Imagine a rapid with lots of cross-currents, or even just one big curling cross-current. Maybe it's Broken Nose on the Ocoee. You're coming down the entrance, heading in the direction you want to go, but there's this big current pushing hard to river-right into the rocks on the bank. The river is dealing us a turn. It's there, whether we like it or not, and we're going to have to do something if we don't want things to go south. So what are our options? Do we work hard with left angle and fight our way through? Where are we going now with this strong new angle once we make it through? The only other option is to let this cross-current hi-jack our line, sending us crashing into the rocks on the bank, right? It's fight or flight, right?
No, it's not. There's another option. We can accept the turn, and channel it's power to our own end. Read on for some ideas on how to turn these turns into solid river-running gold.
It took me a long time to develop my way of looking at rivers, and to understand how to work with the dynamic powers they present to us as paddlers. Rivers move but for one force - Gravity. How this force gives the river energy, and how that energy reflects and diffracts into a beautiful, readable quilt-work of power is based on the shapes of the earth over which it flows. These are the reasons for the story, simple and unchanging, yet oh how the yarn is spun, with impermanent intricacy, forever dynamic, from one river to the next and one split-second to the other.
While every feature is forever unique in it's own moment, larger patterns soon emerge the longer you stare into the intoxicating language of moving water. Through the speed, the topography, the areas of high and low pressure and general chaos, it can be overwhelming to parse out an understanding of how to not only live with the torrent for a while, but actually speak the language and engage in meaningful dialogue with such a nameless energy.
No matter how much we understand through experience, it's all just a model, our cognitive way of crunching the data of good and bad experiences into a workable, survivable mode of operation. In this way we all develop our own way of speaking with the river.
In the parlance of conversation with the river, I would have to say that the words spoken are in fact, turns. All things considered, it will never be just turns that we focus on, but the reality is that the river presents us turns constantly - they are an irrevocably big part of the conversation. Complexity is a direct function of the amount of turns the river lays in front of our line. We cannot deny the turns, only take them as they come, and provide our input as to how much they affect us. Our line dictates the answer to the question of how much we want a turn to affect us. How we create our lines though may be in spite of the turns, or even in celebration of them, thanks to our freedom of being able to choose our way at any moment. Regardless, the river presents us with turns.
In this video, see if you can identify all the turns. Some turns are obvious, because you see them take me into a new direction. The boat turns in this case. In other circumstances though, you may not notice a turn because my boat doesn't turn. In this case I have acknowledged the turn, but do not wish to accept it's new direction, and an intentional stroke keeps me on my line. In this case, it may be easier to identify a turn by seeing my boat cross the boundary between two pieces of water moving in different directions. This is the very essence of the turn, and exists whether or not we ourselves turn or not. In fact, it's important to make the distinction between turns the river gives, and turns we take.
As paddlers, we have to move beyond seeing turns as just peeling out of an eddy into the flow, and leaving the flow to catch an eddy at the bottom of a rapid. This conventional view reminds me of the start/stop American Football style campaign of controlled-interval progress downstream. But the fact is that in between peeling out into a long, complex rapid, and eddying out at the bottom, we encounter many more turns along the way, which are just as important as our start and finish, and there is no blow of the whistle after first down. To begin to view our lines down the river more as a seamlessly flowing game of Soccer, instead of the start/stop nature of Football, is to acknowledge that paddling isn't a disjunct, step by step affair. It's an infinitely continuous Flow-State of Mind. The longer we can stay in that focused, flow-state, the greater experience. To stay there, we use speed, focus on our line, and channel the energy of turns.
Throughout this blog's activity, we'll expand on many of these concepts, but here the three basic principles of working with turns:
1) Look with your head where you are wanting to go.
2) Look with your body INTO the turn.
3) Always Stroke on the inside of the turn.
Looking with our head where we want to go keeps our line in sight and in focus. Looking with our body into the turn (think of looking with your chest and your shoulders) regardless of whether you wish to turn or not, allows the hull to soak up the energy of the turning force, and lets us re-purpose it in any way we desire. This also ensures edge stability and maintains momentum. Finally, we can create any turn we want(broad, tight, anywhere in between, or no turn at all) by using the correct stroke on the inside of the turn. Because the river is pushing from the outside of the turn, we stroke on the inside. This creates an opposite force, which gives our stroke leverage, and maintains driving momentum. We can use a variety of strokes to magnify the turn, diminish it, or cancel it out. You might imagine that a stern-draw or sweep on the inside of the turn, which counters the turning force, will broaden the turn, and that a bow-draw to the inside will exaggerate, or tighten it. Sometimes the river is giving us the very turn we wish to have, in which case, we may plant a forward stroke to keep the energy focused in the exact direction we're planning on traveling.
In this way we aren't fighting the turns. We're taking the energy the turns give us, and are channeling it into a future we've created. We are not the engine, the river is. And just as a sailboat harnesses the wind's energy with a sail, we use our paddle to refine the crude power of the river's turns into driving momentum in the direction of our line, with grace and precision.
On a river like the Pigeon Dries, there is no way to draw a bunch of straight lines and miss all these "problematic" turns. Even if it was possible, it would be so much work, and we'd miss all the opportunities to let the river do the talking. If we want our ride to push beyond the typical and into the extraordinary, we must listen to what the river has to say, and our hull is our ears.
Enjoy the video!