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Zen and the Art of Kayak Rolling

Posted Jul 26 2009 11:43pm
I have always had some sort of sport that I focus much of my extra attention on. Recreation is a very important part of my life. Some have religion, some have art, I have outdoor recreation in one form or another. I think we all need something to help our spirits transcend the beat-down of daily life. For me, it is usually one sport at a time and I focus like a laser.



Right now it seems that post cancer and during recovery, whitewater kayaking is it. I "paddled" for many years before we had kids and stopped because riding was getting my attention. I am a rider, but I think I have always, first and foremost been a waterman. The call of the surf, the river and the sea are a siren song for me. The feeling of getting a boat or board up on a plane, when you are moving so fast that the water becomes almost a solid and the rules of interaction between you and it change is irresistible to me.



Water is a basic element. It holds the wisdom of the universe. Tom Robbins said, "Water invented humans as a means to transport itself across land." I buy that. I know that I have learned a lot from my time spent in and around the water. Much of it could be encapsulated in the basic magic trick of rolling a kayak.


Rolling is one of the strangest things that you can do. Think just about the physics of it, An upside-down kayak is just like a ship with a keel. The center of gravity is below the surface of the water by the pure fact that your body is hanging from it. Then using an ancient and amazing series of body language you flip the boat upright. That sounds interesting, but there is more to it than that.


Just like in so many challenges, the psychological aspect is much more daunting than the physical. Unlike the teachings of Yoga, meditation, or the basic human need, the first thing that rolling requires is the ability to hold one's breath; like a surfer being help down by a wave. Like and action hero finding sunken treasure. Like Jim on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom fighting an 800 pound 10 foot crocodile. You have to hold your breath under the stress of wondering when you are going to get to breath again, while performing a wicked series of unnatural, upside down movements.


When a beginning kayaker learns to roll they usually start in a pool. It is warm, calm, and there are people near by to help out. Once they have the basics down, they have a "pool roll." The next step is to go to the river acquire a "combat roll." For anyone, their first combat roll is a joyous moment. Since the alternative is swimming out of the boat, through a rapid, getting banged up and cold, emptying the boat, finding all the lost gear, and getting back in the boat. Just rolling up is a much preferred alternative.



The next step is to acquire a 'bomb proof roll." In other words you can roll just about anywhere, anytime, with or without a paddle. That is to become a Jedi of the kayak roll. It is to become a master of ones fear and basic desires; one who has the patience to wait or the foresight to jump on the moment to act. A master has the ability to face the dragon calmly and with a rational mind. A master knows, even upside down and backward where they are in a complex rapid. A master of the roll can go years without swimming. They become more and more proficient in their paddling. More and confident. However, the reality is that all kayakers are between swims. The master knows that ultimately, the river is in charge.



River running- kayaking, for me are analogous to life. After being a master of the roll, I am back to being a student. In the past few days of paddling, I have swam a couple of times. Two swims, many rolls. What stands out for me is the swims, not the rolls. I am not mad at myself. I am excited to go back to the basics. To work in the pool until my body, my muscle memory finds that bomb proof roll. And that, for me, is recreation.

Thanks for reading
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