The sun cuts through the fall canopy, setting the world ablaze. Leaves of red and orange and yellow reflect in dark pools like a forest consumed in fire. Waves and ripples glisten in the dappled light like sparks floating from a flame.
The magic of fall lies not only in its beauty but also in its variability. While summer and winter can be uniform and long, fall is more ephemeral, even moody. A pleasant fall day is not to be taken for granted, for last month may have been too hot and next month too cold. And even the fall foliage that inspires us to seek out vistas and trails and waterways is only in its prime for a couple of weeks. The reason I enjoy fall is the same reason I enjoy paddling whitewater, it forces me to be in the moment.
It’s late October and I’m kayaking Overflow Creek, a steep tributary of the Chattooga River, flowing out of the mountains of northeast Georgia. The fact that I’m out here with two old friends when the colors are bursting and the air temperature is in the 70s is somewhat serendipitous. Hard storms over the past couple of days have woken Overflow from its long summer slumber, but by tomorrow, this creek will be below boatable levels.
The beginning of Overflow is bony, and we spend much of the first half-mile eddy hopping through the shallow shoals and ducking under downed trees. The tight moves require constant attention to keep from getting pinned or flipped, and the easier whitewater is just demanding enough to take my mind off my nervousness. I’m thankful for the warmup. It’s been years since I’ve paddled Overflow, and what little kayaking I’ve done in the past few months wasn’t nearly as hard as what’s ahead of me today.
Before I can worry about the class V drops downstream, I have to make it through the class III rapid around the corner. Even the smaller rapids on Overflow can create calamity, leading to broken boats, lost paddles, or silly swims. However, a rapid is not a step, it is a staircase. Not only do I need to break the run into individual rapids, I need to break the rapids into individual moves, transforming a mass of complicated motions into single feasible elements. Kayaking is at its best when it propels me into this zone, a strange brew of unconscious actions and reactions that is immune from both pride and fear
As the gradient begins to increase, we come to a rapid called Gravity. While my mind fights off the negative ghosts, I take a breath. Our body doesn’t work without our brain; our brain doesn’t work without oxygen. I boof off the first ledge, landing flat onto a rocky shelf. Then I get a couple of strokes before launching off the next drop. A cross-current flips me, but I roll up before being pushed into the rocks to my left. It wasn’t my best line of the day, although it could have been a lot worse. If I miss one move, I have to shake it off and focus on the next one. Otherwise, my skills and my mental agility will deplete with every drop in elevation.
Like the fall, the world can be unpredictable, showering us with both opportunities and obstacles. To say kayaking helps us solve life’s bigger problems is an oversimplification. It’s easier to break down the necessary steps in kayaking a rapid, than it is to tackle most of the challenges we face off the water. Paddling involves physical actions—reach forward, place the blade in the water, rotate torso. Repeat as needed.
With many of our more complicated trials, the solution is not as straightforward. However, activities that force me to be in the moment, whether it is paddling a difficult river, biking a technical trail, or visiting a scenic spot in the woods, hit the “reset button” on my mental focus. So instead of being haunted by past failures or intimidated by future challenges, I am better able to breakdown my problems piece-by-piece, move-by-move, dissecting discord into manageable objectives.
We make our way through another mile of difficult whitewater, portaging around a couple of trees before coming to the last class V of the day called Pinball. I enter the top of the rapid and eddy out on the right, looking downstream. There are no clear tongues, just a mass of pillows and seams bouncing off and over rocks. I drop over the next ledge and dive into the mayhem, bracing and bouncing and boofing, all the while trying to keep my angle and momentum heading left. Everything is a blur as I hit the bottom hole and shoot through the foam pile. During the rest of the paddle out, my friends and I can’t stop smiling.
This is the Southeast and I know winter storms will enable lots of paddling over the next few months, maybe even another chance to get on Overflow. However, I also know I’m fortunate to have a good day on the river with great friends. Being in the moment isn’t just about focus, it’s also about gratitude. To fully experience the moment is to cherish it as well.