my orientation.

When I popped up all I could see was turmoil. Waves were everywhere, churning and crashing. The wind blew a strong gust and my lifeline, the inflatable kayak I was holding onto to stay above water, blew out of my grip and upstream. In a split second I turned to watch it blow away I saw other people in the water. The guys behind me in the double kayak must have flipped too. Weirdly that made me feel better for a split second.

We were all swimming unintentionally in the middle of the rapid. It’s not actually ‘swimming’, it’s more like the rapid is chewing on you, swishing you around, and bouncing you around as if you are a sock in a washing machine.

“Point your feet downstream so your feet go first,” Dave said – Check

“Use your paddle to help you swim.” – Sort of check…
I had my paddle, but I wasn’t really sure what to do with it.

“Take a deep breath at the bottom of the wave and let it out at the top” – Fail.

I tried really hard to remember this – and all I could remember was that the breathing thing was important…but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to breath at the top or bottom. Needless to say – I swallowed a lot of water…a lot. And in retrospect, this was the moment where I was most panicked.

The rapids and current took me past one of the rescue boats and I could see the last one way in front of me; I knew I had to get there. I mustered what little energy I had left and started trying to swim towards Dave’s Dory as it was trying to come back to me. We had thankfully gotten out of the worst rapids and things had settled down, as did my panic.

I grabbed onto the dory feeling so relieved to be safely hanging on to something solid again. Dave quickly instituted the rescue procedure for getting me out of the water and lifting me up into the boat. My arms were jelly – but I knew I had to use whatever strength that was left to try to help lift myself in. 1-2-3…and I very ungracefully was pulled into the dory and onto the the floor.

I made it.

Watch My Kayak Flip and Whitewater Rescue

And I have the OARS guides training, quick thinking ,and calm actions to thank for it. They were such pros. They had 3 kayakers and two kayaks in the rapids and got everyone rescued in record time. What felt like 20 minutes was really only about 2 minutes. I sat in the dory panting, everyone asking me if I was ok; my adrenaline finally dissipated and I started feeling like myself again.

Get Back on the Horse…err…Kayak

Then I did what I didn’t think I could do – I got back in my kayak and finished the remaining rapids. As thankful as I was to be back in the dory, after I got settled down, Dave asked me if I wanted to finish out the rapids. I thought about it a bit, weighed the pros/cons and decided that I needed to finish it out. If I didn’t, I might never try this again.

Plus, most importantly, I didn’t want fear to win.

I finished out the rapids staying afloat. My confidence and pride soared; I had made it to the other side of my kayaking fear. Even though the entire rafting trip was wonderful, this is what I will always remember most from this trip. It will be a story that I relive over and over.

Fear is a powerful thing, but you can tame it. It’s not easy to push through it, but when you do, you open up the door to so many more possibilities. As we get older things change, we forget our dreams that we had when we were kids, and our list of fears just gets longer and longer.

But life doesn’t have to slow down and always be safe. Find a pace of pushing yourself that works for you – and keep practicing. It’ll get easier, your confidence will soar, and you never know where it will take you next. Who knows, you might head down the Chutes rapid in a duckie too!

Read my Other Articles on Fear:
How to Overcome Travel Fear
Growing Up and Growning Scared
Aging and Fear

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