Lessons from the River


Andria_Davis_31-100x100During a moment of recovery and healing, Andria Davis reflects on what she’s learned from her years on the river and how important it is to keep life and paddling in perspective.


As I’m writing this, I’m in a cast with a broken hand.

Leland is reminded of the power of the river. Photo: Andria Davis

This is my first serious paddling injury in over ten years. In 2005 a back injury laid me out for six months during one of the wettest summers of my paddling career. As I began the usual mental whining that accompanies my setbacks, Why do I always get injured or have a job when it’s raining a lot? I re-read an old article I’d written, “Balancing Game: Yoga Therapy,” (the today-me thanks the past-me!). I was reminded how I can use my injury as a time for self-inquiry and recovery as a way to come back stronger and smarter. Instead of living chaotically—constantly watching the weather, making plans, and going kayaking—I’m able to sit back and reflect on how rich my life is from paddling and the lessons I’ve learned from the rivers.

A broken metacarpal.
A broken metacarpal. Photo: Leland Davis

Lesson 1: You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, so appreciate it while you have it. How often do we find ourselves complaining about the very things that make us happy? What would you do if you no longer had that person, thing, or activity? Instead of complaining about the things that we don’t like or that we wish were different, take time each day to feel gratitude for the wonderful gifts in our lives. For instance, instead of berating myself for that missed boof stroke, I celebrated my athleticism for the sick boof I did hit; when I get perturbed that my husband didn’t wash the dishes, I think about how he chopped wood and built a fire. Be grateful for our paddling ability, the amazing places we get to see, the amazing people in our lives, and the cool gear we have by mentally and physically recognizing them through our thoughts and actions.

Photo: Leland Davis

Lesson 2: Fake it ‘til you make it. This was my very first paddling lesson, and I’ll never forget how powerful it was to learn. And even today, when I try new activities, run a big rapid, or start a new job, I use this technique.

When I became a raft guide, I wasn’t an athletic or confident person. My poor rafting guests sensed my insecurities, and disaster ensued. I decided I would start to act like I knew what I was doing by mimicking the other raft guides. It actually worked. My guests became more confident in me, my lines became better, and my confidence grew. It was a loop of positive feedback. Try visualizing yourself succeeding and embody that success and see what happens. You might even need to remember how to embrace your inner dumbass! But be careful…

Photo: Andria Davis

Lesson 3: Be humble. If there is one characteristic that the river hones in a person, it’s humility. If I don’t see humility in a paddler, it scares me. Yet, many times my confidence has grown to overconfidence, which can be very dangerous in any life situation. There is a line where the previous technique of faking it can get you into trouble, so self-inquiry is crucial. Look around and ask yourself if faking confidence in this situation will endanger yourself and those around you. If so, back down and save the activity for a more appropriate time. Humility transitions into every aspect of our lives: jobs, families, friendships—even driving a car. Accept when you’ve made a mistake and change your behavior. Learning to balance between confidence and humility makes all of life’s activities more open to us and enjoyable.

Photo: Leland Davis

Lesson 4: Get outside and on a river. Life is crazy. We are bombarded with so much information, so much noise, and so many emotions every day. Before I became a paddler, I would just sit by the river and think. Somehow, I learned to cope with life’s mess and walked away a better person each time; and the river continues to replenish me today. I never want to forget how much perspective the river has given me. Today, when life gets almost unbearable, I go paddling, and nothing seems like such a big deal anymore. The river is such a huge, powerful force that predates, and will outlive, us all. It will withstand anything humans do to it, and can take our fragile lives in an instant. It makes me feel small. Don’t forget your meagerness—go to the river. Play in the water and feel its power. Listen to what’s left in the mind after the sound of the water has washed away all the non-sense.

Photo: Leland Davis

Lesson 5: Keep your head down. As kayakers, we learn this lesson when we’re taught to roll. Every now and again, I have to re-learn it. We want to lift our head when rolling because we want to be finished with the roll sooner. We rush it. Usually when I’m rushing my roll, it’s because my mind is going a million miles an hour thinking about other things: “There’s a sieve downstream, what if I miss my roll? I don’t want to swim…” But what I should think about is performing the actions of the roll to the best of my ability with no attachment to the results. Whenever I just think about rolling, I just roll.

Recently, I was taking a test. My mind started to go off: “What if I don’t get the minimum score? What if I don’t know the answers? Will they kick me out of nursing school?” Then I thought, “Keep my head down!” I silently chuckled knowing that paddling had just taught me another life lesson—to think only in the moment without considering possible outcomes. I’ll perform better with a clear mind than with a cluttered one. I finished the test not only with a passing grade, but an exceptional one that allowed me to test out of the final. (Result: an extra paddling day!) Ah, the power of the mind to destroy or create our reality.

Photo: Leland Davis

When I was growing up, I didn’t listen to anyone, and I was a pretty hard case. Only the river could make me listen. The river has a way of finding out whatever my weakness is and bringing it to the forefront. In this way, the river has and continues to strengthen me. I’m so grateful for the lessons the river has taught me, and I can’t wait to get back out there and learn more!

Photo: Leland Davis