Paddle or Die!

In 2008, I went whitewater rafting on the Ocoee River in Tennessee. The River is famous as the site of the 1996 Olympic Whitewater Kayak Slalom events. It also contains a section known for its 20 named rapids of class III or higher. Class III rapids would be described by most people as small water falls.

Our guide explained to us that at some points during the trip, he would announce the direction to “paddle or die!” How many of those directions were dramatized for our entertainment is still unclear to me today.

However, what is clear to me is that all of the rapids we ran had the potential to be highly dangerous if we did not choose the proper route through them. I also know that it is nearly impossible to control a boat which has been swept up by the current of a river strong enough to be classified above class III.

Steering a boat requires more than a rudder. A boat has to have momentum to be able to turn. You can spin the steering wheel of a car all day but nothing will happen unless you hit the gas. A river’s current tries to push and pull a boat in all kinds of directions making it very difficult to control…unless you have 6 people paddling for their lives. Paddling puts the vessel’s momentum on a straight line thus making the captain’s job far easier.

You can’t go slow into a class III rapid or you will be at the mercy of the current. You have to look down the barrel of what is effectively a waterfall and run towards it. To falter is to give in to the mercy of the current. And this can have disastrous consequences.

Orchestra auditions are among the scariest activities in which I engage. As soon as I walk on stage, the knowledge that a conductor is on the other side of the screen makes me falter. I start to second guess my training, become judgmental of my own playing, and lose confidence. I get jostled by the current and swept down a bad part of the river. But if I just keep going, trusting my preparation, I come out on the other wide unscathed.

I knew someone once who had a major memory slip during a concerto competition but he just picked up and kept playing. He told me later that he decided to just play the hell out of the rest of the piece despite the catastrophic mistake. Faced with adversity, he just paddled faster. And he won that competition.

When faced with fear, sometimes the only choice is to PADDLE OR DIE!

(Picture: my Dad and I paddling or dying)


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