Navigating Deadly Whitewater and Inequality in the Outdoors
Author: Gabi Stadulis
Photos by: Jacob Karona
I was graduating college in a few days, virtually of course, as per COVID-19, and had plans to move to a new city across the country the following Sunday. It was a Thursday, and the James River water level gauge was reading about 7.5 feet—the high mark of my comfort level for the
Lower, the more difficult whitewater section of the James that runs through Richmond, VA. The level was rising to 13 feet by the end of the week—flood stage. Given the projection, I knew it would be my last lap on my favorite river before I left my city—the city I’ve spent the last four years calling home, and the river that I’d spent the last two and a half years learning to paddle on.
I’ve been whitewater kayaking for a little less than two years. I like to think my progression would have been faster if I had become more comfortable in a boat when it was warm outside, rather than in November when all I had to protect myself from bone-chilling water was a leaky drysuit and taking conservative lines. My fear—of holding up the group when I inevitably capsize, fail multiple rolls, and have to pull my spray skirt—kept me from trying new things.
It was a cold, rainy May afternoon. I texted my boss, Karl, to see if he wanted to paddle together one last time before I moved, and he seemed delighted. I wanted Karl to be there for my last lap—he’s been my mentor since I started working for my university’s outdoor program in the fall of 2017—when I knew nothing about anything outdoors, but was eager to learn. He asked my other boss, Joey, to come too. The two are some of the best kayakers I know so they were a welcomed addition to my usual crew.
We all met that Thursday at Reedy Creek, the put-in for the Lower James. I was bubbling with excitement, Karl and I doing little hoppy dances with our boats on our backs, geared up and ready to paddle.
Joey and Karl wanted to put in at the actual Reedy Creek—a short stretch of water that flows into the usual put-in pool that I had never run before. I asked what the line was and they laughed, saying something about a straightforward “big drop." Before I could even get in my boat they launched.
"My palms were sweaty; I let out a louder-than-usual exhale as I got into my boat in the small, unstable eddy, then launched."
My palms were sweaty; I let out a louder-than-usual exhale as I got into my boat in the small, unstable eddy, then launched. There were two tight, dark, concrete tunnels under a bridge that felt like a claustrophobic waterslide. My boat went down the chute, muscles clenched, and I popped out the other side to find the riffles below the tunnels so anticlimactic and piddly that they couldn’t even be considered a rapid.
I guessed that they mentioned the “big drop” to get a laugh and mess with me. I’ve always hated the nagging sense of shame and incompetence being the butt of a joke for those more skilled than me. I could have said something—I’ve confronted Karl many times before—but I felt the urge to keep my calm and brush it off, something I find myself doing when I’m already out of my comfort zone.
Our group met back up at the end of the creek and paddled away to Variation—the first class II rapid on the section. We surfed in the wave for a while, the more experienced boaters doing impressive spins, catching the wave with ease. I watched from the eddy, mustering up the courage to paddle in. Would I miss the wave? Maybe I'd flip, fail a roll, and fight to get back into the eddy. Maybe I'd be fine. I did catch the wave briefly and felt accomplished, though I’m not sure anyone saw it. I’m not sure that it mattered much either.
Karl and Joey paddled to the next rapid while the rest of us, the younger, newer paddlers, watched and cheered each other on. We finished up and followed our mentors’ leads. I told Karl and Joey that I wanted to bypass the class III/IV rapid, Hollywood, and run Target Rapid, the easier option instead. When the water’s up past seven feet, it feels like the lateral waves in Hollywood are going to throw me into a wall of lockers and take my lunch money, so I wanted to play it safe.
I kept thinking about the finality of this lap—probably too much. I wanted to run clean lines and prove myself a good boater. I wanted to feel that I learned a lot in the last two years of paddling and had something to show for it. And I really didn’t want to swim. Maybe I wanted a bit of closure, too.
