Update and reboot: Some discussion on happiness research

I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I’m going to resist the temptation to update you on all the developments of the last two years. Instead, I’m going to focus on the findings of my research.

As most of you know, my main drive in life is happiness, and I’ve spent the last decade on a quest to discover the keys to a happy life. I started by figuring out what happiness isn’t – and I think most of us who’ve put serious thought into it already know that. Happiness isn’t simply “the American dream” of a great career, material wealth and possessions, and an impressive spouse and family. All of those things are nice, yet we all know plenty of people who’ve checked all those boxes and are still miserable. Hell, people have been writing songs and novels on that very thesis for decades, maybe even centuries. For some reason, all the trappings of conventional success are not a guarantee of happiness. Now to be clear, they aren’t likely to necessarily hurt your chances of being happy; many happy people live very conventional lives with fulfilling careers, significant wealth, and conventionally impressive families. But we all know that won’t make you happy. 

So what does? My serious question for happiness began in earnest at a precise moment, essentially during my winter job during my second year of law school at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. That’s when I realized my attempts to live the life I imagined others wanted me to live were a failure on all fronts; not only wasn’t I achieving it, it was a bad goal in the first place. At that time I came out to my family and my few friends about my mental illness, set boundaries with my family I’d never set before, and adopted a “yes man” mentality with a decision to start affirmatively doing things that I wanted to do and not let anyone tell me what I couldn’t do. And honestly, it worked pretty well for a while. I learned a lot about happiness and I definitely became much happier. But I didn’t get all the way there. I can say now that my decision to prioritize recreation over work in an extreme way was not a winning strategy for happiness. In the end I ended up failing at both; I didn’t become a world-class kayaker or even really a respectable athlete, I didn’t find a way to make a living kayaking or life coaching, and along the way I neglected my career and worsened my long-term financial standing. So my new thing is recognizing that path as a well-intended failure. Happiness, it turns out, is not as simple as just doing what you want to do all the time. So what now? What is the next evolution in my pursuit of happiness?

I’m writing this from my rental car outside my workplace in West Palm Beach, enjoying a nice break from Buffalo’s bleak weather, and engaged in one of the practices I think I have kind of figured out: optimizing my work situations to allow me satisfaction and productivity in my work while simultaneously and consequently creating enjoyable life opportunities. What exactly am I doing right now, and how does it fit in on the path to happiness? Well, for one thing, I’m fulfilling multiple “values” at once. I’m helping people, I’m making money, I’ll be getting some exercise shortly, and I’m having fun. I’m living the dream of doing what I love vocationally and having fun along the way. One happiness theorist I’ve spoken with privately would say I’m creating a mutually beneficial experience to satisfy several of my priorities at once. 

I just read a book called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-k.” I’ve actually read a lot of self-help books on happiness, including some that weren’t even published that I came across in my research. I’ve found a lot of common themes in them, and let’s distill it a bit. What themes do most “happiness experts” agree on? We could maybe think of these as tried and true rules to happiness, but I hate the idea of setting up rules, so let’s just call them guidelines or principles. 

So the first principle that most happiness experts seem to agree on is intentionality. Regardless of their personal frameworks, happiness experts all agree that a happy life is derived from intentional choices. We could also call this volition. The dictionary calls that just “the faculty or power of using one’s will.” I most concede that there are some, particularly in the religious frameworks, who claim to reject the idea of self-direction and personal choice, but I don’t think they’re even being internally honest with that. 

You have to make a lot of intentional choices to be happy. You have to choose your metrics. You have to choose your priorities. You have to choose what matters and what does not, and who you will try to satisfy and who you will ignore. Some theorists seem to believe that the very act of making a choice is the critical element, but most agree that choices matter because of how happiness is personal. 

