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Lesson 1 from a Flipped Kayak

A couple weeks ago I booked a last-minute summer getaway to the north Georgia mountains. It’s a place we’ve visited before and love the mixture of towns, waterfalls, and a little resort with mini-golf and ping pong onsite that my teenager finds endlessly entertaining. It’s quiet but not too quiet: one of the rare places on the map for me where I say, “I’d like to have a place up here someday.”

What I really want is a place on the nearby narrow rushing river. The Chattahoochee cuts through this part of Georgia and offers opportunities for one of my favorite hobbies, kayaking. I love kayaking and while I can ocean kayak near home, I avoid the fresh water in my southern city for fear, however unlikely, of meeting an alligator on the water. In the north Georgia mountains, in the narrow, cool waters of the Chattahoochee, I meet rocks, the occasional tree trunk, a lot of turtles, and some unsuspecting fish. But there are no gators and this lowers my anxiety, and increases my bravery and desire for time on the water. This trip, I booked a 7-mile kayak trip with level 3 whitewater rapids for me and my nearly-14-year-old son. Easily 3 solid hours navigating the rushing, fresh water from our respective boats. I was elated.

As much as I love kayaking, and my son does too, it’s important for me to tell you we haven’t done nearly as much of it as we would like – and especially not whitewater. I think we both had a little rush of excitement and uncertainty when we were fitted for crash helmets and noted that the kayaks had leg straps. It was clear indicator that this kayak trip was not going to be like others we’d been on. A map of the area was reviewed and we were shown where the ‘really big’ rocks were and where they’d discovered most of their paddlers typically were rolled out. We were then driven out to the entry point and dropped in the water. Alone and free on a 7-mile stretch of the Chattahoochee River.

It took a little while to get our ‘sea legs’ - or rather, ‘river arms’. The water was shallow with a swift current even in the calm sections and we were easily pulled out of the middle path and into low-hanging branches unless we used our paddles to take control. We handled the first few sets of rapids, although not necessarily with any grace, and remembered how to use momentum to boost ourselves up and over rocks that would threaten to beach the kayaks. Mostly. Mostly, we could get unstuck. And mostly, we did what we were supposed to do during that early first stretch.

A little over a mile in, we hit the first set of what I will call ‘significant’ (to us, at least) rapids. It was there that my teenage son, paddling in front of me, got spun sideways in a rapid and then stuck on a rock, perpendicular with the current, right at the entrance to the only available pathway in that section. As things do, what happened next all happened very fast. I saw him get stuck because I was following closely behind him. Close enough that I couldn’t pull myself out of the rapid pathway AND close enough that I couldn’t get my kayak turned sideways. Instead, I hit him with the equivalent of what would be a T-bone-styled car accident, and I rolled him out of his kayak and into the rapid.

We were both stunned.

The kayak was upside down, the paddle in the water along with my son who quite literally didn’t know what hit him. As the water spun around him, I watched him first try to grab the paddle, then the kayak, which threatened for a moment to suck him under. From my own, now fully stuck, kayak I yelled at him ‘Get up! Get up! You have to get on your feet!’

The water was strong but not deep so once the shock wore off, he managed to do exactly that. He stopped grabbing for the paddle and the boat and got to his feet. I was immediately grateful for the crash helmet and proud of my mom-self for requiring he wear the water shoes with the rubber bottoms because those tools had helped facilitate a safe recovery.

Of course, just because he had his feet under him, the problems weren’t over. He was still in rushing water, his boat was flipped, and the oar had jammed itself just a little more than an arms-length away.

To finish his recovery though, getting up had to happen first – we couldn’t fix anything until he got on his feet and it was clear that initially he had no idea what to do first. We had not trained for this!

Getting to your feet friends, that’s resilience. It’s not drowning in what has gone wrong in your life. It’s not grabbing onto the wrong thing and getting sucked under again. You first have to get to your feet.

The problem with resilience is that we keep talking about it like it’s the solution, but it’s not. It’s the starting line. My son was still in the rapids, still separated from his kayak and paddle. It wasn’t over, it was just step one.

Resilience is just step one. The first one. Therefore, the most important one. But still just one step. It goes like this:

Get orientated to where you are, assess the situation, use the tools you have (forget about the ones you don’t, even if they were helping you before) and get on your feet.

Once he was on his feet, we could get the boat flipped back over, grab the paddle (which was still waiting for us, thankfully), and get to calmer waters where we were able to unpack a little bit about what went wrong, and what we learned from it.

We also now knew something we didn’t before: if one of us rolled again, we were prepared for what to do. We had experience. Since we had about 6 more miles to our journey, that felt like really important knowledge. It gave us confidence to be able to face the next several sets of bigger and bigger rapids.

Resilience isn’t a trait; it’s a toolset. It’s a response and it, like knowing what to do if you get rolled out of your kayak by your mother (!), can be learned. However I’ve noticed that just like what happened to my son, it isn’t something we practice and prepare for - It’s something we learn in the moment of things going wrong.

What if we didn’t do it that way? What if we prepared and developed our resilience toolkit so that WHEN we rolled, we were ready? We know there are going to be rapids. We know rolling is a possibility. If we practiced our skills and located the tools we have, we can be ready for it.

What rapids are you facing? Do you need to build your resilience toolkit so you’re ready to handle the roll? If so, let’s chat. I have some tools and techniques that can help you get to your feet (no rushing water required!)

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