Whitewater kayaking is no easy thing. The very nature of the sport is defined by its challenges: fast-moving current, low-oxygen environment, rocks and trees abounding, all with one’s legs strapped into a big piece of plastic. It is enough to make the sport feel nigh on inaccessible to the air-loving, doubt-infused mortals of the world. I have since learned, however, that while all of this may be true of whitewater kayaking, it is not the only truth. To quote the incomparable masteress of the sport Melissa DeMarie: “If kayaking were easy, we wouldn’t feel like such badasses for doing it.” And that is correct.
One may not feel like a badass, exactly, swimming in a no-name rapid on C to G (the Class II section of the South Fork American River), but to even get to the point where one is swimming as a natural process of learning to kayak entails a certain degree of bad-assedness, a willingness to face one’s fears instead of allowing oneself to be dominated by them.
For myself that process has been greatly facilitated and enhanced by the wonderful ladies that make up the community of the California Women’s Watersports Collective.
I learned of the Cali Collective through word of mouth in Coloma, where I work as a rafting guide—the small size of the town makes it easy to run into friends, old and new. The first event I attended was a C to G “fun run” with stand-up paddleboards, something that I had never done before. I had also never gone down the river with a dozen-plus girls, wearing bikinis under our PFDs and giggling as we lost our balance. We certainly attracted some attention on the river! The afternoon ended with hugs and compliments all around. As a rafting guide I was used to feeling good after a river trip, a sort of natural aqua-induced high, but the sense of elation and togetherness that I felt that day, and saw in the faces of others, was something new and powerful.
Our next outing was an “Anything Floats” trip—the perfect way to spend a blazing hot California day. There were Class V kayakers and experienced guides amongst us, but in tubes we were all out of our element! We laughed as we watched each other flip, ran the “meat,” and floated in the flat water drinking our chilled beverages. Again the day ended with smiles, hugs, and “We should do this again.”
Then in August came the two-day kayak clinic, so far the biggest and most extensively organized of the events. It was open to all levels and I was impressed with the number of women who were there with no previous whitewater experience. They didn’t stay that way for long! Everyone improved their whitewater skills that weekend, and met and interacted with some amazing ladies.
As I mentioned earlier, the process of learning to kayak can be intimidating enough as it is, without the added dimension of entering as a woman into a male-dominated field. Men and women have different learning styles, different ways of processing information, and different body types. We women tend to be more analytical and want to understand how a process works instead of just “going for it.” It was immensely valuable to work with instructors and alongside other students who were coming from the same place.
Speaking honestly for myself, I also know that I can be plagued by self-doubt, that there is sometimes a voice inside my head that says, “You can’t do it, it’s too hard, you’re too weak/scared/unsure of yourself.” Our voices may say different things, but I think many of us will go through life learning and increasingly succeeding to quiet that unhelpful gremlin within. Well, the weekend of the clinic, it wasn’t myself alone against my own doubts and fears, it was myself with the backing of 50 other women, all of whom were encouraging each other: “You can do it!” I will never forget as one by one we all passed through the rapid Satan’s Cesspool, kayak after kayak and ducky after ducky, cheering and helping out as needed—it was an emotional and inspirational moment, and I think we all felt it.
To feel the support of other women who only want to see you succeed, to see the awesome instructors both as role models and human beings, to feel a part of something bigger—this is what the Cali Collective has done for me. It’s given me a group of great ladies who like to have fun on the river and it’s helped me to build up my own reserve of resilience to use when I need it. It’s turned the sport of whitewater kayaking from a wistful “some day” dream to an “I can do this” present.
Thank you, Cali Collective! I’ll see you on the water.
Sarah “Sarita” Kay hails from the beautiful Green Mountain State of Vermont and splits her time between Coloma, California and Mendoza, Argentina.
All words and images copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2015