Still More Lessons from Kayaking

In late May I had a serious kayaking accident. Medications that make me bruise and bleed more easily made it far worse, leaving me with technicolor blooms all over my body. We were paddling in a side creek that’s only navigable in very high water, working our way around the downed trees and debris, going deeper into the “jungle” than ever before. Don was ahead of me and reached a steep patch with a sudden curve and heaps of rocks.


“I think we should turn back, hon,” he called out to me from the safety of an eddy.


“But why?” I replied, eager to test our limits. “Let me come up to you so I can see for myself.”


That was a mistake. The fierce current hit the side of my boat, slamming me into a downed tree. I struggled to remain upright, but the current continued to batter my boat and I realized it was hopeless. I chose to exit upstream away from the tree, a good choice for safety but one that put me further from my expensive craft. Seeing it pushed away from me by the current, I dove after it, not realizing how much tree lay between us. I managed to save my boat, but the water continued to pound me into the tree. Don came to rescue me, but I insisted he go after my paddle, paddling cap, and waterproof camera. I knew my safest exit from the creek required a paddle to maneuver, and the cost of equipment was at the forefront of my mind.


During the 6-7 minutes he was gone, I pondered my options. Fortunately, he returned with my paddle and cap [alas, the $400 camera was gone], and he helped me drag my boat to the safer side of the creek and get back in. I pumped out enough water to paddle and we dragged ourselves back to put-in. I didn’t realize how badly I was hurt at first, and my recovery dragged.


Our local river remains closed, the high water too dangerous, so I haven’t even been back in my boat yet. My thoughts about this fiasco remained stuck in a loop far too long. Finally I chose to look back at the lessons I learned. As always, for me they relate to the classroom.


Lesson #1: Be prepared. Rehearse possibilities. Know what you’re going to need to do. Our kayak safety classes and required wet exit demonstrations on trips like our Belize adventure taught me how to leave my boat as safely as possible. In the classroom, my biggest mishaps happened when I was caught by surprise. The day a student said to me, “F*$# you, you b^@*#!” I was so taken aback that I replied, “What did you say?” When he repeated himself, I answered, “Okay, the second one is on me, but you need to go to the dean for the first.” No student had sworn at me in front of the class before, and I was unprepared to respond more effectively.


Lesson #2: Keep your head. Lesson #1 will help you do that. I could have panicked over the possibility of losing both thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment and my safest passage out of the creek. Instead I went into problem-solving mode. My best work in the classroom happened when I chose to go into problem-saving mode, even for distressing situations.


Lesson #3: Mistakes will happen. What matters is what you do when they do happen. I used to have a banner up in my classroom with the saying, “If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.” This lesson did not come easily to the risk-averse person I used to be. But I believe we all need to challenge ourselves. If we never leave our comfort zones, how do we grow? And if we do, some mistakes are inevitable. It is up to us to see them as learning opportunities rather than failures.


Lesson #4: Don’t live in fear. When things go wrong, have faith that you’ll do better next time. If you see mistakes as opportunities, you’ll have the strength to deal with outcomes.


Lesson #5: Support matters. Whether it’s your paddling partner saving your equipment and helping you out of a jam, or a colleague talking you through a mishap, helping you problem-solve, helping you develop better strategies for next time – you don’t need to go it alone and can become stronger because of support.


I’m anxious to paddle again, to normalize paddling again, so we’re driving up to Lake Geneva tomorrow. Paddling on the lake should give me closure. But these lessons I learned and their value elsewhere in life help relieve the sting of my mistake and make it a more positive experience.