Brittany Parker, second from the right, gets ready to quell the fear on the Main Salmon River. Photo: Mike Leeds

The Fear: An Essay On Whitewater SUP

Downriver, geysers of whitewater shoot violently above the horizon line of Skull Rapid on the Colorado River. The powerful roar of the river echoes off the canyon walls and reverberates in my chest as fervently as my adrenaline-stoked heart. Spencer Lacy, a seasoned veteran on this stretch, breaks my trance by talking me through the line as we stand on the boulder field next to the rapid. He puts emphasis on steering clear of the right side of the rapid. "If you go there," he says sternly, "Be prepared to experience the beat down of a lifetime."

As the river bucks wildly in front of me I visualize what I have to do but I can't stop thinking about the consequences were I to end up far right. To push through the fear I begin thinking about what waits for me at the bottom of the rapid: The overwhelming satisfaction—known well by adrenaline seekers—of working with an elemental force to conquer the fear.

There is no room for error. If I were to fall or get off course I'd be headed straight into the mouth of the beast. I stand there hoping that the longer I stare the smaller and less intimidating it would be. The opposite is true.

On shore I perform an '80s-inspired aerobics rendition, partly trying to lighten the mood but mostly to shake out the nerves. It doesn't work. At some point I just have to go, so I step onto my board in the calm water barely big enough to fit my nine-foot board. The craft that usually feels like an extension of myself now feels foreign and unstable beneath me. Rocking side to side, I try to reestablish the connection. Then, using the fear as my driving force, I push off the bank. It's a sensation that I imagine is comparable to that of jumping out of a plane or stepping off a cliff; once my feet leave solid ground there's no turning back.

The speed and power of the water builds as the canyon narrows and the gradient increases. I'm nervous and my paddling shows it. Taking advantage of the last few seconds of calm water, I take some deep breaths and shake out my legs. I think to myself, "Stay loose, paddle hard, and you'll come out the other side."

The first and most crucial wave to overcome hits me like a wall. It squashes all of my momentum and swallows my board. Sucking my legs into my chest, I absorb the impact and flow with each movement the water makes and easily make it through the first hurdle. I forget the fear and exist simply with every rise and fall of the river.

Seamlessly and suddenly, I glide into the calm waters below the whitewater. The rapid that had me gripped in fear two minutes ago now has me raising a celebratory fist in the air. I whoop and holler and fill the canyon with my excitement. The fear rests until I need it again.

Brittany Parker is a whitewater hound to the core, searching out hard lines and stout waves all over North America.