The fine line between overcoming and succumbing to fear

By Christopher Perreault

Today I let my fears take control of me; it only took a split second to allow the fear to control my actions and my thoughts.

Just a slice outside of crazy, I load up my kayak with fellow boaters Marty, Hannah and Carl, and we head to the put-in for our first run on the Peshtigo River in Wisconsin. I jump in Carl’s SUV and hear a faint familiar sound on the radio, Pantera is trickling out of his speakers. We both look at each other as if to see if it was ok for a couple of old guys to rock Mouth For War and both laugh as he turns up the tune. As we round the corner on the lonely backroad in North East Wisconsin we see a deceiving section of the river, wide calm and slow moving current.

The Peshtigo water level at (39”) is the highest anyone in our group has ever run on this river. Class 4+ waves with some retentive holes and huge curlers that lift you six feet up in the air and then slam you down on your head. If that happens, all you have to do is roll your boat back upright before you bash your body on the rocks and logs hiding under the water.

Slowly we push off from shore, I follow Hannah, she picks the smoothest lines and makes it look easy. Carl and Marty drop in behind me and we come up to first drop. The line that Hannah picks is perfect, but I missed it by four feet and go from upright to rocket propelled submarine in what seemed like a blink of the eye. I immediately explode with my roll and find myself setting up for the next drop. The rest of the drops were like a rerun of the first, just missing the line and upside down each time with a saving roll. Over the next two days I figured out the drops and logged two clean runs with no issues.

The next day we had three boaters join us, two from Minnesota and one from Wisconsin. We made it through the first two drops unscathed and proceeded to the third drop. All of a sudden with a missed line now I'm in a keeper (a keeper is a hole formed by water changing elevation creating a whirlpool like affect). One of the boaters from Minnesota was off his line and luckily ran into me and gave me the bump I needed. As I'm exiting the feature, the other boater from Minnesota took an even worse line and spent four minutes getting thrashed around until he flipped.

What seemed like an eternity of him being upside down and fearing he may be drowning, turned into hoots and hollers as he popped up out of his boat 30 feet down river. Marty was ready and guided him down the safest path to swim over 5 foot falls. As he was doing this, a boater from Wisconsin also chose the wrong line of the falls and got pounded in a hole and ejected from his boat. Now we were in rescue mode trying to round up two swimmers and their boats and paddles before they were ripped down the longest and most hydraulic of all the drops. After collecting everyone and their gear we made it safely to shore and got everyone back to the takeout to discuss the possibility of another run.

I decided it was time to switch out my water shoes for my AKUs and hike to the drops to get some quality pics. The snow-covered forest was a welcome endeavor at this point, I was feeling my age and had a small touch of fear going through my mind.

The next morning rolled around and we headed down the river, making it flawlessly through the first three features, we approached five-foot falls and I took the wrong line by a boat width. I immediately was upside down doing a fish survey. Multiple times I tried to roll up and I would get sucked back into the falls and flipped over. Finally, I was out of breath and afraid I was not getting out so I exited my boat swimming for the bottom, catching the hydraulics and being pushed out of the falls 40 feet away.

After collecting my stuff and my breath from the 34-degree water, I loaded back in my boat determined to not let the river get the best of me. We all pushed off and blasted through with what I thought was a great line until the end. Now fear took control of me, and then in a split second I allowed fear to control my actions and my thoughts. I could not get my roll and after four failed tries I was swimming again. I made my way to the edge just in time to see my boat get pinned in a pile of logs acting like a strainer.

Everyone came together in a calculated effort and safely unpinned my boat and got it back to shore. I was on the verge of walking out when Marty looked at me and said, “You got this.” I loaded up and blasted through S-curve with the cleanest line I had all weekend and then one mile of Class II fun and we were done.

Events like this have helped me to teach my youth just the right amount of fear that keeps them from going too far, but at the same time overcoming fear to push themselves to the next level.