Whitewater and Loss

Melissa Joyce reflects on her late husband's passion for paddling

Curt Joyce on the Little White Salmon, Washington.

Curt Joyce on the Little White Salmon, Washington.

"In life we all take risks. Paddling whitewater is a risk that I take, and I’ve come to grips with the consequences that come along with it. I love to paddle. It drives me, it fulfills me and brings me closer to what I feel is real in life. I am able to think clearly and directly when pushing myself in whitewater. The here and now. I cannot afford to think about anything else beyond the next few strokes." Curt Joyce, 2010

By Melissa Wilder Joyce

Whitewater kayakers seem to share a set of alluring characteristics that draw others to them: an unending passion, a bold confidence, an immutable respect for rivers, and an intuitive nature that keeps their heads in the game, even when things start to go south.

I observed these traits firsthand when I married a whitewater kayaker three years ago. He captured my heart with his enduring love of life and his uncanny ability to stay present in a world that, to me, seemed to be spinning out of control. His ability to follow his heart was apparent in his calculated actions and his intentional lifestyle, which maximized time spent outdoors. His skill for living in the moment was reinforced every time he paddled down a beautiful stretch of river, and he often shared this understanding with me.

As Curt articulated in the words above, he understood the risk that came along with whitewater kayaking. He understood that what he was doing was dangerous. But I believe that kayaking gave Curt a stronger, appreciable knowledge of living fully in the present. That knowledge made him who he was. His eyes shone with love and gratitude every time he emerged safely off of a Class V section of river.

My husband took his last breath on earth while braced securely in his Green Boat on the Colorado River. One of his friends called me from the side of the river, weeping for his best friend who lay beside him and for the wife who was on the other end of that phone. As the partner of a whitewater kayaker, it is the phone call that you dread yet never truly expect to receive.

The journey since Curt's death has changed me to the core. Through the process, I have met many other people who have lost their partners, sons, daughters, and friends to extreme sports. I have watched countless tears shed and have witnessed firsthand the aftermath of just one more run or one more climb or one more decent or one more ride.

Melissa Joyce.

Melissa Joyce.

As I have walked through the loss of my husband and seen others do the same, I have questioned why we choose to take risks in a country where it's relatively easy to escape physical danger. I have questioned if I should have stopped him from going out on that trip or if I ever want to get back in my kayak. These questions, seemingly endless, have at times come close to consuming me. There have been moments when I have almost forgotten why I was drawn to whitewater kayaking in the first place. But, it is in those moments that I try to remember what I felt when I was first learning to paddle– the clarity I found during the moments of being on the water. I’ve come to the understanding that if we don’t take risks, if we don’t follow our hearts, we run the risk of not fully living, which is an even greater risk than being in a kayak.

Even through the anguish that I have endured within the last two and a half years, I continue to be thankful that Curt was exactly where he wanted to be during the time of his passing, both emotionally and physically. Curt's love of the water and his deep-seated gratitude for his ability to connect with rivers through kayaking, comprised part of the intricately defined man that he is. Knowing that he was continuing to follow that passion, surrounded by eight of his closest friends and inside one of the most majestic places on this earth, has helped me relearn how to smile when I think of the sport in which ultimately took his life.

Our passions, our commitments define us. Curt wouldn't have been the same person without paddling. I still have dozens of friends that run the world's hardest and most dangerous rivers. Runs that seemingly have little significant consequences for Class V kayakers still make me nervous. I understand now more than ever the gravity of the sport in which we love so much. And, even after knowing the unexplainable pain of getting the phone call that you never believe you will receive, I wouldn't want to stop my loved ones from going out on their favorite runs.

Whitewater kayaking gave Curt an extra spark in his baby blue eyes. It made up part of the fire that burned within him, the fire I fell madly in love with, and I wouldn't change that for the world.

— Melissa Wilder Joyce is a contributor to HuffingtonPost.com