Words by Danny Gariepy
Images by Danny Gariepy, Brandon Willms and Riley Best
Did that actually just happen? I can’t believe I just did that. My head broke through the water and was instantly greeted by the roar of the swirling chaos around me. I was floating in a small undercut with my boat banging up against the wall beside me, a situation I was all too familiar with and absolutely loathed. Cursing I grabbed my boat by a grab loop and with my other hand I grabbed the rock wall to keep from being pulled upstream into the waterfall. It was not a great situation to be in. Right in front of me was an undercut that wasn’t horrible but certainly was not inviting me in for a good time. To my left the eddy was hastily feeding water back upstream into Elbow Falls. I was not nervous about being stuck in the precarious position as I probably should have been, I was just mad. I thought I had gotten past this. I thought I was better than this.
It would have been easy enough to just let go of the boat and swim away from the falls, the currents around Elbow are not actually that strong, but I was being stubborn. My paddling partner quickly paddled over to me. “Are you alright?” she shouted as she got closer. A confused look was on her face, one that read “how did you manage to do that?” It would have been a fair question. My swim was not the result of running the waterfall above us. We had actually already both successfully run the falls and were waiting for other boaters to come down. I had been sitting in the eddy below waiting for the others and obviously not paying attention when I drifted too close to the undercurrent and got pulled under and flipped. Shocked to find myself floating upside down in this unfamiliar and dark place I quickly attempted a roll but to my surprise nothing happened, this is because, as I found out later that I was stuck in the undercut.
“I’m fine I grunted,” I quickly let go of the wall and passed her my paddle, which had been floating around beside me, and then quickly grabbed the wall again. We briefly discussed her trying to pull my boat and I away from the wall and even tried it, but the current proved to be too strong, and threatened to put Haley in the same situation. After a few more minutes of experimenting I found that I could slowly work my way downstream using the wall. I attached myself to my boat using my pigtail, even though it was warm out my hands were already starting to go numb after being submerged in the water for only a few minutes. Slowly I worked my way along the wall downstream.
A few minutes later I was standing on the shore draining out my boat, Elbow Falls thundered on behind me while our other paddling partners paddled down to join us. I was embarrassed. Swimming was something I did a lot of when I started paddling, the roll did not come easily to me. After years of work I finally managed to get a passable roll, there is always room for improvement, however I was feeling fairly solid on this skill. Now, every time I swim it brings up a lot of vulnerabilities and feelings of inadequacy, wondering “if I swam here should I even be paddling harder rapids?” It is pretty easy for these thoughts to bring me down, and although I don't pretend to know what other people think, I can imagine that I am not the only one who feels like this.
However you can’t let those feelings get you down, the reality is when you run any rapid there is a chance that things won’t go the way you want them to. All you can do is practice the skills necessary to have the best chance of success. I have found after a swim is a great time to honestly assess where I am at, and what skills I need to work on. Although it can be incredibly discouraging, swimming can also be thought of as the rivers way of letting you know where you are at. So yes it sucks, but maybe look at these moments as an opportunity to get better, so that when the time comes and you are really relying on certain skill sets, you are prepared. The river is the best teacher out there, and it will always have a lesson in store for you. So take those lessons as a gift, figure out what you need to work on, and get back in that boat.
Sometimes the moments before a swim can be glorious! This ended in a savage beating.