You are growing up in an ecosystem that has replaced survival instincts with building codes. Instead of toughness, this world has given you ibuprofen. Your ecosystem has undermined your primal utility for agility by placing flat, symmetrical surfaces beneath your feet. It has devalued your ability to anticipate the safe breaks in motion by providing you with buttons buttons that can instantly part the red seas of traffic.
You have guardrails to prevent your tumble; lifeguards to keep you in the shallow end and teachers to marshal you away from the forest surrounding your school and into the predictability of the playground within it.
These are good things, of course. They are, after all, what will help you and many in your generation to live into your 90s.
In the process, however, I fear our attempts to lengthen your life are lobotomizing the savage inside of you.
This is why I am teaching you to kayak rivers. The river will be the objective disciplinarian I can never force myself to be. It’ll reward you with euphoria when you do well and punish you when you don’t.
At best, those punishments will be embarrassing. My guess is that you’ll feel the shame most acutely just as you suck in that first gulp of air; when you’ll realize you could have endured it longer.
At worst, the punishments can be cruel, waterboarding you in a liquid tornado—even after you’ve given up.
I wouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if you decided after one of these misfortunes that kayaking rivers is not worth it—not worth the gas money, not worth the lost paddles, the cracked boats, the tangled throw ropes, the portages, the trashings or the long, uncertain canyon-retreats that sometimes follow.
Of course, as your father, I hope you’ll never experience any of these misfortunes. (Which is why am prohibiting you from ever running Class V—no, really, it’s off-limits. And yes, that includes the Little White Salmon. Yes, even the Little White Salmon. No, you can’t run the Little White Salmon. Because it’s dangerous. It has caves. You can’t run it! No, never! It’s dangerous. It has caves. Okay! You can run the Little White Salmon ONCE! And that’s IT! Don’t ask again … I’m serious.)
As I was saying, I hope you never experience any of these misfortunes. If you do, however, I know each one of them will teach you something about who you are and how you fit into the world around you.
I realize, of course, you are only 8 years old now. I haven’t even taught you how to duffek or how to roll. I’m still sheltering you from eddylines that stretch and yawn into miniature whirlpools. I still clutch your cockpit through rapids that are whiter than they are green. If, somehow, you do flip, I’ll pray you’ll have the composure to remember the steps I have instructed you to repeat back to me before sliding into every river we’ve paddled together: Pause. Lean forward. Grab. Pull. Kick. Breathe.
These are the functions that will save you. But if they don’t. If they fail you this time—or the next time—I’ll be right here beside you.
— Christian Knight, pictured, is a contributing editor for C&K and a proud paddling father of three in Kirkland, Wash.