Sunday, July 26, 2009

Zen and the Art of Kayak Rolling

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

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Glad you are back on the water! You have always been one of my most favorite people to paddle with. Let's keep gettin out there!
-aideelady

Anonymous said...

'All kayakers are between swims' I like that. Plus the Tom Robbins quote. You have an amazing spirit Spence. No wonder we all love you so much
kt

bikesgonewild said...

...spencer...haven't posted in a while but that's not to say i haven't thought about 'cha pretty regularly...

...figured it was maybe best just to allow things to subside & let you guys try to get back to "normal"...but i've been sending "healthy" vibes from a distance, all along...

...several posts ago you started out about "the big eddy" & i though "oh, cool...somehow eddy merckx has been an inspiration to spence during his travails"...wrong...hey, no matter...

...glad to see yer back in the boat, as it were...you seem to find many analogous scenario's w/in that activity which simply speaks of yer love for it...& that's cool & refreshing, like a dip in a mountain stream...hey, wait that's exactly what it's all about...

...many years ago i trying to learn "the eskimo roll" in a friends pool...spent more time looking at the bottom of the pool than anything else...
...now i just ride my bike to sushi bars hoping to find that they serve that elusive 'eskimo roll'...

...re: tom robbins...read everything he wrote for years until i felt he was getting a little bombastic & i found myself wading through too much "stuff" to find pearls like that 'water' quote...

...if you've never read "the botany of desire" by michael pollan which made the rounds of "the concerned" a number of years ago, it's still very much worth the time...
...he concentrates on apples, tulips, pot & potatoes & while there are vast amounts of knowledge to be absorbed about those plants, the premise is similar to the robbins quote, insomuch as pollan suggests we were invented to allow those plants to thrive & evolve...

...interesting concept...& one that makes sense when ya think of what mankind has really brought to the table...lots of exploitation w/ little concern for the earth or even our real future on it...

...anyway, mr rubin...may the days of your life be happy, healthy, stable & loving...

...my best,
bgw...

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