October 1996

 

About a year ago I was asked by a friend (Jimmy Snyder) to answer a question posed by another friend of his, Trip Kinney.Trip asked: "why do you do it?Why do you paddle class five?why do you fling yourself over huge drops, through monster holes, into places that by all rights should kill you deader'n dirt?what if you mess up?? what really keeps you going over those horizon lines? (be honest, kids)"

 

Originally I refused to say anything because Trip's question sounded a little flippant, even though he didnít really mean it that way.††† Jim urged me to answer seriously.†† After some thought, I wrote an answer to the simpler question, "why do you paddle class five?"I called my answer 'the Real Shit'.

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When I first started thinking about the question above, I had a little problem about where to begin.It seemed to me that Trip's question was backward.None of us started out doing what he's talking about, so we've got to go back to the beginning for the answers to make sense.For each of us, the meaning comes from what's happened along the way.

Ultimately, I think all answers are personal, so the following is a personal sketch of one path. Everybody takes their own, but hopefully others will see some of themselves here as well as places where we differ.Since we all learn and change over time, our answers change too.At least that's been true for me.

***††

 

The Real Shit

 

I started paddling because I loved the water.I learned the basic skills and after a couple of times on the river, found it was the wildest, funnest, most playful, and beautiful damn sport I'd ever done.The people were great, the rivers were beautiful, and every horizonline stirred all the fun and questions anew.It was challenging, exciting and there seemed no limit to what I could do or where I could go.By my second or third time on the river, I was hooked.By the end of my first year, I was a fanatic.

 

I ran my first class five rapid after I'd been paddling about two months.†† I didn't know very much, but as they say, maybe ignorance is bliss.I was paddling with a group of older guys on a wilderness river they knew well, and we came to a rapid that they had always portaged.They said the rapid was unrunnable, and at first I believed that. But after looking closely I suddenly realized there was a straightforward line in an otherwise class six drop.The key was seeing past the intimidation around the line.†† I committed, and ended up running it twice with no difficulties. It was a little scary, sitting in the eddy above and feeling the river surge beneath me.But what led me to paddle over that horizonline was a quiet sense of certainty.I knew what I'd seen.The mindblower came afterwards: realizing if you looked just right you could find a thread that carried you through all the dangers, right into the heart of the river. I'll never forget that feeling. The river opened up and beckoned so enticingly, so exquisitely, that I just had to follow.†† Somehow, it had to do with seeing something true about the water and myself.More than the excitement and more than the challenge, it was that sense of truth that led me on.

 

I had a new goal that added something even more compelling than the fun and excitement. By the end of the first year, I was doing class 5 with regularity, paddling with the best guys in the area. Well, with good role models to learn from and great rivers to run, you can bootstrap yourself up pretty quickly. I went looking for new places, mostly steep creeks tucked away in remote canyons.Thing led to thing.There was exploring, topo maps, recon, first attempts, failures, waterfalls, rappells, complex portaging - all to find wild lines down beautiful sparkling streams. I shared them with my best buddies, made new friends, committed to little adventures.Sometimes we'd get thrashed but we always came back.Who could ask for a better world?I found a place clean and pure, where the sun and snowmelt laughed with you as you paddled over the edge of the drop, and the next and the next...†† We solved outrageous puzzles of movement and timing; played games of speed chess with the water, just at the edge of what we could handle.We wove ourselves completely into the river and lived for those moments of clarity, when you were committed to the line.†† To that thread of truth.††† And all those days of friendship and worry and concentration and smiles melted together into the best feeling...

 

The water is so beautiful.All that power and complexity, all that mystery and unknown.†† I found myself sitting and watching the smallest eddies, with their tiny whirlpools and subtle turbulence.I could sit for hours watching and feeling there was something magical there, that I couldn't quite touch, it would appear and disappear... And who wouldn't be mesmerized by a huge river pounding off a waterfall into a massive hole?Do you like looking at reality?Do you like seeing truth laid out in front of you, sunlight glinting off the spray while the boulders you sit on shake with its power?†††

 

I got asked by my mentors on more committing trips, and I went.In some ways it was more of the same, but with the greater commitment came new territory.The places got more spectacular and more dangerous.More importantly, the trips changed their tenor.I found it was one thing doing first descents near home, whether it was class five on steep creeks or big water.Even on the most remote runs, at least you weren't far from people. But doing it up in the wilderness of Canada, Alaska, the jungle, or farther away still, was another thing altogether.The pure fun of zipping a clean line becomes less the point, and something else steps in. The moves might be similar, but a new set of emotions becomes important when you're out in the middle of nowhere, deep in the bottom of some canyon, alone with a friend or two.You look up at the vertical walls.The river disappears in front of you around a corner, and all you can hear is a roar.Then you know the game has changed.I call it the real shit.†† Lots of people, even experienced paddlers, don't necessarily like it.But some people do.You start paying attention to different things when you're totally committed.

