With each pull, the oars popped as if attached by rubber bands not steel clamps. The grips felt a yard apart. "Don’t dislocate a shoulder," I joked to myself. Approaching a channel between drooping cedars, I surveyed obstacles.
Reeds and roots sieved plastic water bottles and french fry cartons. Under a stone bridge, two families in row boats collided as children squealed. An oncoming pedal boat, steered by a man in a bicycle helmet, seemed determined to broadside me.
Far off, rose the iconic Sutro Tower. This was silly. Home for Thanksgiving, a month before rowing the Grand Canyon, and I’d come to Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park to practice. If my crew saw me struggling to avoid tourists, they’d leave me at Lee’s Ferry.
I wouldn’t normally do this. For years, I didn’t practice. I was too self-conscious for odd or touristy things. But lately, I’ve embraced a philosophy of "stepping out." Sometimes that means harder runs, or tackling trickier expeditions like the Powell Pilgrimage down the Green River. Other times, it’s stepping down on runs I once dismissed as too flat or long. Usually, it means saying yes instead of no thanks.
Circling this donut-shaped lake after 20 years away, avoiding ducks devouring popcorn slicks, I realized this was where I started. As a kid, my mom would bring my brother and me. I’d insist on rowing. Beg for two laps. Sometimes get it.
I felt a jolt — I’d rowed into the grassy bank. Sadly, I hadn’t improved despite 15 years of experience guiding and paddling on whitewater.
But by stepping out and returning here, I’d uncovered forgotten memories. I’d seen how far I’d come, and been reminded how much I still have to explore. Certainly, that’s one benefit of stepping out, along with many more.
Expand Your Comfort Zone. As a California paddler, most river days were under azure skies. In spring, we wore dry-suits due to snow-melt. In summer, we wore sunscreen. When I moved near the Ozarks, I experienced real winter paddling. Sunny days might be sub-30 degrees, with brain-freeze rolls and feet that felt like the ice blocks floating by.
Those early years, when winter arrived, I’d jet home to warm up. But eventually, I came to appreciate willows turned to icicles, empty rivers under snow, current flowing through frozen landscapes. I’d hop on rocks, watching steam rise through my Gore-Tex — finally witnessing it work!
Next, I tackled cold-weather creeks and waterfalls. Eventually, the Grand Canyon in winter seemed right. When younger it sounded as comfortable as the Arctic — now I’d simply ask, Any rivers up there?!
Meet More Paddlers. For years, I paddled with raft guide friends. We weren’t closed off, but definitely turned inward. After moving 2,000 miles away, I opened up. Great experiences followed when I simply arrived at a put-in with an outstretched hand. I met regulars at the Ocoee, and we were friends before Grumpy’s. On a solo trip to Buena Vista, I dropped into the Numbers with locals and Texas slalom boaters. Other times, I carpooled with strangers for 8-hour drives which took 9, because we talked right past the exit.
Yes, it’s a blast to boat with buddies. But sometimes, it’s worth stepping out from the clique and making new friends. Just a stab in the dark — you might have something in common.
Physically Challenge Yourself. After a week of Sierra boating, feeling beat, I reluctantly joined friends at Forks of the Kern. Years later, the exertion of hiking in two gear loads — down, up, down — on the 3-mile trail is a highlight, not the grunt-fest it was. Another time, a dropping Box Canyon fomented an icy night hike along a railroad track. The rapids are forgotten, but diving down the embankment when an inspection truck whistled around the corner at breakneck speed is not. (Our necks and boats were fine.)
Other times, reaching 17 miles upstream into the tangled willows of the Saint. Completing 22 marathon-miles through the rain-forest gorge of South Fork of the Eel in California. Running rivers despite them dumping into lakes miles from access. Or crossing Flaming Gorge reservoir for its own sake. When you step out physically, the experiences expand as well.
Discover Hidden Gems. Routines are easy. The backyard run is closest. Easy shuttle. Known quantity. But why not step out from routine and seek the exceptional? Once, at our Missouri take-out, a buddy befriended some Arkansans. They described a beautiful granite creek called Richland. Being 5 hours away, we’d always pushed past to the Southeast. Next weekend, we visited this gorgeous run, learning an important safety lesson.
Another time, I followed a Sierra paddling mentor down a remote logging road to a brushy stream she called Secret Creek. After promising my silence, I joined her on a remarkable hidden run.
Explore Your Own Capabilities. I’ve had a few slow, almost nonexistent, seasons. Feeling burned-out by routine runs. Or focusing on what professionals call "careers" and boaters call "how I pay for trips." Needing a jolt, I’ve opted for some harder paddling. Putting on the Cheoah in North Carolina, I imagined a yard-sale, disappointed friends, hiking out. Instead, my helmet didn’t touch water. Section 4, the Tellico, the Gauley, and much more followed, as I remembered, I can do this.
When I considered paddling Sardinia’s Orosei coast, I agonized over the language barrier more than the Tyrrenhian Sea. Cryptic Google-translate emails with the outfitter didn’t help. Will we be silent for three days? What if someone gets hurt?
I went anyways, with some local phrases scribbled in a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook. We laughed like pals for three days in a hybrid English-Italian-Spanish. So, years later when some Germans invited me on the Main River, I didn’t think twice.
Stepping out involves looking inward and exploring one’s capabilities. Doesn’t matter if that’s going harder, or farther, or longer, or faster. It’s about silencing that little voice blurting NO, and instead stepping out by saying YES.
More from Mike Bezemek’s ‘Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters’ series