What do premature wrinkles, rancid polypro, sandy kisses, and rock-solid communication have in common?
Human relationships are hard. But for the paddling partner who’s also my special human, it must be extra tough.
When I get scared, I get grumpy. If plans change at the last minute, as they often do with boating, I get grumpy. When I get hungry, I get grumpy. (“You’re telling me you didn’t bring any snacks?”)
I don’t like it when my layers are still wet from the day before. And when I get cold, my partner is the first one to hear about it. (“Can I please borrow your pogies?”) Although I can feign toughness with the best of river guides, when my special human is around, I am decidedly less stout.
There are a lot of challenges:
Sometimes my special human-slash-paddling partner gets his lefts and rights confused, which is clearly a significant communication deficit when we are running whitewater together.
One time, he forgot his sopping wet dry suit in the rooftop box on his car for a month. That’s disgusting and I told him so, but I have admittedly committed similar offenses.
Another time the roof rack fell off of my car on an interstate at night, going 70 miles per hour, with his brand new playboat attached. Significant cosmetic damage was sustained to both already-battered vehicle and sparkling new kayak. I was visibly shaken, and he had the compassion to wait a day before inspecting the extent of the injuries to his boat.
On my first time down one difficult run, I didn’t make a move and slid backward through a blind slot between giant boulders. I had no idea what was at the base of the drop and I was terrified. I yelled his name as my boat fell over the lip and I landed in the pool beneath it, unscathed. He was there, waiting, his eyes as big as plates. We had both hated the way his name sounded as I yelled.
Sometimes he wants to paddle things that are beyond my skill or comfort level, which means I get left behind or I am unhappily demoted to photographer. This, above all the other things, is the biggest challenge for me to accept and overcome.
At a springtime whitewater festival near our home, I asked him to show me down a section of whitewater that was definitely a step up, but for which I felt ready. He said he didn’t think it was a good idea, and I was, consequently, furious. The next day, as I spent the morning ruminating on his choice to disregard my wishes, he secretly ran that section multiple times, seeking out the smoothest, most straightforward lines. After his full day of competition that afternoon, he showed me down the run. His lines were excellent; I barely got my face wet. My heart swelled.
At that same festival, before his own race, he had stayed and watched as I competed in a slalom race for people who aren’t ready or willing to run gates in hard whitewater. He cheered me on. I took third place and was uncommonly proud.
It’s nice to celebrate the victories together and to encourage one another when things go wrong; to cuddle in the tent when we’re cold and wet; or to remind each other to re-up the sunscreen when our noses start to get pink. There’s no substitute for the comfort of my special human’s hand on my shoulder when we are scouting a big rapid. And quesadillas for dinner, together, after we have worked or played all day on the river, taste better than any fancy five-star meal in the city.
There are few experiences that couples share that are as potentially transformative and instructive as running (or not running) whitewater together. Navigating the swirling emotions and physical challenges inherent to the sport will put any relationship to a series of unique tests. The trust that should exist between paddling partners is tremendous; factor in our individual insecurities, fears, expectations, and the unjust pressure we place on our special humans, and a powerful maelstrom emerges.
There’s also the beautiful, simple connection that comes from running rivers with our loved ones. We see each other at our strongest and at our most vulnerable, each of us dancing with a force so much larger than ourselves.
The river is quick to put us in our places and remind us that the petty things don’t matter as much as we often think they do; it moves with the grace I hope to emulate within my relationships.
A love born on the river is a special thing indeed. Over the years, many inspiring, intoxicating river people have flowed into and through my life, and for the most part, the love we’ve shared on and for the river hasn’t waned, but rather simply changed: morphed and meandered, as the river does with the passage of time. Some of us marry and raise families, others remain married to the river, or to memories, or to a fluid and dynamic future free of attachment or obligation.
Just as the river itself cannot be controlled, I wouldn’t dare try to tame or subdue the singular spirit of river-borne love. For all its challenges, I simply wouldn’t have it any other way.