And that’s the second principle: happiness is personal. My advice is limited in value because what works for me may not working for you, in several ways. For example, if I told you the key to my happiness was creating a work situation that created recreational opportunities and facilitated travel and hobbies, it would be bad advice in two key ways. First, and most gurus miss this, this particular pathway simply isn’t an option for many people. I’m extremely fortunate, and a common mistake among gurus (lookin at you Tim Ferris) is assuming that everyone has the same resources and opportunities. We don’t. The universe gifted me with a string intellect and a demographic background that allowed me to get a great education, and dumb luck landed me a flexible career. But I could just as easily have been stuck in unskilled work, or even disabled like the people I usually work for. For those people, advice derived from my career would be worthless. No, your path is going to be different from mine in many ways. We have to distill the fundamentals that can be translated, and honestly that’s the hardest part of happiness coaching. I can give you broad principles, as can a lot of authors, but we simply cannot come up with a plan for you. It’s got to be personal. 

What else? The third commonly held principle in happiness research is priorities. You simply have to decide what does and does not matter to you. This is really just a fusion of the first two principles, so maybe I’m wrong to call it a third. The beauty is there are no strict rules, and there’s no authority on this either; I’m merely trying to help you find some principles. 

I’ve got to level with you on my results. As I said, I’ve been working on happiness for a decade, and part of that for me has been managing clinical depression. A big mission for me has been to prove that you can be happy even with mental illness or disability, and yeah, honestly, it’s hard sometimes. So maybe another principle we could add about happiness is that it’s hard. I know that sucks. I know you want an easy way. I can’t offer you one. If it exists, I haven’t found it. Anyone who tries to sell you an easy path to happiness is lying to you, they’re manipulating your desires for personal gain. And I don’t know, maybe they really think it is easy, because it was for them, because they got lucky. I’m probably the least successful person you’ll encounter in the happiness world, and yet here I am, broke and struggling in my businesses, slipping into crippling depression from time to time, and making a literal career of complaining about stuff not working out for people. That’s all true. And yet… I don’t think I’m failing in my quest for happiness.

That’s my final revelation: that it’s a process, not a destination, and yes it’s entirely possible to be happy through suffering and failure. So that’s principle four: it’s a continual process.  It’s not about arriving somewhere.  It’s about how you live day to day.

I’ve written or said quite a bit there so I’m going to cut it off now and call that today’s overview. Tell me in the comments section where you think I should go with the next post. Tell me if there’s a point I should elaborate on, or I guess you could also tell me if you think I’m wasting my time here. The bottom line is that you’re going to have to figure out your own ultimate answers and your own process, but I want to help you however I can. 

Update: Who’s Ready and other happenings

Every time I come to update this site I’m disappointed in myself for how far behind I’ve fallen.  So this post might be a bit of a belated catch-up.

Who’s Ready

My major new project for 2019 is a new social networking app called Who’s Ready.  I’ve got a whole web site set up about the app, at www.whosready.app, along with a facebook page at facebook.com/whosreadyapp, and some other social media as well.  So I don’t have to tell you everything about it right here, but maybe I should tell the story of how it came to me.

If you’ve been following this page or the other places where I narrate my life, you know that I travel a lot and that my main passion in life is outdoor activities – mostly whitewater kayaking, but a few other activities as well.  Whenever I find myself in a new place I want to get out and explore, at least go for a hike, and I often wish I had company to do it with.  I struggled for a while using Facebook groups to find activity partners, but I find the solution woefully inadequate for many reasons.  I wanted a way to just push a button and find nearby like-minded adventurers, and didn’t understand why in 2018 there isn’t an app for that.  So, I decided to build it.  My financial situation improved somewhat in 2018 and I finally had the ability to start financing other projects beyond my law process, albeit just barely.  So I wrote up a complete design spec for the app, worked on finding a name (a more difficult process than you might imagine), went looking for a programmer, and formed a corporation.  I found a programmer who could build the MVP version of the app for a price I could afford, and set up a contract.  At this point we’re behind schedule but hopefully within a week or two of having a product in the Google Play Store, and within a few months we’ll be on the iPhone as well and charging forward with more features and a viable business model.

