Going to the Grand Prix

I am excited and honored to be invited to the 2012 Whitewater Grand Prix (WWGP) in Chile. The WWGP in its second year is fast becoming the event which defines and showcases the current elite group of paddlers in the world. I am one of only five females competing in this event and am super excited to get to know my fellow female racers, Congrats girls! Below is the video entry that earned me my spot. Here is a second video that is a bit more light-hearted that Leif and I made in 2011 when we thought that the 2012 WWGP would be in Canada and would include playboating.


Natalie Anderson Grand Prix entry video from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.

Although many people, kayakers and non kayakers alike, view this event as extreme and dangerous, I see it as a gathering of highly skilled athletes gracefully accomplishing a set of challenges laid out in front of them. I have worked hard to be where I am as a paddler today and I invite you to read my essay below detailing some of the reasons why I have chosen to compete in this event and addressing public perceptions of danger in kayaking.

Donate

This event will certainly be one of those milestones in my life. Leif and I are currently both students working on our PhDs in Physics (Leif) and Fluvial Geomorphology (Me). You can check out my research at www.woodinrivers.tumblr.com. As such, our funds are limited. If you would like to support me in Chile I encourage you to donate towards our trip via the paypal link below. Any donation helps, even if it's only 5 bucks! We are also doing a gear sale silent auction type fundraiser if you would like to donate and get gear from it!  See this page: Gear Auction for details.


Motivation

I'm not a huge fan of being scared and I don't enjoy being afraid. I avoid this at all costs. I have always considered myself as a moderate person who doesn't take unnecessary risks. As I have advanced in the sport of whitewater kayaking, specifically creekboating, I have become distressed that I am increasingly becoming viewed as an extreme, adreneline/danger-seeking, death-wishing individual.

Sometimes when we get immersed in a culture, such as creekboating, we can lose sight of how our actions may appear to someone outside of that culture. As I paddle with newer paddlers and speak with my non kayaking friends, it is quickly apparent to me that they perceive the drops that I run in my videos as scary, extreme and dangerous- with a little awe thrown in. In this essay I am going to attempt to try and to explain how I percieve risk in whitewater sports in an attempt to bridge a gap between my perception of danger in what I do, to the perception of others who may not be immersed in the creekboating culture. I also want let you know why I have chosen to compete in this somewhat controversial event.

The main gist that I want to emphasize is that there is a big difference between danger and difficulty. Any run, no matter the rating, class I-V+, can be difficult depending on the skillset of the paddler. Likewise, any run, no matter the rating, class I-V+, can be dangerous depending on the skill set and decision making skills of the paddler. I want to stress that you can be a great and safe kayaker at ANY level, class I-V+, which is different than being a kayaker who paddles beyond their ability and makes poor on the water decisions, which is very dangerous. Just because a run has taller drops and steeper cascades doesn't necessarily make it more dangerous than moving flatwater. Whitewater kayaking at any level, can be very gentle on the body and safe. In my career as a paddler I can count on one hand the number of times that I have felt scared or threatened, and most of these time actually occurred on class III/IV while I was learning to boat and pushing my boundaries. In addition, so far, I have only had two injuries, a blown eardrum from hitting the side of my head on a rock and a slightly torn shoulder from picking up my boat funnily. On another note, when more advanced boaters take out beginners or less advanced paddlers, I encourage them to realize that a run that may be super easy for them could be extremely difficult for someone else.  Sometimes we loose sight of this and I am guilty of this transgression.  When we take out less skilled paddlers we need to properly assess the dangers with respect to their ability level, not our own perceived danger related to our own ability level. 

I do recognize the basic inherent risks associated with kayaking, but I also recognize inherent risk every time I step into a car. In both cases I take precautions to reduce my risk. While kayaking, I make sure that I have the necessary skills to safely navigate a run and I try to recognize dangers and possible outcomes before I run a rapid. Most of the time, if I am not above 97% sure that I can run the rapid without putting myself in a bad situation that I would have a hard time getting out of, I don't run the rapid. I admit that sometimes when I am feeling riskier I will lower this threshold somewhat- maybe down to 90%.  Before I get in a car, I put on my seatbelt and try to drive as safely as I can. When the conditions are horrible or I am tired, I beg out and have Leif drive because he is an amazingly safe driver. I also get the bonus of being able to "teleport" to paddling destinations because I usually sleep through the drive, it's awesome! While on the road or on the water, most accidents happen when we are complacent, tired, or distracted. Sometimes, but less often, accidents that occur due to the inherent risks that are out of our control such as: bad road conditions, other drivers, vehicle failure, flash floods, weather, unseen or hidden hazards such as submerged logs, rocks, caves, etc., and underestimation of the power of the water (although the ability to assess dangers and what the water can do to you is tied to experience and skill).   In whatever I do, I assess my risk and try to minimize it as much as I can. Through training, skill improvement, preparation, and making wise decisions on the water, I can run rapids that look very risky to the untrained eye with very small real risk to myself.

