It’s November 21st 2009, around tea time. I’m in Morocco, and I’ve just missed a call on my phone. It’s from a friend who knows I’m away... Why on earth? A mistake, surely? But it’s the weekend: is something wrong? I send a text asking if he called me by mistake and the phone rings instantly. It’s Andy. Is everything ok? ‘It’s Chris’ the voice on the other end of the phone tells me. ‘He’s dead.’
Photo credit: unknown.
I have no memory of the rest of that phone call. I remember Andy’s voice sounding shaky and tearful, but can’t take in what he’s trying to tell me. In a guest house in Imlil, I collapse to the floor in tears and am physically picked up, rescued if you like, by Ben and Rachid, our guides on my ‘holiday’.
The six months leading up to that call had been rough, to say the least. My long term partner and I had separated, in difficult circumstances, and the following weeks & months saw many of the circle of friends I relied upon, for friendship and adventure buddies, desert me in favour of his new pairing. I felt alone, left without partner, home, friends, living in a place to which I now felt no connection. I had lived for paddling- both sea and white water, driving tens of thousands of miles a year for adventures all over the UK- and now I had no-one to go on those adventures with.
I didn’t hang around though, I found new adventure buddies, did new things. This trip to Morocco was an attempt to return to my adventurous self.
And now this... I couldn’t grasp the reality of it. Chris Wheeler had been a friend, a role model- and a mentor of sorts. We were vastly different in background and outlook, but in his quiet, measured way he had provided me with the ‘I want to paddle like that’ role model, with encouragement to try new things, to venture into playboating at Hurley, something he cherished- and with a gentle, honest and faithful friend through the last, tough months.
And now? He was gone. Drowned on our ‘home run’, a river he had paddled hundreds, maybe even thousands of times. For goodness sake it was a river even I’d run… How could I still be here, and he- invincible in my eyes- be gone?
Over the coming months I re-examined my relationship with risk; I asked questions of why, and how, and came to a conclusion. I sold my white water kayak and kit; decided I simply couldn’t face the idea of getting back on a river. The risks outweighed the benefits for me. I threw myself into hillwalking and sea kayaking: grasped every opportunity, made the most of every moment- but walked away from rivers.
Fast forward eight years... to late October 2017. I’m on the Findhorn Gorge, a classic section of Scottish white water, and I’m grinning from ear to ear. It’s a beautiful autumn day, the trees are dripping in red and gold, and showering leaf confetti down upon us. I’m here with Matt Haydock, a close friend, superb paddler and coach who’s been instrumental in getting me to this point; I’m paddling reasonably well- though this is a step up from recent rivers I’ve run- and I could hardly be happier.
So how did that happen? How did I get from vowing never to get on a river again, and being terrified and emotional at just the idea- to grinning my way down a Scottish grade 3/4 classic? It’s been quite a journey- and I wanted to write this to document a little of that journey, in the hope that it might help others suffering from a crisis of confidence to understand that its possible to overcome that hurdle, no matter how high the barrier might feel. It also, I must admit, has been cathartic to say the least.
Life has changed beyond recognition since the day of that phone call in 2009: I moved to my spiritual home in the Scottish Highlands, took voluntary redundancy from my office-based job, and turned myself into a full-time sea kayak coach and professional paddler. I’m paddling at the top of my game, doing a job I love, and living in a stunningly beautiful place with a partner who loves and understands me, and is impressively tolerant of my constant need to push for the next goal.
Around the time I decided to leave my previous job and move north, I started as a long term student for a coach going through the old BCU Level 5 Sea Kayak Coach process: it was rewarding, and fun, and I learnt an enormous amount. My kayaking took off and I developed a passion for coaching. Nick knew my story, and was aware that I’d wondered about overcoming my white water block. Towards the end of the Level 5 process, he asked if I’d be interested in running a river again. I didn’t need long to decide… 5 years had gone by, and the wounds were healing. With a borrowed boat and paddle, we ran the Middle Findhorn at a good medium level. It was tough, but I loved it. I cried and cried, both before and after: it felt like a massive step, but I’d broken the spell.
