The flow. That is what draws me to kayaking. I love rock climbing and mountaineering, and even though I always manage to get into that particular state of mind known as ‘the zone’ when I am climbing, it is still very much a struggle and a grind. You are constantly fighting gravity, always waging war with the forces of nature trying to slow or even stop you. There is very little of this when you kayak.
I also love whitewater rafting, but this still lacks the feeling of grace and unity with the water that you get when kayaking. My analogy for rafting compared to kayaking is this: Rafting is like driving a school bus through the rapids, it just plows through or over them, while kayaking the same current you are very much immersed in the act; it is more like driving a Ferrari. The big waves either crash over you or you flow over them. You really get an intense feel for the river.
I have a tremendous amount of respect for the river, equal to or exceeding the respect I feel for mountains or rocks, except with one major difference. For the most part, high peaks and crags change slowly, certainly mountains change from week to week and even day to day, but they are not constantly in motion like the water is, and that is a huge factor in the danger of river running compared to climbing. I explained it to some of my non-kayaking climbing buddies: Imagine if every hold you were reaching for shifted under your feet and hands.
Even though this makes kayaking in many ways more dangerous than climbing, it is also what compels me. That feeling of smooth flowing oneness with the water is such a bitchin’ rush, a powerful soul-narcotic, a liquid addiction. I have not kayaked nearly enough, and certainly I have far less experience as a boater than as a climber, but I am hoping that this year, especially since I now live on the North Umpqua, will see me gain a lot more knowledge and skill as a paddler. I have gotten out in my hardshell several times already, but since I do not have a skirt for it, I am limited to what I can do. And since I haven’t learned how to roll yet, this also limits my ability to use it in the big water.
This means that I am essentially limited to kayaking with my friends who have extra inflatable kayaks to use, not a particularly bad thing considering that my friend Brandon, whom I have kayaked with the most, lives about ten miles away and is generally available to run the river fairly regularly. My friend Scott, despite having moved to Texas several months ago, visits the area around once each month and he too, has spare boats for me to use.
There is something so magnificent about hitting a standing wave correctly, or choosing the right line for a big drop, it feels so incredibly good when you’ve done it right, and that is what I mean by the title of this blog. Taoism is about unity, but also duality, and that is the essence of kayaking. You are separate from the river, a (seemingly) solid being floating on liquid, and yet neither you nor the river is completely one or the other. You flow together as a unit, and become one. I can feel this so perfectly when I am on the water, and not just when I am crashing through whitewater either. In the flats, with the crystal clear river-bottom moving silently beneath you it is just as apparent, perhaps even more so. Fish dart past, river otters watch you cautiously before slipping below the surface, eagles and Osprey glide overhead, and you just move so easily from scene to scene, immersed in beauty and wonder.
It isn’t all flowing, of course, you have to fight very hard to stay in balance, you have to paddle like a crazy person to keep your boat from being tipped, tomb-stoned or tossed by the massive power of these huge rapids, but even this struggle is not the same struggle one finds in rock climbing. To run the gauntlets correctly, you have to find a line that will allow you to struggle/flow all at once. It is both, and it is neither, and that is another essence of Tao.
Let’s think about what the word Tao means. The most commonly known interpretation translates loosely to ‘the way’ or path or route (the Hanyu Da Zidian dictionary has 39 meanings for the word.) When kayaking (or rafting for that matter), you are taught to ‘read’ the river, to find the appropriate line through a passage of chaos, and I feel like this is where the path of river Taoism is best exemplified. When the water is calm, you can float almost anywhere on the river without worry of consequence, but when the rapids commence, picking the right way through is of absolute importance. You must find that line where you can be unified with the river, or else you will pay the price. Isn’t life the same way? Without some sense of unity and flow in our lives, we are beset by chaos and struggle, but when we find the way, things just tend to flow, and life is easier and more serene, even when times of conflict occur. We move smoothly when we are unified.
I will leave you now with a quote from 365 Tao, a daily reader of Taoist thought written by Deng Ming-Dao: “Therefore, tuning ourselves to Tao is the basic task. We must make ourselves the perfect instrument, much in the way a beautiful harp has all its strings adjusted. If we are less than perfect, how will we harmonize with the universal music? Once we are attuned, we can become open to Tao. Where it leads, we follow without hesitation. Just as a musician expresses individual talent and understanding and yet blends with the swelling magnificence of the orchestra, so too does the follower of Tao remain human and yet in harmony with the universal.”