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Overcoming Fear for New Paddlers

Overcoming Fear for New Paddlers

Most paddlers have feelings of fear, apprehension and even dread when faced with paddling a new river. Whether they realize it or not paddlers the world over are plagued by this same issue.

Fear, apprehension and dread are just some of the synonyms paddlers use when describing their feelings about paddling new rivers. These feelings seem to be universal among paddlers regardless if they’re beginner, intermediate or advanced paddlers. Most paddlers attribute these fears to everything from poor planning, failing to prepare for the worst-case scenario while other paddlers will flat out tell you that it’s the fear of things like: drowning, not having enough food and water supplies; being attacked by bears and mountain lions. “What if” scenarios seem endless as well as real life stories of other people who were paddling the same river and they had no paddles or paddled into a rapid that they couldn’t make it out of. These fears are not just found in kayaks but also in canoes as well.

Even paddlers who have paddled many rivers before will still battle with this fear or apprehension when paddling new rivers for the first time. Fear can be defined in many ways from a paddlers standpoint because it’s so subjective due to the paddler’s background or paddling experience compared to other paddlers. As paddlers, we need to step back and try to analyze our fears from a “risk assessment perspective”.

What are the risks that I’m afraid of? What is the probability of experiencing these risks? And finally, what can be done to mitigate the risk if it occurs as well as what will happen if it does occur?

Believe it or not, there have been only 54 kayakers who died on rivers across America. Almost all of these fatalities were experienced paddlers who had pushed their limits too far in difficult conditions but also included an inexperienced kayaker. So paddlers, paddling new rivers is not a “death sport”.

Make A Plan

The first step paddlers need to do to overcome their fears of paddling new rivers is simple. “Make a plan and stick with it.” Planning includes gathering information on the river you intend to paddle whether that be asking guide books, online forums, paddling clubs or paddling retail shops. There are literally thousands of websites that will provide you with valuable information regarding paddles on your intended river.

What are my goals for paddling this section? Will I use a guide service? What types of food and water supplies should I carry? Do I have enough paddles if they get lost or damaged in the river? Is there an easy exit route from this section of the river if paddling conditions deteriorate? What paddling skills do I have or need to develop before paddling this section of the river?

Know thyself, know thy paddles

Know your paddling skill level compared to other paddlers. All paddlers should be evaluated for their skills before paddling difficult sections of rapids and rivers. A good place to start is to rate yourself and then compare others with you on a scale based on difficulty beginning at one: novice all the way up through seven: master class paddler. I would recommend rating yourself as an intermediate paddler which would put you at a “5” on our difficulty rating scale.

Paddlers who paddle easy rivers consistently are better described as advanced paddlers and paddlers who paddle difficult whitewater rivers are better described as experts paddlers.

Develop Paddling Skills

Developing paddling skills takes time, effort and time on the water paddling various sections of river. Safety skills also take time to develop such as learning how to roll a kayak, self-rescue and how to do successful rescue maneuvers such as eskimo rolls. You may be asking yourself if you don’t have these paddling skills why take the risk by paddling new rivers? Setting personal goals for paddling is important but paddlers need to recognize their risk tolerance level; how much risk or danger they can handle being in while paddling different types of rivers. Most paddlers like myself would put myself into a category of low/moderate risk paddler.

Never Paddle Alone

This brings me to another point paddlers need to consider, who is paddling with you? Paddlers paddling new rivers should consider the other paddlers they are paddling with. Are they paddling with friends or are they paddling with new and unfamiliar paddlers. New paddlers can be a significant risk if you are paddling in difficult conditions because they may become panicky especially if they haven’t had any river rescue training. A good example of this is a kayaker who became stranded on top of the first drop on the Upper Gauley River back in 2007 due to inexperience in dealing with whitewater kayaking rapids.

Are you paddling with paddlers who excel in paddling whitewater rapids but have had little to no experience paddling flatwater sections or are you paddling new rivers with paddlers experienced in kayaking both types of river conditions? Developing comfort levels dealing with felt fear is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. Paddlers generally need to paddle more rivers and build on their skills by developing the ability to handle higher intensity white water before paddling new rivers such as class V white water.

Take Your Time

Some new paddlers will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what they are facing on their first trip down a wild river created by nature. They will have paddled a few lakes, maybe some small class II white water without major incident but then paddling a wild river filled with rapids that can easily flip kayaks and throw paddlers into the foaming maelstrom of swirling currents and churning waves is another matter entirely. It’s almost like going from training wheels to an F-16 fighter jet in one day.

Gather Information

The opportunity to paddle down a new river should be planned well in advance by paddlers who are interested in paddling rivers other than your local kayaking spot. Try to assemble as much information about the section of river before committing yourself and your paddles to running it for the first time. To do this paddlers need to acquire maps or guidebooks which are available at paddling shops and paddling supply catalogs. You may also be able to get free copies of guide books by contacting paddling clubs that paddled the river such as paddlers from the Whitewater Raging Hens or Mid-Atlantic Kayakers Association both located in Washington, D.C. area.

Paddlers should take care when reading information about a section of river because they will often interpret what they read very differently than others who have paddled the same section of river.

Last modified: July 25, 2021
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