 

Every sense comes alive.Your awareness heightens in every way.The water is your life, and you see and sense everything about it.You listen to yourself and your partner and there's no bullshit.You stretch yourself out and there's no dividing line between you and the beautiful, dangerous place you're in.Every decision you make has huge consequences and so you treat it with care, with a delicacy and intensity that puts you entirely in that moment.The smallest details become immense.Each surge of the current, each paddlestroke, each word has an importance beyond what it could ever have in any other place.And for those minutes, hours, or days, you become a different kind of person.

 

At some point over the years, I realized that for me kayaking was no longer a sport, it was much more.The decisions I made out there gave me something I needed.I needed the water and its beauty, its power and subtleties, its challenge and inspiration.I needed the friendships it had helped me make.I trained like mad, concentrated on every skill I could, and committed myself to my judgment.The harder the trip and the more it stretched us, the more humbled and small I felt. And the happier.It was like seeing a little farther into a special world. Sharing something beyond friendship with the people I went with.

 

The point isn't that you fling yourself into huge drops and monster holes, it's that you learn to live each moment with care and skill.

 

I have a lot to thank my friends and mentors for, not just their help in approaching class five, but what it means.They taught me how to look at more than the hard whitewater.That it was a privilege to be in those spectacular places.How important it was to respect and meet the river on its own terms.And never to lose sight of the fact that it is bigger than you in every way.Most of my best friends are people I've spent those times with, and I can't separate them out of the feeling of approaching the horizonline.So friendship is a part of class five too.

 

I've messed up and been hurt.In 15 years of class five paddling, I've had three serious accidents.I dislocated my shoulder the first year I was paddling, right in the middle of a long class five rapid.My paddle hung up on a rock and I didn't let go.Luckily, I was able to roll and get to the side.My friends reduced the shoulder there on the talus with a foot in the side and a couple of yanks.That was a good lesson that lasted for 12 years of healthy paddling. But sometimes you forget even the best lessons.I had a bad season two years ago.Maybe I wasn't in as good shape.Maybe I was distracted.Maybe my time was up.††

 

First, early in the season a moment's cavalierness left me plastered upsidedown at high speed on the front of a sharp boulder.Dislocated collarbone, separated shoulder, crunched ribs, and more. The disturbing thing was that what I call cavalierness wasn't directly the problem.However it led to a decision that rolled up to me many seconds later, set in motion by the second or so of distraction.†† The decision itself was like thousands of others I've made, but it had very different consequences this time.After I hit and the current peeled me off the boulder, I struggled through another 200 yards of hard class five, barely making it into an eddy before another long stretch, paralyzed on my right side from the pain and unable to get out of my boat.Sometimes an accident isn't caused by an outright mistake.Sometimes, it's the result of just another decision.†† A lack of care for a second or two was swept by the river into a year of rehab.It could have easily been a lot worse.

 

Later in the year I hit a ledge underwater after going off a 50+ foot waterfall.I had scouted the thing carefully, even swimming below to check the pool.It looked okay.Shallow, but manageable.The approach and lip of the falls had some weird things going on, but I ran it exactly the way I thought it should be run.It was a full-on car wreck at the bottom.Concussion, tweaked ribs and a lesson I thought I already knew - sometimes you can take care of everything you see, and still not take care of everything. So reality's there.I've checked it out some.In the end it'll keep you honest no matter who you are.

 

Other things have happened to me and close friends that are so strange they could only be put in the "shit happens" category.I keep in mind that plenty of people have gotten killed by the shit that happens.††

 

The river, especially class five water,has power, direction, and pushes relentlessly toward the future.And so when you enter it, you've got to be prepared to deal with whatever comes, whether you anticipate it or not, and no matter how unlikely it might be..

 

If you seriously go looking for your limits eventually you'll find them, but you might not like what happens there.The obnoxious thing is, you might not even realize you're there until it's too late. We get away with a lot because water is almost always forgiving.We call that luck.†† I'm certain that it is possible to get away with more than we realize now, and people will always be plumbing this margin.I don't think we will ever find a clear edge, because there isn't one. The water just does some weird, weird things.†† You can't always see them no matter how closely you look, or how cautious and skilled you are.I've run lots of rivers and thousands of hard rapids over the last 15 years.Quite a number of them were first descents.I've faced a lot of questions about whether something was runnable or not.I go on a rational analysis of what I see, sometimes it's meticulous.But mostly I go on an intuition that comes out of my relationship with the river, my feeling that day, at that minute, on that run. My choices have been carefully made and spot on - almost always .But the more complex the water, the more things can happen. There are several times when I've been broached, pinned, or tangled with submerged logs which could never have been seen no matter how long we scouted.Other, more bizarre things have happened.I've needed help from friends.I've helped them too.†† I've pulled bodies out of rivers, which was not enjoyable, but it was a damn good reminder of what happens when luck runs out.

