Adding Death into the Equation
Posted with the permission of Doug Ammons. Originally published in Doug’s book Whitewater Philosophy, see www.dougammons.com.
Doug is a very experienced expedition paddler and a gifted writer. American Whitewater appreciates the opportunity to reprint his thoughtful article on our safety page.
Adding Death into the Equation
Usually we don’t have to defend our reasons for paddling because it is so obvious to us why we do it, but a funeral is different. Some time ago a friend of mine went to a service for a younger man who had been a fellow kayaker. The younger man had been caught on a log on a difficult run, trapped, and drowned in his kayak. My friend is an excellent kayaker himself, had known the younger man for years, and tried to say a few words about him. He found himself talking about how much the younger man enjoyed kayaking, how passionate he was, how much he celebrated his time on the river, how much fun he had there, and how much everybody missed him now.
He thought he’d done a good job explaining, until afterwards several members of the family cornered him and questioned further. They challenged him again and again in their need for closure and understanding their grief. He quickly found himself unable to answer the tearful questions. If it was a “celebration”, an uncle asked, then why was his nephew dead? How could taking such risks for his own fun be worth it when it ended this way – a smart 22-year old with his whole life ahead of him, gone, drowned doing something for “fun”? My friend struggled for answers, and slipped into several clichés, “at least he died doing what he loved.” At which the mother broke down in tears and said, “I miss my son. Dying isn’t loving.”
Tongue-tied and embarrassed, my friend did the best he could, but later confided to me, “They kept asking questions and I didn’t know what to say. Looking at the mother, I said all the things we normally do, but it sounded stupid with her standing there crying.”
When somebody dies paddling, the entire house of wonderful cards, all the laughter and fun, the exhilaration, friendships and good times, suddenly collapses. We’re left with a feeling of pain that is utterly foreign to everything that seems so special about the sport. The party and celebration of life on the river turn into their opposite.
We need to face this and try to find answers. And in doing this, we need to dump the clichés in the trash where they belong. They are not answers, they are denials and avoidance, verbal jingles whose purpose is to save us from facing the disconnect between what we want to believe, and the death that is staring at us. Statements like “that’s the price of pushing the envelope” beg a lot of questions, such as, why is this “envelope” so important that its price is death? If it is that important, then let’s hear why. I don’t hear many answers on any of the blogs or videos. Maybe someday they can turn their attention to it.
What I do sometimes hear are comments like these, for example, spoken by a top young paddler, wide-eyed and sober after taking a bad swim on the Murchison Falls stretch and washing into an eddy full of hippos - the most nasty tempered and deadly river animal there is, including crocs.. He said, “I’ll never go back there.” He was joined in that assessment by all his partners, every one of whom is among the very best paddlers in the world. It’s an honest reaction and suggests what probably any of us would say: it was a fun and exciting challenge until the shit hit the fan. It points out that we don’t have answers for this kind of thing. And if someone thinks that “the price of pushing the envelope” is an answer, then he should try it out on the mother of a friend who has died. Hopefully before the words escape his lips, he’ll realize how dumb the statement is.
We choose to go on the river of our own free will; we don’t have to be there. We aren’t saving our family or doing anything that has value in the outside world. However, we are doing something that can have huge personal value to us, suffuse our lives with energy and challenge and beauty. But little of that is expressed very well in the usual reasons that people give, and it certainly isn’t expressed in any cliché I’ve ever heard.
Please, from now on if you hear somebody saying one of these cheap, unthinking clichés, ask him what the hell he really means. Demand an answer. If we’ve got our finger on the pulse of this wondrous thing called a river, and if we are going to go places where death is a possibility, then we need to think more deeply about why we’re there. Because when you add death into the equation, the answers change.