Turning My Fear Into Focus While Whitewater Paddling

By Diana Proemm

This was the first time I was going to paddle a class IV section of the Willow Creek in Alaska and my nerves were on fire. My two-whitewater kayaking buddies, Josh and Mike said, “Whatever you do… don’t let yourself go river left, there is a boulder field and if you get in there, it won’t be pretty.” My nerve endings just exploded and I thought I might throw up. The boys decided to paddle a stunning section of the Willow creek about an hour and a half north of Anchorage and invited me along. The higher up the creek you go the harder and more dangerous the whitewater. The standard put in where I had paddled many times was called Guardrail, which started with a few class III’s and then flowed gentler into class II. Then there was  “Red Gate,” a section a couple miles above Guardrail that starts off as class IV whitewater. You knew were becoming an experienced paddler when you made the jump from Guardrail to Red Gate and the boys said I was ready to paddle it. Their definition of ready and mine were definitely two different versions.


Getting to the creek from Red Gate was challenging in itself. We called it the Class V put in. We clip our boats onto the safety straps of our life vests, and slowly lower our 70lb kayaks down this heinously steep ravine. Never mind that I am around 50 more pounds than the weight of the kayak, so trying to win the gravity contest was hard. We meander through trees, swaying the kayaks from side to side to avoid getting caught up on a tree or rock, and we eventually drop to the creek. We carefully approach creek side, not letting our boats go into the river without us. I’ve seen a boat go down river without its owner. Not good as there is no way down the banks of the river unless you climb back up or swim class IV rapids. I also know the options of not paddling this section means you are to attempt to hike back out with said 70lb kayak.

Listening to the creek water pounding the rocks, anxiety building, my bowels stirring and knowing that my ‘A’ game was needed right from the start, I was a mental mess. This was my first time paddling this level and I knew it would take a lot of mental and physical strength and my doubt was running high as I put on my dry top, and helmet to get ready to go. I became quiet, but my brain was on high alert with the adrenaline running fast through my veins. I wanted with my whole being to back out and was secretly devising my escape. I thought…I could do it, I could carry this beastly kayak back up the slope. I doubted Josh’s comment saying that I was “ready” for this section. This was the allusive “Red Gate” after all, and I was finally there to paddle it, but was I ready? “What the heck was I thinking, I’m not ready” my brain kept playing over and over. But as a true adventurer, I knew I would never be “ready” and needed to trust in my abilities and not let fear take hold.


As I finished squeezing myself into my kayak like a sardine, closed the spray skirt and double checked it was on all the around the cockpit, I grabbed my paddle, and I took one last deep breath knowing there was no backing out now for sure. I watched the boys as they dropped in reminding myself to stay river right. After another deep breath, I dropped in and the swift water took hold of my boat and like a flash it was GO time! I got myself caught up to river speed, back paddling a little bit. I immediately turned my fear into focus and shut everything in the world out of my brain to concentrate on what I needed to do. All of a sudden the creek pushed me river left, exactly where I wasn’t supposed to be.


The water was pushing me river left and the next thing I know I’m upside down tucking in my head as it’s bumping along rocks. I attempt a combat roll, come up, and take a breath before getting knocked back over again. I tuck in again, get set to roll, force myself to keep calm and hold out under water until I feel that I wash into calmer water. I then roll up and paddle into an eddie to collect myself and my breath.


When I figured out I had survived this underwater chaos by pulling off a combat roll when I needed to, I look to find the boys, and they were in an eddie below cheering. At that moment, I knew I had accomplished becoming a class IV boater! I was elated and felt like I had conquered the world! I was ready for what was ahead of me downriver. I made it the rest of the way without swimming and enjoyed seeing the Willow canyon for the first time. There were many more combat rolls and swims, on the Willow and other rivers but that moment has held my memory ever since. It has served as a sense of accomplishment of not giving into fear and believing in my abilities and myself.


Now, when anxiety hits in other situations, I try to remember that moment of turning my fear to focus and bring myself to river speed. I use whitewater kayaking as a metaphor for life. In our crazy world I get ahead of myself and forget to live in the moment. I try not get caught up with what may happen in the future. If I were to be thinking about something else during that time on the river, I would have not have faired as well. I’m not suggesting someone go out and put himself or herself in danger without proper skill or knowledge to do so, I’m suggesting to not be afraid to push yourself and take that next baby step towards your goal.


Nature has an amazing way to put “things” back into place for me. It can aid in re-charging my system after a stressful event, or spending too much time on the computer. Taking a hike, kayak or bike ride within nature is rejuvenating, and good for my soul. When life gets a little fuzzy for me, nature has an eloquent way of putting life back into focus again. I try not to get caught up in the details that don’t matter,  and stay grounded, as there is nothing I can do about them anyway.

Diana is an adventuress, photographer, and is traveling whenever and wherever she can. 

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