 

The most upsetting thing I've ever experienced didn't happen to me.It was watching my best friend go for the worst thrashing you could have and still live - when we were running something we thought was clean. But that was just the start.We were in a deep canyon, his boat flushed away and he was left stranded against the wall with the choice of trying to swim through a series of huge ledge holes, or climbing a 500 foot vertical rotten cliff to get out.He climbed. I watched.The scariest thing is being helpless.It's an empty, terrible feeling.It took him a long time to get up, and I decided during that climb that I don't like being a witness.He made it, finally.†† That was some years ago and we both have scars.I'm sure his are much worse than mine, but mine bother me too.After experiences like that you have to ask yourself where to put the balance point.And you've got to realize that sometimes there are things you might not see which turn out to be the point of the whole show.Anyone who treats the river cavalierly is just a little more ignorant than he thinks he is.

 

I've always pushed to do harder runs, but I consider myself a careful paddler.You've got to balance those tendencies.I've run lots of bizarre rapids - from steep creeks to big water - things that are very intimidating.But I have never run a rapid I was afraid of.On really hard rapids, I make my decision if, as I analyze it, an intuitive feeling of balance and clarity comes over me, a certainty that the moves fit and that I can do them.Sometimes it feels as if I've poured myself right into the river.If I don't find that feeling, then I walk. Every top paddler I know does the same kind of thing, but with his own twist.Some are more analytical than others, some more intuitive.A few are impulsive, but very few.†† And none of them goes looking for trouble, although people might think they do.All of them are honest with the water, even though some have problems in their normal lives.†† I also have an ear out for subtle feelings of doubt, and that has saved my life and a friend's life at least once that I know of.††

 

The thought above depends upon having a choice about whether you'll run a rapid or not. Twice, I've been in the first descenter's nightmare: alone and in the wilderness, walled out with no portage possible, and being forced to run a rapid that looked like it might be fatal. These situations were caused by decisions made long before reaching the actual rapid, in a sense they were inevitable once the ball had started in motion days before.The point is though, I didn't deliberately go looking for them. These are the only times I've ever headed into something that I actually didn't think I could run, but had no choice except to try.I can only assure you that you feel pretty damn small at that moment of truth, and pretty damn lucky afterwards.Both turned out, neither was pretty.You never know exactly what you are up against, no matter how experienced you are. No knowledge can ever substitute for taking the step into the unknown, so there are questions out there you can't answer except by doing.But it should never be done lightly.†† Maybe when all is said and done, those rapids weren't as hard as they looked. All I know is each one looked really, really bad from the one place I could scout.†† I know that after facing those questions about the unknown, you find yourself climbing over a lot of emotions and asking a lot of questions. You think pretty hard about what led you into that situation and what it might mean.††

 

I've seen people get a lot of different things from the river and from class five.It's all in what you bring to it.If you go looking for challenge or for mystery, you'll find them.Treat it like a snowboard in a halfpipe and that's what it will be.If it's for bragging rights, getting scared, looking for a rush, being cool, enjoying beauty, celebrating friendships - it can give these too.I guess I feel that it's such an incredible gift it should be used well.I think most people who stick around know how much it can be, whether or not they put it into words.It's the greatest balance of fun, seriousness, and truth I've ever found.

 

There are some other lessons too.Most class five from 30 years ago is class four now, or even less.We've upped the ante a lot as we kept looking for the edge. Disregarding all the grays about ratings, really, the way we use the term "class five" it just means whatever the edge of runnability is at a given time.Each time we do another harder river, nip off another portage, find a steeper run, go for a higher water level, that's water under the bridge. Pretty quickly, we look for something higher, bigger, faster, or weirder.We change, and the class five changes.We never stop exploring, both it and ourselves.So to me class five is also a word for a special kind of learning. It says, "push hard, but remember - what you do in the next few seconds may mean everything."†† Class five is a rapid, a physical place with a beginning, a set of moves, and an end.But it is also all the things that the physical place touches inside you, all the ripples of meaning it has for you, and those are things which go on as long as you live.

 

Class five is about your limits.It is about what you can control, and what you can come to with a steady, clear mind. Those limits change within you, even on a single run.They change with equipment and experience.†† They change from person to person, and year to year.Some of the guys in my generation may already be getting too old and stiff to keep pushing the edge of class five.They've been there, done that, and now they have families and other concerns.But even for those who continue, there's always a new set of people who will try to take it past anything we ever thought possible.And when the new guys push as far as they can, the next generation after them will already be hungry for more.After you're around for a while, you realize you've received a baton from the past, and at some point you'll end up passing it to others and stepping out of the way.†† I think though, over time everybody who steps up to the plate probably asks the same questions, because the river has the power to say certain things.

 

And take my word for it, there's always some pretty wild stuff going on.There are guys out there looking for the real shit.You just don't hear about a lot of it because it stays where it matters most - between a few close friends and the river.

 

Whenever you enter the game, whatever door you come through, that's what you accept as your base. If you've got the desire to find answers, the river will have the questions.So I always keep in mind that no matter how hard we push, there is no end and there are no final limits.The river will always have more.

 

Doug Ammons

--with thanks to the rivers I know, and my friends.

***