This photo (which is currently the banner on the WRSI facebook page), generated some comments from the public because what I am doing in this photo looks really scary to many people. This rapid is actually very safe and easy to run for a moderately skilled paddler. We scouted this line for a while. The flushy tongue through the rapid is at least 20ft wide. There were no hard entry moves at the top or consequences below. Thus, being on line was fairly easy and if I were to swim recovery would have been easy. The outcome of this photo was that I barely got my head wet and had a huge smile on my face afterwards. I felt comfortable enough with the rapid that after I made the first descent (pictured) I was able to lead a few class IV paddlers through it with no problems.
I am not into kayaking for the thrill factor, and in fact, most lifelong paddlers aren't. In my opinion, adrenaline junkies and thrill seekers tend to bounce around the 'extreme' sports, plunging themselves in over their heads to get that flight or fight adrenaline rush. Many people see the pursuance of harder and harder whitewater as analogous to a drug junkie who can't get their fix at lower doses. Although this may be true for some paddlers, I think that for the majority of whitewater paddlers, this is an erroneous misconception. I have improved my kayaking skills slowly and have taken on harder and harder whitewater, not because it gives me a bigger adrenaline rush (I actually hate that feeling), but because as I become more skilled it poses harder challenges. I get satisfaction running a difficult rapid well. As I become a better and better paddler, the runs that were difficult become easier and I pursue more difficult rapids. I see the WWGP as an event which challenges the best paddlers by increasing the difficulty of runs by racing down them, which for the prepared paddler, will not inherently increase the danger. This is why I think that this event is invitation/application only. The event organizers want to make sure that everyone who is competing can do it safely.

After the first Whitewater Grand Prix was aired from Quebec, i thought, Wow! Cool! Finally an event that actually showcases our best paddlers! This was shortly followed by a realization that I had reached a point in my paddling skill set where I could say, I can do that! I was also thinking that we needed more females in the competition dishing up the goods. I got to thinking and realized that there aren't that many females (yet) who have the skills and the desire (yet) to compete in an event like this. So, here I am in 2012 going to Chile. My family is nervous for me, understandably. I am a bit nervous for myself. I have never been to Chile or dropped as many waterfalls as most of the guys. This competition will challenge me and whether or not I do well, or run all the events, I am welcoming the opportunity to to challenge myself, to share my journey through with you the high quality media that the WWGP is going to put together, and to be someone that aspiring class IV-V women kayakers can look up to.

Writing this post has made me realize that I have a lot of opinions about whitewater kayaking that I would like to share. I am looking forward to writing more posts such as this one in the future. I'd love to hear your comments!

Take care, build your skill set, make good decisions, and stay safe. See you on the water!

- Natalie

P.S. One of my most recent satisfying moments was actually not on class V but on class II when I beat Leif by about 20 minutes during a 3 mile upriver paddle in downriver boats from No-Name to Grizzly on the Colorado River in Glenwood Springs.

Gear Sale Fundraiser

To help us out, our sponsors have donated gear for us to sell. Rather than clutter up this post, we have a whole separate page with more information here:

Gear Auction

We have some really cool stuff for sale, like a drysuit, helmets, and an entire SeasonFIVE outfit. Check it out as an alternative way of donating.

Comments

  1. Nice read. I'm proud of your thoughtful approach, but also know from experience that dangers can be underestimated. Be careful and have a good time.

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  2. Thanks Dad! I know that you want to bid on the drysuit so I'll put your starting bid at $500 to get things rolling.

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  3. This was great to read Natalie, I hate being scared too and by not working on my skills and roll I've managed to scare myself a lot. Thus I am still a class II/III boater, thanks for the motivating essay! I'm going to keep working on my skillset, one day I will run Browns with zero swims.

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    Replies
    1. Playboating is a great way to build boat awareness and skills with very little risk. When I learned to kayak I spent from October to May about once a week in the pool before I even went out in the river! As a result I had a very solid roll, hand roll, back deck roll, etc. Because of this I progresses really quickly on the river. I then spent the next three years playboating and river running (not creekboating) I encourage everyone starting out to 1) Get a very solid roll in the pool, and 2) Playboat! Flip over a lot in low risk situations.

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