Tag Archives: white water kayaking

Head Above Water

When I came to UA as a freshmen, the first club I joined was the Alabama Kayak Club.  I have always loved kayaking, and growing up I would often drag my kayak across the street to a channel leading into the Back Bay (I’m from Biloxi, MS, which is on the coast).  However, I soon learned that the club’s kayaking has nothing in common with my own experiences.  We do white water kayaking here. White water, which means going down a narrow river with tons of waves and currents that are just waiting to flip you over and drag you over the underwater rocks.  Meanwhile, the bay that I am used to paddling in is so tranquil that it appears more like a lake than part of the ocean.

I had always loved adventure and the outdoors and wanted to go white water kayaking, so this was a challenge that I was ready to face.  Through club practices, I slowly began to learn how to navigate the waters and roll up if I flipped over.  Soon, the dread terror I felt looking down a river became a bubbling of excitement as I prepared to soar down the churning water. AKC became like a family to me here.

AKC at one of the Locust Fork races.
AKC at one of the Locust Fork races.

We saw each other every week, had parties at the AKC house, and went on camping trips to the races (which sometimes got a little bit rowdy).  Kayakers across the state would come to these races, as I was introduced to the kayak culture.  The kayakers are usually men (and interestingly enough, almost all the members of AKC are male engineers) who love being outdoors, enjoy the rush of adrenaline from going down a particularly challenging rapid, are friendly, and prefer camping and kayaking to going to the beach.

What was I thinking, choosing a hobby that is so inherently dangerous?  The potential of accidents in the river, the discomfort of camping, and the prospect of being on the water while it was literally snowing were not enough to defer me from the adrenaline, comradeship, and beauty of kayaking, but why?  Here are the answer to Tinbergen’s 4 “why questions” that explain animal behavior.

Historical:  Kayaking is not a modern invention.  Throughout the ages, humans have seen different expanses of water and crafted suitable vessels that would allow them to cross.  The kayak itself was first used by the Inuit around 8000 years ago.  That’s a lot of time for this skill to evolve and be passed along.  For the Inuits, being able to kayak meant being able to provide food for your family and a quick method of travel.  These invaluable skills, and the processes that come along with them, would have been inherited through the generations.  While I do not have any Inuit in me, I do have Native American, and though Native Americans used canoes, most of the concept is the same.  I might have inherited a propensity to be on the water due to my Cherokee ancestors.

I practiced safety while swimming in rapids by diving into the Coosa river.
I practiced safety while swimming in rapids by diving into the Coosa river.

Additionally, scientists have found several genes that are linked to risk-taking behavior, such as white water kayaking.  As Americans, we have conquered the environmental dangers and stresses that still plague underdeveloped nations, so we have found other ways to express these risk-taking genes, including extreme sports like white water kayaking.  Most of America is composed of immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, who were more inclined to risky behavior as they had to leave the life the knew to come to an unknown land.  These risk-taking genes were probably passed on throughout the generations.

Proximal:  I’ve always been someone to go for adventurous, outdoorsy experiences in my travels, from hiking to skiing to scuba diving.  Something I had always wanted to learn how to do was white water kayak, but there was no where around for me to learn.  The thought of coursing down a river with the water rushing around me, not having to actually paddle to go anywhere (unlike flat water kayaking, which makes the arms extremely sore) seemed so thrilling to me.  When I was presented with the opportunity where I would not only be taught how to navigate the waters but also have an instant group of people who would go with me and act as a safety net, I jumped at the chance.  If I had not had a group of experts who were willing to teach me and go on rivers with me, I never would have been a white water kayaker.

A joint house-warming party for the president and the AKC awards.
A joint house-warming party for the president and the AKC awards.

Developmental:  This one is fairly straightforward.  I was new in Tuscaloosa, did not know many people, and was looking for acceptance from a peer group.  Humans are extremely social creatures, and college-age students in particular place an emphasis on friends and peer groups.

Part of the culture of college is forging connections with different people and being introduced to new ideas.  AKC provided me with an instant group of similarly minded students, and provided me with a means of relaxation after all the stresses of my studies.  I couldn’t do schoolwork 24/7, and kayaking each week was a welcome break.

Functional:   White water kayaking is a very physically and mentally demanding sport.  The mind has to be adaptable and able to make quick judgments in order to navigate rivers.  Depending on the speed of the rapids, there might only be seconds to properly set up the boat and hit the right line on the river to avoid flipping or running into rocks/fallen logs.

Besides mental capabilities, the evolution of the human body have allowed us the reflexes and physicality to stay upright on the river.  Muscle coordination is used to paddle.  In a sense the paddle becomes an extension of the arms, and you have to be aware of exactly where and how it is hitting the water.

A sense of balance, developed in the ear, is crucial, for the boats are extremely unstable and without proper adjustments of the body and weight in response to the current, a kayak will be immediately flipped.  Humans have a need to survive, and this survival instinct has helped me.  When I flipped over a huge expanse of rocks, the adrenaline kept me from panicking as I calmly put my body through the motions necessary to roll.  That was a huge accomplishment for me, and gave me a tremendous amount of confidence.  If I can remain calm while my head is being slammed by rocks and I am trapped upside down in the freezing water, I can do anything.

I flipped while attempting the slalom race at Mulberry; I couldn't roll at the time so I had to swim down the rapids
I flipped while attempting the slalom race at Mulberry; I couldn’t roll at the time so I had to swim down the rapids