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Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska
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Author:  tearknee [ May 23rd, 2016, 1:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Hey guys,
This is going to be a bit long and probably self-involved, but I'm looking for advice on how to overcome a semi-irrational fear of whitewater.

Andrew and I were at Palmer Fest this weekend, where we participated in a tandem canoe whitewater course. Andrew has quite a bit of experience whitewater kayaking, but our whitewater canoeing experience is limited to easy C1s and shallow, boulder-garden pool-and-drop type rapids. This was bigger water than I've ever paddled, maybe bigger than anything I WANT to paddle.

I really struggled this weekend. On Saturday, my borrowed drysuit filled with water from the ankles after a lengthy swim. My legs were so heavy I could hardly stay afloat with my PFD and our instructor performed a canoe-over-canoe rescue so we could get back into the boat instead of swimming to shore. I wanted to get back out there, but I was shivering and Andrew made the call to cut the afternoon short out of fear that I would develop hypothermia. On Sunday, I was understandably nervous about getting back into the froth, and chose to watch the first few groups tackle the entire run before paddling down with our instructor instead of with Andrew. This was awesome, and I was much less afraid after lunch.
During our second set of lessons that afternoon, Andrew and I were practicing S-turns and we flipped again. I was wearing a different drysuit and I stayed afloat and swam to shore, but I lost a contact lens and was half-blind. On land, I switched to my prescription sunglasses and we went back out again. However, as we approached the current from the eddy, my nerves started to get the best of me. I kept telling Andrew that no, I wasn't ready, let's back up and set up again, let's wait it out and watch a bit more, hang back, not yet, etc etc. After about half an hour of doing that I worked up the courage to enter the current again, and we completed a few successful ferries and S-turns in and out of the current. Then we flipped again. In the water I felt annoyed but fine, and we swam to shore while our instructor retrieved our canoe. Then, on shore, I began to freak out. I was hyperventilating, had tunnel vision, and could hardly stand. Then the embarrassment set in - not because of swimming, everyone was dumping all weekend long - but because all of a sudden I had zero confidence in my abilities and the water looked so intimidating and the last thing I wanted to do was get back in the canoe. I felt so bad for Andrew, who loves whitewater, and who suddenly had a canoe partner who was afraid of water. After a while I calmed down a bit and chose to watch the rest of the group paddle the run as I sat on shore getting angry with myself. Andrew ran the rapid with the instructor, and I didn't even want to sit too close to the edge of the moving water.
I don't know why I couldn't get back in the boat. When we dumped, we did everything right... stayed upstream of the canoe, held onto our paddles, exited the current and made it to shore. But for some reason I couldn't bring myself to get thrown back into it.

Has this ever happened to anyone? How did you overcome your fear? We were in an incredibly safe situation, with lots of instructors around and tons of people. Water was high and there was no risk of getting stuck on a rock or held underwater. All I could think about was the possibility of wrapping a canoe on a rock on a remote river trip and dying of hypothermia or drowning. It was one of the worst panic attacks I've ever experienced. The stupid thing is that I WANT to do this! I want to be a better paddler and feel competent in whitewater. I want to run rapids with confidence. I don't want to limit tripping to flatwater lakes, but I'm not sure how to overcome this paralyzing fear. I don't ever want to be in a situation where I can't move or go on because I'm just plain chicken. I think perhaps practicing in smaller rapids may help boost my confidence, or warmer water, but I'm not sure what will happen if these worries continue. I thoroughly enjoyed the instruction this weekend, and we got a lot of practice improving our strokes and technique, but I just couldn't get back out there after freaking out for no good reason. Please help!

Author:  pblanc [ May 23rd, 2016, 2:43 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Over the years I have been involved in whitewater canoe instruction with a number of different paddling clubs and I have taken a lot of private and group instruction in whitewater paddling (canoe and kayak) from a wide variety of noted instructors.

First, let me say you made a good decision not to get back in the boat. I have been in situations in which a became "punch drunk" after a number of swims. At that point, the ability to learn reaches zero. Furthermore, a key to not capsizing is to maintain a loose connection between your upper and lower body. Once you have become very tense, this is impossible.