I followed everyone through the class II before the split: left to run Target, or right for Hollywood. Karl started toward Hollywood—the group had forgotten, or ignored, my request. Again, I found myself resisting the urge to “make a big deal about it." When we approached Hollywood, Karl asked me if I wanted to follow him through a new line, one that’s river right of Stripper and Flipper, two large holes right above the rapid that can easily flip a kayak. Skipping those holes made Hollywood seem more doable. We all followed Karl like a little herd of ducklings playing follow-the-leader behind the one they were looking to for guidance.
I ran the line bypassing Stripper and Flipper with ease, and slid perfectly into the eddy meeting the rest of the crew. Karl asked if we were ready and I smiled and nodded. I followed closely behind him again—five or so boat lengths, the standard distance you’re supposed to give in a rapid. But once he made it to the mouth of Hollywood, he turned upstream to catch the first micro-eddy to surf. He hadn’t told me this was his plan, so I hadn’t given him enough space for it. I tried to make room, but in doing so I lost the momentum needed to punch through the holes at the end of the rapid. He peeled out and kept going, but our boats were already too close. The current pushed me right and I was eaten by a hole that only materializes at high water. I was immediately side surfed in the hydraulic.
I was upright for a bit, unsteady, tilting upstream, fighting the current. Then I quickly went under—my helmet receiving a scrape of honor as I went down. Initially I was calm—I had rolled in moving water so many times before. I would be fine, I thought. I drew my paddle up to attempt a roll, but I couldn’t move it; I was in a washing machine.
I felt my hands and paddle hit the bottom of the river, my helmet hit another rock. Panic, water up my nose, in my mouth. I tried to cheat my roll by using the paddle against the bottom of the river. No use. Another gulp of water. Then I gave up, pulled my skirt (a last ditch effort to detach from the kayak and swim to safety), and let go of my paddle. I watched my gear float downstream while I got body surfed in the same hole that had been holding me captive underwater.
As a raft guide, I know to teach some river hydrology before a trip so folks are more aware of the dangers of the river and can be an active participant in their rescue if need be. Guides tell participants to crunch themselves up into a ball if you find your body stuck in a hole. This will first suck them underwater but will eventually release them downstream. I was getting surfed for the first time in a hole without a boat, and I forgot everything that I’d ever taught my participants.
I flailed around, gasping and making noises that would be cringe-inducing in any setting. All I could think about was keeping my head above water, not curling into a ball to be released downstream. I felt my legs getting sucked deeper and deeper as if I was standing completely upright. The current shifted my helmet, I fought the downward pull by treading water, gulping air but managing to swallow more water instead. I did this for what felt like a minute, likely much longer than it probably was. I furiously flailed again, this time with a sense of direction and purpose—river left, toward the current, my friends, my boat, and calm water.
The pull of the hydraulic lessened and I popped out. In all my paddling life I’d never seen someone’s body get stuck in a hole on the James. Never had I felt like drowning was a possibility on this river. In that moment I learned otherwise.
My limp body floated down to Tredegar pool; I felt disconnected from it as I searched for my friends and my gear. Adrenaline flowed from head to toe, as strong and fast and numbing as the current that had just kept me in the hole. Once I got back into my boat in the flat water, Karl handed me my paddle and cheerily announced, “Well, that was a proper swim!”
As he paddled away to play around in nearby eddies with Joey, I situated myself back in my boat while my friends pulled themselves close and peppered me with questions.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you want to keep going or take out here?”
My adrenaline masked my thoughts, so I said I was okay and wanted to keep going, adding a nod and a self-assured smile. I didn’t want my last lap on the James to be cut short just because
I had a bad swim. Apparently satisfied by my half-assed affirmations, they gave me some breathing room.
I was finally, briefly, left alone. And I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach, pain radiating straight through to my back. I felt tears pricking my eyes as my friends paddled away, talking about running lines I had never seen before at a water level that was already stretching my comfort zone. My eyes welled up and I started to dry heave over the side of my boat, almost tipping myself over. I was overcome with all of the feelings of finality of this last lap and an irrational sense of guilt that I was throwing a wrench in everyone else's fun, that I was making too big of a deal of my emotions.