So a couple of years later when my friend Matt was looking for students to go through his UKCC Level 3 White Water, I jumped at the chance. I’d only been on a river a couple of times since that day with Nick, and although I was keen, I was still very, very nervous. My emotions were always close to the surface at even the idea of paddling white water - and the thought of doing it with anyone who didn’t understand my story- and I hadn’t developed trust for- wouldn’t even cross my mind.
Matt started slowly with me. We got on easy white water- where he was very confident I would cope- to build up technical skills, and begin rebuilding my confidence. There were occasional tears, with which he coped admirably, and he began to give me the tools to deal with anxiety in the white water environment. Breathing exercises helped; as did having the opportunity just to talk about why it was hard to put myself through this. We also looked at warming up- both physically and psychologically – and I began to construct the building blocks for the future.
It was really important that I was allowed to progress at my own pace: I’d realised that, in previous years, I had spent a lot more time being scared than enjoying myself. I didn’t want to do that now. Since Chris’s death, that line where fear begins has come into very sharp focus for me- and consequences are very much more real. Whereas before 2009 a more ‘hardline’ approach from a coach might have worked with me- now I needed a softer, subtler method of coaching where I could back away from the challenge if I needed to.
Relatively early in the process Matt surprised me by taking us to the Etive. My reaction when he told us where we would be going was very instinctive and fairly dramatic- he spotted straight away that I was panicking at even the idea. However, just the suggestion of it confronted me with a challenge: consider it, or walk away. It was a very low water day, with little in the way of other options – and we headed there to consider the use of key strokes in a site-specific session. I didn’t get on the water that day, but I did surprise myself: I took away the idea that I might, eventually, consider running this type/grade of river again, having written it off for myself previously.
We then went back to looking at technical and tactical choices- and later headed to the Spean Gorge. It was quite a step up for me both technically and psychologically- and I struggled whilst being led by another student, feeling under-confident and not in control. The day crossed my metaphorical line further into ‘fear’ than ‘fun’- but it did allow me to challenge myself and realise that whilst it needed to be a slow and gentle foray into higher grades, I did in fact want to push myself and my paddling.
I began to venture out with other friends, away from the safe environment of coached sessions. The first time was tough: I was two hours late because I was so nervous I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house. My partner held me while I cried and cried- but in the end I knew I had to go. We had chosen our river carefully; I told my story to my adventure buddy for the day, and we had a chilled out, sunny and fun day on the river.
Towards the end of the coaching process we started to work in real independence: removing my ‘safety blanket’ to help me get on the river with confidence in myself, rather than relying on others. And I started getting excited about paddling with other people again; getting out on the amazing rivers that I now live so close to, with friends.
And since then? I’ve managed a couple of trips, with friends I trust implicitly, and on beautiful days. I’m being careful but adventurous. I’ve learned to objectivise my fears, and each rapid that I come to; to rationalise the river if you like. I’m learning to ask myself where the actual danger is, and whether I can honestly make the move required to avoid it; to assess my own performance honestly rather than allowing lack of confidence to hold onto me. And if the answer is no? Well, I portage. Sounds simple doesn’t it?
So is that it? No, it’s not. Chris’s story and the memory of him will come with me on every river I paddle. It’s just that these days he’s back to his old self: quietly willing me on.
At Chris’s funeral, his bereaved partner chose to have one of his favourite songs played: Elbow’s ‘One Day Like This’. That song has become an anthem for me... “Throw those curtains wide, one day like this a year will keep me right...”. And oh my, how right those words are.
Still smiling at the end of the Findhorn Gorge.
Photo: Matt Haydock.
With huge thanks to Matt Haydock, Gill Berrow, Dave Rossetter and Nick March for sharing and helping me through the journey, and to Mark Brown for simply being himself.