I’m excited and terrified about this new venture.  Once again, I find myself in a role I’d fantasized about but had never visualized actually achieving – first that happened with my career as a lawyer, and now with the role of “software CEO.”  Wow.  Of course any fool with a checkbook and a pen can become a CEO by starting his or her own company, it’s meaningless until it translates to actual success, and we just aren’t there yet.  There’s a lot I’m going to have to do to get this thing off the ground.  Building it is just step 1.  I also have to market it and get people to use it.  Because it’s a social app, its success and utility are 100% dependent on how many people decide to download and use it.  It will be more fun and more useful with a million users than with a hundred users.  So my job, and it’s a big job, is to accelerate the growth of the user base as quickly as I can, to create a great experience for users.  That means advertising, attending events, and talking to people.  It’ll be fun, but it’ll still be hard work, and there will be a lot of disappointment and frustration along the way.

I’m super stoked about it.  Check out the web site and Facebook page today, and hopefully by the time you’re reading this you’ll also be able to download it on the App Store of your preferred platform.

My Last Swim

It’s been one week since my last swim.  

One of my favorite podcasts is In Between Swims. If you read this blog, you should subscribe to that podcast. The host, Jeff McIntyre, interviews boaters and asks them to tell about their last swim. If he ever asks me, this is the story I want to tell him. 

I am a beater. In 2015 alone, I swam in at least 6 states. I’m no stranger to the siren call of the handle on the front of my skirt. Perhaps I know as well as anyone that swimming isn’t really that big a deal. It happens to everyone- after all, we are all between swims. 

A few weeks ago, I took a trip through Tennessee and among other stops I had the opportunity to stop by Rock Island, home of Jackson Kayak and some of the superstars of kayaking. I took a tour of the factory where I got to see the newest Jackson kayak, the Traverse, go from rotomold through assembly and inspection all the way to shipping. At the end of that visit, I asked Eric Jackson if he was planning to kayak later that day. He told me to meet him at his house at 3:00 PM. So I did. 

Rock Island is not a large park, as whitewater locales go. The park surrounds a short natural flow section of the Caney Fork river, between several dams that form lakes above and below but preserving a low-volume, wide curtain waterfall emerging from a high cliff wall, with rapids including 20 foot waterfalls, a feature EJ called “sieve city,” and a few large wave trains. American Whitewater lists a play hole downstream of the powerhouse, but little else, and says that the hole becomes too intimidating for most at 7000 CFS. When I arrived at the park to wait out my meeting time with EJ, Stephen Wright was doing loops in the hole at 12,000 CFS.  

When I arrived at the Jackson household, I saw Dane’s black Sprinter RV parked with a stack of Karma creekers loaded on the trailer behind.  “How do you feel about waterfalls?” EJ asked me.  “If we do waterfalls, maybe we can get Dane to come too.”  Dane was upstairs in his bedroom editing videos when EJ asked him if he’d like to come with.  But while setting shuttle, we stopped to scout the waterfalls, which was when I learned that EJ and Dane were operating on old numbers – the waterfalls, he explained, are runnable at this level, but not a comfortable first run for someone new to the river.  So we would just do the wavetrains downstream of the powerhouse, but Dane might not be interested anymore.  

Thankfully, when we got back to the house, Dane had already switched from PJs to a union suit and had his drysuit ready to go.  The three of us hopped in Dane’s RV and headed down the road to the park.  

