Lessons from the Chattooga

From 8/21/2015

Circle. We use the shape to define life and death, the cosmos. The circle is the best shape to describe my journey down the river this summer. When I arrived at the Chattooga Outpost I looked at raft guiding as the most important challenge of my life, and I wanted to succeed. Nothing but my best effort would cut it. Not just for me, but for each guest I would guide down the river.

                Rafting isn’t cheap. It can cost a family of five $750 for a trip down Section IV. That doesn’t include gas money, or travel expenses like food and lodging.  A family could drop a thousand dollars for a weekend raft trip. If people are willing to spend that much money for a five hour trip down the river with me, than I wanted to do everything I could to make their experience memorable and worth it. Not only would I learn all I could about the local flora and fauna, Chattooga river lore, and brush up on my conversational skills, but I would study the art of raft guiding anyway possible.

                In the beginning I tried to think and plan a route through each rapid. I figured the river was like the LSAT. I studied whitewater, read up on Bernoulli’s principle, and kept a journal detailing each day’s errors and improvements. Initially I thought this approach was working, but then I hit a plateau—I was over thinking. Reading water isn’t a test cooked up by law school graduates. Water can’t be broken down into a structured logic puzzle. You have to feel it. Water is flowing, constantly changing, and the wild and scenic Chattooga flow fluctuates daily. It is the antithesis of memorizing A-lines and strokes. The more I tried to remember when and where to throw a stroke, the more I missed. Then it clicked. I had to treat the river like a river. I had to be as random as the water. The next trip I didn’t think about what I did the day before, instead I didn’t think about anything. I just kept my head clear of anything that wasn’t immediately downstream. I stopped looking to the past for information and focused on reading and riding.

                It worked. I started hitting the A-lines more and more. I was better at recovering from mistakes and better at reading water, better at spotting rocks, and way better at avoiding rocks in the first place. Not the easiest job when the Chattooga flow is low. I realized that my problem was having too many minds. One mind for past runs, one for future, one mind for predicting strokes and moves that I may never need to throw. When all I needed was a clear mind that was ready to adapt with changes in flow. A mind ready for anything. Aware and utterly immersed in the moment. I just needed to get into my own flow mind.

                Raft guiding the Chattooga has taught me to trust myself. Something I had forgotten while working in Congress. Each of us is our own worst critic yet also our best kept secret. You just have to trust in yourself.