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December 2011 Issue
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Potamophobia and the politics of fear

A kayaker braves the Kawarau River’s Roaring Meg rapid

We live in an age of exaggerated threats and over-driven fear…but that’s not an excuse for having a little fun writes Mark Banham

What do Wilderness columnists fear? Well, in this case the list is as long and varied as a Fiordland trail. There’s the usual: public speaking, heights, snakes, spiders and sharks. Large crowds give me the heebie-jeebies, as do small planes, big dogs and real jobs (even writing that last one sends a shiver down my spine).

But by far my most pressing concern at the moment is my slight potamophobic streak – I’m scared of rivers.

It’s not normally a problem. Day-to-day I have no need to go anywhere near them. I don’t disturb them and they don’t scare me – it’s mutually beneficial. But about a month ago, in a moment of bravado, I tossed all that aside and entered the Coast to Coast: a 243km multisport event that includes 67km of river kayaking.

Over the last three decades the race has attained an almost mythical status among outdoor athletes; the problem is a big part of the legend is tales of three-thousand-dollar kayaks folded in half around rocks, their occupants found later crawling up the riverbank, bloodied, trembling and broken.

It all seemed like a great idea when I agreed to it – these things generally do – but as race day grew closer a sense of impending doom began to settle around me like a fog.

In desperation I picked up the phone to my good friend Phil Boorman for a spot of advice. Phil is self-admittedly way down the food chain in the paddling world but he’s by far the most fanatical white water paddler I know. It’s safe to say that when he’s not working for guiding outfit Active South America or looking after his whanau, he’s either physically or mentally immersed in moving water.  

When I explained my situation and that rivers scare the hell out of me his response was simple: “Yeah, they probably should.”

He says even the Coast to Coast course, which at grade-two on the International Scale of River Difficulty is considered relatively benign, still contains potentially lethal hazards.

“If you’re inexperienced, what can kill you on grade-two is if you stand up – foot entrapment.” Or, he says, there could be a “rock sieve” – the river feature that killed British tourist Emily Jordan on the Kawarau River in 2008.

“In a kayak you could get vertically pinned or pinned straight into it frontwards or sideways,” he explains. “Or it might be flat, moving water and there could be a tree just under the surface and you’re in the wrong spot at the wrong time.”

However, he says the most dangerous thing you’re likely to find on any piece of water is a drowning person – simply because the only thought in their mind is staying above water and if that means pushing you under they’ll do it.

Apparently commercial rafting guides are taught to stay away from drowning people at all costs. Boorman says when a client ends up in the water, their first rescue option is simply yelling instructions at them “Swim! There’s an eddy over here! Look where I’m pointing! Swim! Swim to that eddy!”

Or if that doesn’t work then physically intervening with a throw-bag or letting them hang on to the back of a kayak could be necessary… but physically getting in the water with a drowning person is a big no-no.

Sometimes, he says, it’s just unavoidable and in those cases you may need to resort to some unorthodox methods.

“There are instances as a raft guide, if you have a raft flip and you’ve got a client panicking and grabbing hold of you and pushing you down, we were trained to bend their thumb back – hurt them – if that is what it takes to calm down and get away from you.”

But he says not to take all those things as reasons not to explore rivers. Quite the opposite in fact: “You get on white water because it’s inherently a little bit scary.”

Boorman says when he’s sitting in an eddy above a difficult and potentially dangerous section of river, he’s utterly terrified with trembling hands, sweating palms – the works. But as soon as he’s in the flow and there’s no turning back, something strange happens.

“It’s weird, as soon as I pull out of that eddy I’m not scared anymore. There’s actually almost a sense of numbness or complete and utter apathy to the dangers. I actually don’t feel it. It’s like, ‘job’s on, here we go’ – even when things start going a little bit wrong.

“Then, when I’m down at the bottom of that piece of water… when I’m in the next eddy safely and I did it – especially when I’ve done it well – that sense of euphoria is like nothing else. There’s absolutely nothing like it.”

All this raises the question: could it be that fear and euphoria are just two sides of the same coin? That the more petrified you are of something, the greater the catharsis when you learn to play with it?

If that’s the case, it certainly makes the Coast to Coast paddle take on a whole new light for me. I’ll sleep much better tonight, I’m sure. But beyond that, if you apply this viewpoint in the widest possible sense, the world suddenly becomes a very different place.

You see, we’re living through what’s best described as a golden age for fear. Politicians, marketers and newsmen have all learned that people possessed by fear respond well to the most basic control methods.

They know that just like drowning people, a scared population will obey the instructions yelled at them and failing that, they’ll tolerate having their thumbs bent back a bit.

So threats like disease epidemics, terrorist networks and random acts of violence are routinely exaggerated beyond all logical proportion to keep us buying, watching and voting.

But when you take the viewpoint that fear – especially exaggerated fear – is just latent euphoria, the world once again becomes your playground.