The Worry Warrior: inside the mind of an anxious raft guide

Sending snow hole in the paddle raft.JPG
Me and my paddle raft crew going down Snow Hole Rapid on the Lower Salmon River. Photo by Jordan Manley

Looking down at Snow Hole rapid my heart is racing. I have pulled over above one of the class IV rapids on the Lower Salmon River with three coworkers and a group of 15 guests. Standing on the rocky shore, we scout our line down the rapid.

15 people, I think. That’s 15 people to get down the rapid safely.

I have run this rapid before. In fact, I have run this rapid many times with no issues. 

We pick a line. It’s the same line we always run. I don’t even have to look at the rapid to picture the line in my head: enter right facing the left bank and move left.

I know exactly what to do. But, staring at the rapid, my heart pounds faster while I think of everything that could possibly go wrong. I ask myself why, after so many times on this river, I am still nervous to run this rapid. I close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and try to envision myself getting down the rapid successfully.

Suddenly, I am jolted out of my little moment of meditation by a loud voice, “Do you ever get scared to run the rapids?” 

I open my eyes to see a guest staring at me so intensely that it startles me. It’s almost as if they know I am about to lie, and are looking for any small sign of fear on my face to confirm their suspicions. 

I suddenly get self-conscious. Can they sense how nervous I am? I hesitate for a moment, questioning whether or not I should tell the truth. The truth being that yes, I do get scared. That, no matter how many times I run a big rapid, I wonder if this is the time I mess up, flip a boat, or get hurt. That, to me, it’s only a matter of time until the river teaches me a lesson. 

Instead, I stand up tall, smile confidently, and say “We have a clear line set on this rapid that we run successfully every week. I have never had any issues running this rapid. And, if anything happens, we have an experienced team of guides that are trained in river safety and rescue” 

Thankfully, this response seems to satisfy them and the interrogation is over. But, my sense of relief fades fast, and my mind begins to race with worst-case-scenarios all over again. 

Wild Sheep scout
Scouting Wild Sheep Rapid in Hells Canyon. My coworker Robin is pointing out the line to me. Photo by Samuel Hinerfeld

I have always been a worrier. In fact I would say that most things I have done in my life have been driven by fear. This may sound contradictory — to see fear as a driving force. We tend to see fear as a bad thing, something that paralyzes us from action. Something that makes us weak. However, I see my fear as my superpower. The times I have felt the most fear in my life are the times I have been the strongest. 

Being a chronically fearful person I have two options: to either let the fear completely consume me and force me into inaction, or to confront the fear head on and get it over with. I have always preferred the latter. I hate feeling anxious, so I generally do anything to let it be over as soon as possible. This means directly confronting the thing that scares me instead of sitting in anxious agony. The result is a weird paradox of personality where people see me as “badass” and “tough” when I take on risky situations, even though I am seriously freaking out on the inside. 

I cannot think of a time where this superpower manifests more concretely than while raft-guiding. No matter how scared I am to run a rapid, I have no choice but to face it head-on and “send-it”, all the while acting as if it is no big deal. It is literally my job to confront my fears. 

So, being the professional raft guide I am, I hop in my boat with my heart racing, repeating the line over and over in my head as me and my paddle raft crew float slowly toward the rapid

Enter right, move left

Enter right, move left

Enter right, move left

Once my boat is situated above the rapid, I yell “ALL FORWARD” and my paddle raft crew bursts into action, sending us full force into the waves. A sense of calm rushes over me. It’s game time and I am completely in the zone. Everything slows down and all of my worries melt away. It’s just me and the water. I know instantly that I am on target. With seemingly effortless movement, my boat glides through the rapid, perfectly situated in between two huge holes. We get to the bottom and everything speeds up again. We made it through safe. A sense of pride and relief washes over me, but not for long. This same process of worrying repeats itself when we get to the top of the next big rapid. 

With all of the safety concerns and risk associated with whitewater, you would think an anxious person like me would hate running rivers. But, I actually thrive in it. Rivers, unlike most everyday anxiety-producing experiences, have a clear beginning and end. This is a key aspect to why anxious people like me enjoy running them. Big rapids allow me to see my fears, directly confront them, and leave them in the past. At some point, you have to let go of your worries and just go down the freakin’ rapid. In this way, rivers provide me one of the most tangible and satisfying ways to conquer my fears. And, in conquering them, I am beginning to realize that I am a lot more capable than I give myself credit for. Perhaps the fear is not of the river itself, but instead based in my own self-doubt. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from the river is not about the river at all: it is about my own self-sabotage. Maybe if I stop getting in my own way, I can conquer a lot more than running a rapid.

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