Fear of drowning in moving water is not irrational. There is an element of danger in moving water that is sometimes quite random in nature. Nor is a fear of being heads-down in water irrational. I have observed big, tough guys (and gals), including excellent swimmers and Red Cross water safety instructors become panicky after capsizing in a decked boat. This reaction is something one might be able to condition themselves out of, but it is not possible for one to simply talk themselves out of it.

Whitewater is not for everyone. If you think it is something you would like to do, I would step down to easier moving water and practice basic maneuvers in a very safe environment. But there is no good reason anyone should feel compelled to paddle whitewater if it is simply not enjoyable.

Author:  tearknee [ May 23rd, 2016, 3:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Thanks, pblanc. I will take your suggestion of practicing in easier moving water until I gain more confidence. This is something I really want to do, and I did enjoy the thrill of picking a line and running a rapid successfully. Perhaps when I have more confidence in my skills I will move up to bigger whitewater, but until then I'll practice and keep taking lessons. I was so frustrated with myself for freezing up like that.

Author:  Alan Gage [ May 23rd, 2016, 3:37 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

No real experience in these situations but one thing that comes to mind would be to practice tipping and rescuing in flat water and easy moving water. Perhaps take some moving water rescue courses rather than courses on actually running whitewater. Hopefully those won't be quite so fear inducing and perhaps they'll train your brain to be more comfortable in those situations once it knows how to get out of them. I've heard a lot of people say the first step in teaching someone to roll a kayak is to practice wet exits repeatedly to help them be comfortable in knowing that if they do wind up upside down in the water and can't roll up that escape is easy.

Some people just have fears and even if they understand they may be mostly irrational fears that doesn't seem to matter once they're actually thrust into the situation. Nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about, it's just how some people are wired. For a species to survive it needs both risk takers and risk averse.

I've got a friend who tenses up in CI and I don't think I'd ever be able to talk her into a CII so good for you for at least confronting those fears.


Author:  tearknee [ May 23rd, 2016, 5:09 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Alan Gage, thanks. I think taking a rescue course is a great idea and that it would be really helpful to know exactly how to deal with these situations rather than just swimming as hard as I can for shore when I get into trouble.
I have plans to go back in a few weeks with Andrew and another instructor. I think part of the battle this weekend was feeling rushed and crowded with so many other boats on the river.. I seem to need a lot of time to process information before jumping in, but with everyone else going for it straight away I didn't want to hold anyone up or block anyone's path.

Author:  Peter K. [ May 23rd, 2016, 5:23 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Bravo, Tearknee for giving it another chance. At 100 cms, Palmers was a bit on the high side for beginners, and it sounds like you had a really quick introduction. A beginners course takes two full days of graduated moves from flatwater, into current, and then bigger more complex water. We usually ask our beginner groups to do a half-day on flatwater before they go to Palmers just to familiarize themselves with WW strokes and the heavier, more rockered boats. We also do a swim in a rapid -- usually Jessop's Chute -- to give people some increased confidence.

I think that doing a full course with lower water and warmer temperatures would make the inevitable swims a lot less challenging. By mid-June a wetsuit and a paddling jacket is usually sufficient on the Mad.

The sport in general has a retention problem. Too many people do the beginners and then drop out. Thanks for sharing your experience -- something for us instructors to think about.

Author:  tearknee [ May 23rd, 2016, 6:15 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Thanks for the input, Peter K.
Most of the first morning was spent practicing on flat water and then adding in a bit of current. We swam Palmer's right after lunch and then did more practice entering and exiting the current. Other than my drysuit failure, this was all great fun and I was becoming more comfortable. After taking a time-out to watch others paddle the full rapid the next day, and running it with the instructor, I was having a blast and would have loved to run it with my partner, but we took a break for lunch. The afternoon was spent at Jessop's, and our instructor had everyone focus on a different stroke or turn every time we would enter and exit the current, which was immensely helpful for me. Our first time swimming didn't deter me until we had a few more near-upsets and I could no longer focus on anything in particular. That's when I first started to get scared. I changed my mind so many times about what I wanted to do that when we finally went for it, I would choke. Add that to the fact that I was paddling on my non-dominant side because Andrew and I are both right-handed and I guess I just had too much information rolling around in my head to process it all.
I definitely won't give up after this one weekend! After all, I did have many successful firsts: first time swimming in a dry suit, first time attempting anything bigger than a C1, first time dumping a canoe, first canoe-over-canoe rescue, first time negotiating a rapid at that water level and length, etc. I'm looking forward to trying it again at a lower level and warmer water, when I can't pretend I'm stranded in the Arctic with no help for miles. Maybe my imagination just got the better of me.
Our instructor was amazing. I learned a lot.

