After a day on the river, my students and I hold an evening debrief. Discussion and reflection help us solidify learning and distill insights for the future. A canoe isn’t just a means of transportation—it’s a teacher, too. Whitewater rivers are dangerous, and learning whitewater paddling is intimidating. Before the first day of May Term, one of the students in my canoe class read the reports of all the accidents on the stretch of river where we’d be canoeing. Understandably, he was a bit nervous to start.
To be in control of your canoe on whitewater, you need precision in your angle to the current, boat tilt, and momentum. If you mess up any one of these, you’ll likely be swimming. And unplanned swimming in whitewater can be painful.
Fortunately, there’s a fun way to practice angle, momentum, and tilt—surfing! Surfing a river wave is like surfing an ocean wave, except the wave never ends. The friction of the water pulling your boat downstream is countered by the force of gravity sliding your boat back upstream into the wave trough, making your boat appear to stand still. Although you’re not moving downstream, the water is speeding past you, and your boat is dancing across the wave. It is so fun. And because it’s fun, we relax and let go of our anxiety. We become open to learning, and our paddling skill quickly improves.
On the river—and in life—we can do difficult things if we maintain an attitude of joy and playfulness.
Surfing is not just for playing. It’s also a useful skill for avoiding hazards along a congested rapid. This May, my students and I scouted a long and technical rapid and made a plan for paddling it. The first move required a broad, arcing exit from an eddy on the left, setting up right-moving momentum to avoid a sizable hazard on the left. The move was well within the skill level of my students, but because of the potential consequences of an unplanned swim, we set up safety protocols from shore. One of the canoes capsized as it entered the current.
Our safety systems worked, and we reunited the swimmers with their boat. As we debriefed, the students reflected on how the scary water just downstream from their planned route had drawn their focus away from the actual water they were paddling. Whitewater canoeing is a mental game—you scout for hazards in the river so you can pick a wise route, but when it comes time to paddle, you calm yourself, refocus attention away from the perils, and see instead the friendly waves and the welcoming eddies of your planned route.
This idea is evident to me on the river, but I sometimes forget it in life. Before joining the faculty at Northland, I was working full-time educating the public about climate change. I was hyper-focused on the big picture—projections for fifty years in the future. And I took myself very seriously—my goal was to personally convince everyone in the world to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide below 350 parts per million. Anything less would be failure. I eventually fell into climate despair, burned out, and left that job. There was still joy to find in that work—in the water right in front of me—but my downriver focus meant I couldn’t see it. Life is serious, but we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. We can do hard things, especially if we maintain our playfulness.
Teaching outdoor education at Northland, it’s easy to maintain joy. My students, colleagues, and I are aware of the challenges and perils downstream. But we know the route we need to take and focus on the joy of going there.
Elizabeth Andre is a professor of nature and culture who enjoys helping students develop into outdoor professionals who have the interpersonal skills to lead groups and the critical perspective to develop programs that promote ethical relationships with the land community.