To date, paddling the Futaleufú River in Chile is one of the biggest highlights of my life. It was also the first time I have ever left my country. Few women in India paddle, let alone embark on international paddling expeditions. I owed it to myself, and to my fellow paddlers, to soak up every moment. Internalizing the experience, and now sharing it with others through my words, feels like a massive responsibility. I hope I do it justice.
I’m Naina Adhikari, a 21-year-old budding kayaker from Nainital, India. I grew up in a small hill station in Uttarakhand and studied in an all-girls convent school. I was thirteen when I started kayaking and haven’t looked back.
I’m not usually this forward or assertive, but after coming across Brooke Hess on Instagram and following her for two years, I got up the courage to reach out. Brooke is an amazing kayaker and while I was super hesitant to write to her initially, it’s safe to say that it turned out to be one of the best decisions ever made.
Not only did Brooke respond, but after a few interactions her interest in my story–a female paving the way for female kayaking in India–had grown and she wanted to interview me and share my story. Within the span of writing the story she suggested we kayak together. Needless to say, her kayaking skills inspired me greatly, and while the idea in itself was nothing short of an honor for me, the chances that I could fly out of my country were brim.
A few months later, my story hit Duct Tape Diaries. A shorter version was printed in Kayak Session and Brooke wrote to me again. She told me that she and a friend from Alaska were traveling to Chile, and she would love for me to join them.
Flattered and a little shocked—definitely interested—I knew I was in no position to fund my trip. Brooke suggested we pitch the trip to NRS and ask for sponsorship in exchange for content. Like my reaching out to Brooke, asking a brand for funding was foreign to me, too. With Brooke as my mentor and liaison, we went ahead with it and it worked.
I was heading to a different side of the world to paddle with strangers–women from completely different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. Well, yes, I was scared. I was about to take a huge leap of faith not because I didn’t trust the process but because I couldn’t imagine bringing myself to undertake something of this magnitude at such a young age.
I was a thirteen-year-old girl when I started kayaking, deeply inspired by my uncle Eddy. My family, especially my mother, was quite reluctant toward the idea of me joining a sport that was not only lesser-known but was one females never participated in, at least in India. To pursue the sport, I needed to be closer to water, which was 300 kilometers from my village. The thought of simply sending me that far from home at that age for a sport they had no understanding of was quite scary and unheard of.
In India, families are overprotective of their girls and want them to grow up in a safe environment. Letting me go took my family a lot of courage. I traveled a lot over the years, mostly solo, which not only helped me become stronger mentally but also helped my family build the strength to see me out there in the world alone handling my professional and personal journey gracefully.
Sure, there have been challenges but all big things come with a set of challenges, the cycle never ends. The biggest challenge in my country has been breaking the biases and fighting the patriarchal norms. And, while there’s a long way to go, I’m more than ready. So, it took a little convincing to get my parents to understand the whole Chile idea because it was a strange land I was heading to. In the end, everyone agreed and they sent me off with blessings and luck.
I had no clue what lay ahead. I constantly doubted my kayaking skills, underestimating myself and the anticipation kept growing until I met these two girls in the Futa town. They ran toward me in their crocs and beaming smiles of joy. It was at that moment that I knew I was going to be okay. The hearty welcome and warmth I received on day one centered me in a comfort zone I never imagined I could feel in a foreign land. Here I was in the company of two badass women gearing up to paddle on one of the most beautiful rivers in the world.
Well, eventually. My first day on the Futa wasn’t great. I didn’t feel extremely comfortable on the river. Bolstering my confidence to feel equal to the world-famous kayakers around me rattled my nerves which in turn, disrupted my paddling. Their very presence intimidated me, and yet, how the girls introduced me to Futa was exceptional and comforting. Starting with the Macal section to White Mile and then finally Bridge to Bridge, we took it slow until I felt strong enough to kayak through a thrilling dream on the Futaleufu.
I’ve never been mentored by female kayakers before, and this experience made me realize why it’s so important to have female mentors in sports. Growing up in India, senior female kayakers simply don’t exist. Not to discredit the fact that I had a great male mentor to look up to. I owe a lot to his undisputed guidance. Having said that, having women highlighted in major sports and roles can be empowering for young girls, especially in a country like India.
I hope this changes with the coming generations and I get to guide young girls out there looking to carve their own way in the world like my mentors in Chile did for me. I can still recall how madly Brooke cheered for me after seeing me get through Mundaca rapid and the most beautiful smile Hailey had on her face after seeing me run those rapids. I could feel it, their happiness seeing my kayak and realizing my dream.
My time in Chile proved to me how possible it is to share the empowerment of kayaking and how fruitful it is for young girls. While we were in Futa we had the opportunity to paddle with the girls of “Chicas al Agua.” It’s a program where young girls are given free kayak workshops, environmental lessons and several more enriching sessions over a course of weeks.
It’s hard to put into words the feeling of becoming a mentor. When I stepped foot in Chile, I leaned on the women who had been here before me, and here I was leading these beautiful young chicas in their home section. What an empowering feeling it is to support each other, look out for each other, and to cheer and love and grow together.
I am so grateful to have crossed paths with these two women. There were times when I had Brooke in front of me and I was super motivated to try new things that were out of my comfort zone or to even paddle better and harder than I did.
It’s also important for me to put it out there that while some days I feel like I’m slaying at my skill, there are days when I feel like I’m losing control over my boat. As frustrating as that can be when Hailey assured me that it’s okay to feel that way, that it’s okay to not always paddle in rhythm. The warm, illuminating smile she had on her face, telling me that I am good enough, even though I felt extremely weak in my strokes, was honestly, very motivating.
I must admit, though, that one highlight of my Futa experience was paddling with Benny Marr, the coolest legend ever–sorry girls. It was nothing short of a dream when Benny parked his duo kayak right across from me at the put-in and asked me to paddle with him. I’d grown up watching him and getting to be on the river with him halfway across the world made me believe in dreams and greater outcomes. What a kayaker and what a great human being.
Before Chile, I had never led another paddler down a rapid before, and by the end of the trip, I was leading them down the biggest rapids on Puente-A-Puente. I didn’t only take home improved kayaking skills, I packed a plethora of learning, love, support and newfound strength with me that I’ll carry for the rest of my life going forward.
Editor’s Note: Words by Naina Adhikari. Photos by Bhuwan Adhikari (Eddy) unless otherwise noted.