Author:  rab [ May 23rd, 2016, 8:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Whitewater is great fun, don't give up yet. I suggest giving it a few weeks, or a month, and trying Palmer's on a day when the water is way lower and way warmer. Maybe even think about hiring an instructor from Paddler's Co-op for the day.

Being able to do an S-turn and a eddy turn are important skills to have, but at the beginner level not essential, at least in my mind. I think it's more important to develop a feel for how the boat reacts in the ww, learning how to lean, keeping loose hips when the boat moves in a way you don't expect while keeping your paddle in the water and your hands off the gunnels.
Swimming isn't the end of the world, we all do it, just remember to stay calm. I tell all beginners, if you aren't swimming you aren't trying(especially when trying to learn to do s-turns and eddy turns.


Author:  tearknee [ May 23rd, 2016, 8:35 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Thanks, rab. Good to know we were trying with all the swimming we were doing! I really hope with time and practice I'll gain a better perspective. We'll be going back in about a month with a friend who is also a very experienced whitewater instructor. I think we will benefit from learning in a smaller group. We will also be using a different boat with proper outfitting. As we signed up last minute, the only canoe available to us didn't have leg braces, and every other time we've paddled small bits of whitewater we've used them, and I found it difficult to lean and tilt without them in the bigger water. It's so silly that after swimming multiple times I all of a sudden thought it too dangerous to continue. It clearly wasn't, and I knew that, but something stopped me.

I really appreciate everyone's suggestions so far. After a day of reflection I'm cheesed I couldn't get my worries under control and get back out there when I had the opportunity.

Author:  MistyHollow [ May 24th, 2016, 5:48 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Tearknee, some times we just need to listen to ourselves. Your body said enough for that day, this does not mean that it will say no more next time. If you want something really simple and stand up safe if you dump to practice in or just to regain confidence on moving water, come down and run the Grand between Caledonia and York. Lots of riffle stretches a few faster rock sections, but nothing that you can not stand up in. Be prepared to scratch some paint. If you are interested let me know I will help you with drop off and pick up, and even run it with you and Andrew if you like.


Author:  MartinG [ May 24th, 2016, 6:45 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

I can empathize with you Tierney. You are not out of place or alone in how you feel. I'm a novice in WW. I want the skills because it opens up options when it comes to exploring by canoe. But I am no moving water junkie. Having been to Palmers a few times, I think Palmerfest can be a bit overwhelming. I would be intimidated by Palmers at 100cms.

I get butterflies in my stomach when approaching rapids. Even ones I have run before that I know are easy. I will frequently find an excuse to portage a rapid at the beginning of a trip that I would easily shoot with confidence a couple of days later. I think you overcome your fear once you find success, feel confidence and start to relax on the water. You can't talk yourself into overcoming it. I think you are having a natural response to your experience this past weekend.

The good thing about a canoe trip vs. training is you don't have to run the rapid. If it is bigger than anything you WANT to paddle then pick up your boat and walk around. If the trip involves long, unavoidable rapids that you don't WANT to paddle, pick another trip. You are so lucky to live in Ontario and Canada. Having countless paddling options to choose from. You will change, you will grow. And so will your choices. This experience is not going to limit you.

You could also go back to Palmers in the summer. Much mellower at low water. Although it's still a bit of a zoo.

Author:  tearknee [ May 24th, 2016, 7:36 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Thanks, MistyHollow. The Grand sounds like what I'm used to and capable of, and I know Andrew wants to paddle it. I might very well take you up on the offer of running it with you. Always good to go with someone who knows the river.

