Floating Past Fear
“One second I was with Keegan, and the next I couldn't breathe; everything went black, and the only thing I could hear was the sound of water rushing into me and around me. I couldn't tell if I was moving backwards or in circles or not at all. My arms and legs flailed, but there was nothing to grab on to, and it only disoriented me more. I was powerless.
As my chest tightened with my last few sips of air, that unacknowledged belief of, "Those things only happen to other people..." came to stare me in the face and, without words, declare, "Wrong."
In those few seconds that stretched like minutes, I unwillingly accepted that this could be it.”
Nearly two years ago, I was floating down the Swan River on a sunny June afternoon in northwest Montana, my friend Keegan and I had nearly reached the takeout when we came up on a hazard (the severity of which I had no understanding of at the time). Unable to paddle ourselves around it, we crashed into a large log jam. I went under and lost sight of Keegan; I was unsure if I’d come back up but tried to tell myself not to panic. What was probably seconds felt like minutes until I finally surfaced, sucking in as much air as I could. Now facing upstream, I managed to get stuck on another log where I remained pinned for about three hours before being rescued. Had Keegan not climbed up onto the first log and made it out to get help, I wouldn’t be here. We were in a remote National Forest area with not a single other soul around and the water was high and glacial-cold (luckily all I came out with were some minor scars and hypothermia).
Initially I was nothing other than grateful to be alive. As soon as my body collapsed into the arms of my rescuers, my mind seemed to immediately block out the entire traumatic experience I had just had. In the days following, I was proud of the strength and determination I didn’t believe to exist yet found in myself that afternoon (even my rescuers couldn’t believe I had held on so long). But after the shock of the event subsided, some embarrassment and shame came up to the surface. It’s easy to look back in retrospect and realize how dumb something might have been – “How could I have been so stupid? No one with any common sense would have done that the way I did it.”
But I did the best I could with the knowledge I had at the time, and, although I don’t wish that experience on anyone, I believe a lot of good has come from it for me.
We all get caught up in worry over our futures from time to time, but again, looking back I could have never planned the path I ended up taking.
Nearly dying in that river in a remote area of Montana led me to my job (and extended family) in Hawaii. When I decided to apply for my position with Kekoa, I was still riding the high of “I just almost died! Life is fleeting, and I’ve got nothing to lose.” I believe the law of attraction was also at play, and after sharing my story and interviewing with strangers who already felt like friends, I got the job.
That adrenaline-fed courage faded over a few months and all of my normal, human fears and worries crept back in (i.e. fear of rejection, fear of failure, social anxiety, worry over big life changes…the whole, ugly fear gamut). Fast-forward one and a half years later, and I found myself in front of an opportunity to face one of my fears head-on; I was invited to partake in a women’s only packrafting swiftwater safety course in Moab, UT. I had been in a packraft once (on a lake), and although I didn’t mind being by the river (as fate would have it, I ended up moving into a cabin directly on the Swan River a little over a year post-accident), the thought of getting back into fast moving water made my heart race and sent my stomach into knots.
But something shifted in me this year. I became sick of living in fear and holding myself back.
I wanted to get more comfortable with discomfort, I wanted to welcome rejection…all because I know the greatest growth comes from these spaces.
So, I said yes to the anxiety-inducing invitation.
At first, I felt excited and proud; telling others you’ve decided to face a fear and making that mental commitment is empowering. But, as I made the 12+ hour trek down to Moab, an array of emotions and questions ran through me; “Why am I doing this?” “What if I get hurt?” “What if I leave less confident than I already am?”
Sitting up in my tent next to the Colorado River the night before the course started, I entered the peak of discomfort in this fear-facing journey. Surrounded by (badass female) strangers, my self-doubt and social anxiety were at an all-time high. I was with minimal cell service, so there was no calling on trusted friends to talk me off the ledge and remind me that all would be okay. I found myself going over all the ways I wasn’t strong enough, wasn’t experienced enough, wasn’t brave enough…just wasn’t enough, and I thought about packing up my car and driving off into the dark of the night more than once. This was my turning point. This is where I could have bailed when things got tough. But I sat there in all the shitty feelings; they didn’t go away, but I knew that if I stayed, I had the possibility of growing from the experience.
The next day I suited up and got in my raft. I had one “I don’t think I can do this” moment before we practiced rescuing each other with throw bags (i.e. ropes thrown to paddlers who had fallen out of their boats), but again, I trudged through the fear and forced myself to be one of the first ones to jump in the river. And…to my surprise…it felt good. I enjoyed the feeling of floating. What’s more – I witnessed other women, whom I perceived to be fearless, reminding themselves to breathe. I wasn’t alone in my fear.
By the end of the weekend, I had gained more than I could have hoped— I had fun bouncing through the rapids and throwing myself out of my boat to practice getting back in, I was inspired by the women around me, and I was eager to get in the river again (with my new knowledge and skills under my belt).
29 years into my life, I’ve finally begun to understand bravery. Fear will always be there, and that’s fine. It’s how we interact with it that matters. Following that very tangible experience of facing my fear, I’ve had to confront other anxious situations including looking for more work and finding a new place to live. I’ve found that I’m getting comfortable with rejection because I know it’s not the end-all-be-all. More and better opportunities will come… I just have to keep floating on.
You can read Andrea’s full account of her river incident on her blog: