Running the Upper Gauley was a rite of passage for author Maggie Karrs. Credit: whitewaterguidebook.com
The paddling community as a whole is an incredibly vibrant and admittedly quirky group of people. It has its own language, traditions, and unique, spiritual relationship to the unpredictable, awe-inspiring, and humbling force of water. This ever-present unknowability of the water, how it gives and takes without regard for the human element, shapes the relationships paddlers have with each other. The level of support and love that I have received from other paddlers since I started kayaking almost two years ago is unparalleled in any other sport in which I have participated. Even more profound have been my interactions with other female paddlers, and the impact they have had on my paddling and my life.
When I started kayaking, both by circumstance and by the sheer fact of kayaking being a predominantly male sport, most of my paddling companions were men. As time went on and I became more involved in the community, I met more female boaters, and began to find my place in what I’ve come to think of as “the tribe” of women paddlers.
This is not to discount my male paddling companions, who have been very important to my learning and paddling journey. Many of my most triumphant and empowering moments, however, have come from boating with other women — and from simply seeing these amazing women on the water.
I remember my first time on the river seeing another woman in a playboat, going for a loop, or the first time I saw a video of a woman running a waterfall, and both times thinking about how I could do that, too. Learning from other female kayakers how to do a forward stroke with good form, or how to ferry from one side of the river to the other, has made me not only a more capable paddler, but also a more competent teacher. I’m now able to pass those skills on to new paddlers. I can’t speak to the experience of others, but the sheer fact of having female paddlers to look to for inspiration has been my biggest confidence builder on the water, in both concrete and intangible ways. While I believe in breaking down any divisions between female and male paddlers, I also think it’s important to celebrate women in the outdoors. I want to celebrate those who have come before me and made it possible for me to do what I love and make it easier for those who will come after me to find their own way.
If you ask me what my favorite day on the river has been, the obvious answer is my personal first descent of the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia. But it holds this place in my memory for more than the obvious reasons. I learned how to kayak on the James in Richmond, and I have the deepest love of this community and urban whitewater. Still, West Virginia, and its various magical rivers — the Gauley, the Cheat, the New — are still in many ways home. West Virginia rivers are where I learned a love for water, with the Upper Gauley being my first introduction to whitewater in the form of rafting. These rivers were an integral part of the landscape of my childhood.
My first run kayaking on the Upper Gauley was a perfect October day in West Virginia — sunny, with the trees holding on to the last of their autumn color. Fall boating in WVa. means gold and red leaves falling like glitter over the water as you make your way down, and as it was later in the season, there was significantly less traffic on the river. It highlighted how for most of the year, this section of river is still remote, still wild. I was with a stellar group of paddlers, and I had a great day on the river, but much of why the day was special took place before we put on the water.
I had been making the trek from Richmond to Summersville pretty much every weekend during the season to run the Lower Gauley, pushing myself a little harder each lap, running more challenging lines, taking different boats, and getting on more play features. I had vaguely thought that I would wait until the spring or the next release season to run the Upper — until a female paddler changed my perspective. It was a Sunday, one when I had elected to run shuttle for a group of friends and friends of friends running the Upper. Among them were two women who live in the Fayetteville, WVa. area and who run the Gauley and the surrounding rivers regularly. I had boated with one of the women, Sam, once before, and we have a set of mutual paddling friends. As we were making our way out of Mason’s Branch, she asked, “When are you going to run the Upper?”
My response was something along the lines of a hesitant, “I’m not sure…I want someone to show me down…I’m not sure if I’m ready.”
She shrugged, smiled, and responded, “I’ll show you down, I know all the lines and the sneaks.”
She probably doesn’t even remember the conversation; it wasn’t a big moment or a dramatic statement, but her words planted a small seed, and it took root in my mind. Up until that point, when I’d considered the possibility of running what would be my first Class 5 river, I’d been met with doubts, some from myself and some from others. The simple fact that a female boater who I admired stated she would show me down, without questions about my confidence in my skills, made me feel that I could make the run. Her one simple statement put me in a positive feedback loop. I watched videos of others running the “Big 5”, the most well-known rapids of the Gauley, and gathered beta from other Richmond paddlers. I became more and more confident that I could run the Upper that season.
Soon, the last weekend of the season came where I would be able to travel. Bolstered by the confidence that had started in that earlier shuttle ride, I got in my car once more, taking the familiar I-64 pilgrimage to West Virginia. I was still nervous, but with the encouragement of two of my other female paddling friends on the trip, I committed. I put on the river, and pushed past fear and doubt to have a beautiful lap on what immediately became one of my favorite sections of river. I remember corralling in an eddy at the bottom of Sweets’ Falls that day with the other women on the lap, Emily and Berkley, and sharing the joy of it all. We sat there in the sun, looking back up the river, and soaked up the pure peace that comes from an incredible day on the river (before the exhausting decision to marathon and run the lower).
My biggest steps in paddling have often come with the support and presence of other women paddlers. I want to thank all those, men and women, who have helped nurture my love of paddling; thank you for showing me down rivers, for helping me clean up my swims, for teaching me how to be safe on the river and how to have fun. In particular though, I want to thank the women who showed me just how far I can go, those who have believed in my abilities without hesitation, and those women who, even when my own fear and doubt creeps in, have helped me believe in myself.