Creating Breakthroughs

The last time we caught up with Christian Knight — a Kirkland, Wash., city policy coordinator and proud paddling father of three — he’d brought his children’s paddling experiences to vivid life in a short film titled, Why we Teach You, which leads up to his oldest daughter, Eleanor, running her first Class II-III rapid. In the time being, the Knights have hit speedbumps in keeping their children engaged with paddling while improving skills and working through scares and frustration. Episode 3 of Paddling Parents, presented by NRS, summarizes Knight’s experience, detailed in his voice below, in helping Eleanor break through a personal plateau with her first successful of the Skykomish River’s Boulder Drop rapid, “a rite of passage for many Northwest kayakers.” (Check out Episode 1: Overcoming Fear with Fun, and Episode 2: Independent Paddling)

I’d say the seminal moment was our first run of the year last year. After a full season of skiing/snowboarding and a six-month break from kayaking, our family ventured to the Skykomish, on the Class I+ to II- Big Eddy to Gold Bar section. We brought all three of our children. And when we were done, Veronica, my wife, seemed completely unsatisfied. I detected this in her mood. In her facial expressions. In the tone and content of her speech. Nothing explicit. Her demeanor was just vacant of the normal sense of accomplishment that we both normally have after we’ve managed to get three young children down a river–in their own kayaks–safely.

As I drove our Toyota Sienna back home along Highway 2, Veronica looked at me.

“I’m not sure how much longer I can do this,” she said. “I mean, they don’t seem to be getting any better.”

Her message lodged like a Big Mac in my gut. It coaxed me imagination into a new life without whitewater as its central purpose; of selling my children’s kayaking gear and giving up on this dream of paddling under the evening sun with my children.

In this netherworld, I realized then that I’d have no way of teaching to my children the values I had extracted from a half-life immersed in whitewater and applied to the most significant challenges of my own life: getting to and graduating from college; establishing a career in journalism; reinventing myself after that journalism career had ended. Fundamentally, those values were a constant challenge of the comfort zone, a hyper-accountability for personal errors, and learning how to resist the paralysis of fear.

I sputtered a series of incomprehensible protests, pleading with my wife that I couldn’t do it without her.

That was when I decided to double-down, rather than give-up. I announced to my wife that I’d be starting a family program, Whitewater Wednesdays. Each Wednesday, I’d take one of my children on a slightly harder run than what they were used to. The one-on-one would give each of them a chance to paddle more challenging whitewater knowing that my entire purpose for that hour was her and his safety.

We have serious traffic issues up here and my work schedule isn’t very flexible. So each Wednesday was a challenge. But I never missed a Wednesday. Eleanor chose to run Boulder Drop on a day she nearly opted out of paddling. We had trudged through rush hour traffic to Eagle Falls for a meeting with a stakeholder group working to organize a graffiti scrub of rocks at the falls. We left that meeting with an hour or so of daylight.

She had been saying that she absolutely would not run Boulder Drop, a mantra that reminded me of a similar mantra I had formed on all of those Green Truss laps when I lived in Hood River.

“Just so you know,” I’d say. “I’m not running BZ.”
I always did.

And so did Eleanor.

We passed the portage eddy above Boulder Drop on the left and reluctantly continued down to the rapid. I assured her that she could still walk it, if she wanted to. But, getting a look at it would be good.

The entrance was bigger than she had imagined. But she saw her line. And I assured her that she could run the entrance and walk the bottom, if she chose.
So she ran the entrance.

I asked her if she wanted to walk the bottom. I’d help her, I told her.
She asked me if I thought she could run the bottom. I told her it was harder and longer than the entrance.

“How much harder?” she asked. “How much longer?” I told her it was a solid step harder and twice a long.

“If I follow you, do you think I could do it?” she asked. Reluctantly, I said yes.

Harder rapids expose the weaknesses. And the bottom of Boulder Drop did that for Eleanor. She plunged vertically off Ned’s Needle, let the current sweep her further right toward the House Rock. She hit House Rock. The current grabbed her stern and yanked her sideways, all the while, dragging her into the biggest hole on the rapid.

I knew then that this was a bad idea; that she would swim, but not before enduring her first beat-down and that her confidence would regress, as a result. The development of her skills, as a result, would stall, leading to boredom and fear, all at the same time.

But she didn’t swim. She leaned downstream and the hole bucked her out.

I screamed so loud in relief and joy that the climbers, bouldering a boulder problem on the right side of the river joined in.

Paddling Parents 2: Independent Paddling, has Bobby Miller share lessons on instilling courage in his daughter to kayak alone

Paddling Parents 1: Overcoming Fear With Fun, features Eric Friedenson’s lessons on using fun to foster a love for rivers

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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