I really appreciate that, MartinG. It's nice knowing I'm not the only one that gets nervous at the first bit of moving water. After this weekend, I would definitely run some of the rapids I portaged around on last year's trip, which I guess means my confidence is boosted in some areas even if the big stuff scares the crap out of me. This was only our second canoe outing of the season, too... Maybe I just don't have my sea legs yet. I'll keep trying and taking instruction before planning any trips that involve more whitewater. Afterwards, Andrew told me that his first course in whitewater kayaking was basically a week of drowning on the Ottawa River. He said he was terrified, too, and that after it took him awhile to want to go back out there. So it's nice that my partner isn't pressuring me to do anything and kind of knows how I feel, even though I'm sure he didn't end up on shore hyperventilating into his helmet. I've had the same problem snowboarding, too.. I had been boarding for about ten years, and then didn't get out for two seasons. When I went again and got off the chairlift, I freaked out and said I couldn't remember how to do anything and had to sit at the top of the hill for half an hour before slowly making my way to the bottom. Maybe I'm just naturally a scaredy-cat.

Author:  frozentripper [ May 24th, 2016, 10:50 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska


I wanted to get back out there, but I was shivering and Andrew made the call to cut the afternoon short out of fear that I would develop hypothermia.


All I could think about was the possibility of wrapping a canoe on a rock on a remote river trip and dying of hypothermia or drowning.

Yeah... er, no, cold water doesn't help my enjoyment out there either. Maybe things will go better during the summer when the water warms up and that cold water shock isn't there.

I never took a WW course but that didn't stop me from fooling around in rapids... still, the water wasn't freezing at the time. The French river below the Nipissing outlet is great for that, if it isn't a dry year. I've forgotten which rapids are 1s, 2s and 3s, most were enjoyable and you'll probably find it more pleasant as well since if you flip it's no big deal when everything is warm and sunny. IIRC Rolf Kraiker (who doesn't post here anymore unfortunately) gave WW courses there at one time with paddlers running the same rapids again and again.

Sounds like Palmerfest has some serious bats flying around it, maybe you read about that in the book... I thought this was what you were going to write about, it turned out the mind-altering properties were of a different kind entirely.

It was only Hunter Thompson that could see the bats, BTW... nobody else. Keep swinging, you'll get some hits... (oops, mixing baseball bats and flying bats).


Author:  Neil Fitzpatrick [ May 24th, 2016, 12:22 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

Were there a lot of people there? When I picture WW paddling in Southern Ontario it's 20 boats in the water with 40 people watching from shore. Maybe it's because I'm from Manitoba where there is only 20 WW boats and 19 of them are owned by three guys.

When I took a moving water course there were very few people who were all inexperienced. Makes you feel comfortable. Two weeks ago I paddled four days with very experienced paddlers and felt super confident. This weekend, my wife and I paddled a simple rapid that I've paddled about five times previously. There was a group of four guys (strangers) in the campsite overlooking the rapid. All of a sudden I was nervous and I even felt shaky afterward. No logic to it. Nothing could go wrong. We were prepared and this was by far easier than so many rapids I paddled two weeks previous where I wasn't nervous like that for a single moment.

Thanks for this thread by the way. Maybe it's the bravado that comes with so many personalities that are attracted to WW paddling but there are few to admit nerves and struggles. Everyone goes through it. My wife and I went over twice this weekend. The first time was after a rapid because we had take on too much water. She was laughing that time. The second time was because we didn't have the momentum for a ledge/hole. After the second one she didn't even want to paddle an easy Class II that she has paddled successfully in the past.

Next time she will. It will just take more exposure to WW under the right circumstances.

I should add that the first time we went over this weekend, the same four guys caught us at the rapid while we were scouting. The wind pushed me at the top and I lost sight of the line. I'm not sure how I did, it should've been easy to spot. It seems for me that everything gets difficult with strangers watching.

Author:  Ralph [ May 24th, 2016, 12:58 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Fear and Loathing on the Madawaska

I have to empathize.

I have found, in paddling or skiing, that some people seem comfortable taking big steps early on in their learning curve. These people are comfortable trying difficult rapids or hills or techniques and don't seem to mind the consequences of their failed attempts. They also don't seem to mind having people watching them.

I have also found that many people (I'm talking about myself here.) like to take many smaller steps along their learning curve. They like to attempt easier rapids, hills, techniques over and over until they feel confident. Once they feel confident at a step, they take another small step. These steps are usually taken alone or with a very few trusted friends around.
Sometimes the two groups don't seem to understand each other.

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