But there I was, needing to take a break, needing get comfortable, but being uncomfortable because of it. By the time the adrenaline wore off and my feelings burst through, Karl and Joey had already continued downstream, oblivious. Two of my friends followed. Two stayed. They told me that it was okay if I didn’t want to do something I was uncomfortable with. So the three of us paddled upstream to an island, where I could collect myself and empty my stomach, while everyone else continued the lap.
As we pulled onto the goose poop ridden beach, I began to cry. Crying because it would be my last time paddling the James for who knows how long, and because I had just had the worst swim of my entire kayaking career. Crying because my friends had seemingly ignored my overpowering unease when they usually never do. Crying from the frustration of putting aside my conflicting emotions about feeling ignored and belittled so I could focus on my desire to just be on the river. Crying because I was moving away from my home in three days, because I was graduating college during a pandemic without a Senior Show—just a makeshift online exhibition—and wasn’t able to get the recognition I had hoped for or expected. Crying because all I wanted was closure and the James simply wouldn't let me have it.
I sat and wondered why the hell it had to be my last lap that I had this terrifying experience, if it would have gone differently if I felt less pressure to perform, if I had been paddling with my normal crew of peers, if the dynamic had changed because my mentors were with us.
I tried my best to throw up, stretch, do anything to make my body feel like it hadn’t been hit by a truck. My friends crouched beside me and stroked my back as I continued to dry heave. The two made jokes to lighten the mood, asked me what I needed. We decided to switch skirts to relieve
pain from a potentially too tight fit. After a half an hour, we decided to run the Fish Ladders and Pipeline, lines I'd run more than a hundred times before. I held onto hope that the rest of the group would be waiting for us above Pipeline and I’d be able to salvage whatever happy ending I thought I deserved.
No one was waiting in the pool for us. We got to the take out, where the two other friends that completed our usual crew, were waiting, looking relieved as we lugged our boats up the stairs. They didn’t say anything about how long we took or our swapped skirts. They told us they had been worried. They'd driven up to where they could see the island to look for us, but we had already left. They had come back, waiting for us, waiting for me. They made sure we were okay, then told us about the rest of their lap, the lines Joey and Karl had shown them.
It meant a lot to me that those two were there at the end, even if they felt obligated to be. Joey and Karl had already left; maybe they had plans, I thought. I checked my phone to see if maybe they had texted me, but nothing.
We loaded boats and packed up. Everyone else drove away. I sat in my car for what felt like too long, staring at the steering wheel, fumbling with my phone, defeated.
I’ve been trying to come to terms with why I was so upset that day, why the sucker-punch feeling was both physical and emotional. I'm finding that it has to do with how I’m wrestling with endings and how I’m finally starting to navigate, and do something about, the inequality I feel as a woman in the outdoor industry. I find myself debating whether or not my emotions are valid, and how to put words to those emotions—something that I’m becoming more and more forced to face. I think I’ve always felt this while navigating the outdoor world—a world where people do a double take when they see a young half-Filipino woman with a whitewater kayak—but I never wanted to speak out because of how much my mentors taught me and how much I looked up to them.
I am now facing the fact that, like many women, I tend to suppress those feelings of inadequacy in a group in exchange for the passion of the sport. The people who taught me everything I know about kayaking have influenced me in ways that they may or may not know—and that same influence, conscious or not, has the potential to be harmful if unchecked.
What they did do, or failed to do, affected me. I had a bad swim, but it felt like more than that. I was devastated that day for so many reasons, but what stands out most is a reality I've ignored for too long. Even though my mentors had been there for me before, they weren’t really there for me that day. It hurt, not only because I wanted them there at the take out, but because I wanted them there for me during the run, too.
It hurt because it confirmed an all-too-present dynamic I always seem to find in the outdoor industry, whether I want to realize it or not.