“Got your GoPro?”  EJ was nonchalant about these rapids.  Earlier, he’d explained the section as “just a class 3 with some big waves.  You’ll be fine as long as you have your roll.”  What I’d held back on mentioning was that I’d only paddled my Karma one day before this, and only once had I even tried to roll it.  So I was a bit fearful getting on to that river, but when EJ asked if I was ready, I said yes.  Before we peeled out into the current, Dane was already surfing his second lap through the first wavetrain.  EJ peeled out first and signaled for me to follow.  At the top of the third eight-foot wave, my GoPro smashed into the bottom of his boat, and he laughed; we were all having a great time.  Well, casual play to them, molar-grinding adrenaline to me.  I was off line a moment after that, with EJ yelling toward me from the other side of the river.  I was intimidated by the size of the waves and rushed to the nearest eddy, on river left, but it was a bad eddy, with the confluence to the powerhouse outflow adding turbulence.  I had to ferry across the wavetrain again to get back into the river right eddy, where Dane did laps around us as EJ explained my error to me and offered his second bit of paddling advice.  “Your goal in kayaking is to learn to paddle with a broad external focus.”  

I was suffering from tunnel vision, and my lines were suffering as a result.  New boat, new river, good company, but I’d been feeling shaky lately; just a few weeks ago, I took a long swim at the takeout to the Yough Loop, and the memory of that failed roll was fresh in my mind.  Rolling the Karma had been a challenge when I’d tried others’ boats in pools; in fact, on my very first attempt, I swam in the pond at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.  I’d learned to roll it in the pool, and I’d righted it in a few deep braces and a single roll on the Holly a few days earlier, but I still felt off.  

For the next section of the river, my guide offered me a choice between two lines.  I thought it over and answered, “I’ll go with the big waves.”  He explained the line, and ended with, “If you flip over, roll up.  If you flip over again, roll up again.  That cool?”  Seconds later, we were in the next wave train, perhaps a bit smaller than the first but this one had some holes too, one nearly riverwide.  I dodged the first big hole, struggling to keep the boat pointed downstream and upright in the funny boogie water, which though it had been described as class 3 was some of the most turbulent water I’d ever encountered.  It reminded me of the Gauley, more in terms of volume and turbulence than any other aspect.  Moments later, my GoPro video records my famous last words – “Oh shit.”  The wave I am entering is at least a boatlength high, cresting into froth at the top, well above my head.  I go over.  I set up for a roll, but can’t find the surface with my paddle.  I wait a moment hoping to flush into calmer water.  But the calmer water never comes, and after two tries I consciously reasoned that it would be worse to run out of air in my boat upside down than outside of it.  I pulled my skirt.  

It’s very rare to pull your skirt and not feel a pang of regret along the way.  I usually feel it the moment I let my right hand off my paddle, before I’ve even fully committed to the swim, but seldom do I act on that hesitation.  As I tumbled out of the boat, still in the mank of the wave train, I realized this would not be an easy or short swim.  EJ yelled, first cheerfully then sternly, “Grab your boat!  Grab your boat!”  But I was somehow drifting away from it even as I tried to paddle upstream, and I made no progress.  60 seconds later, EJ had my boat, I had EJ’s paddle, and Dane had me dangling from the rear grab handle of his pink Zen, helping me toward the second or third addy after the worst of the waves.  No matter how many times I view the video, I can’t figure out how EJ managed to get himself and my flooded Karma into the eddy and to the rocky shore without a paddle, but I suppose that’s part of what makes him EJ.  

Standing on the bedrock of the shore, I hauled my 103 gallon creek boat up and began to empty it.  I took off my helmet and set it down, noticing the flashing red light on my camera.  I laughed and quipped to the two world-champion paddlers who’d rescued me that there was no way I could live down this swim: everyone would have to see the video, after all, of my day paddling with Eric and Dane Jackson. “Far more embarrassing things have happened to all of us.” He gestured to my helmet, and I handed it to him.  He swiped his finger over the lens and stared into it.  “And that concludes James’s Brave Wave rapid run, but now we’re going to run one more rapid, it’s going to be amazing – he’s going to do the entire thing in his kayak.” Prompted, I promised the camera that I’d style the last rapid.  

And I did.  Clean line, over or through the biggest waves, careful but comfortable, and made the required ferries.  We made it to the boat ramp at the top of the lake below, where Dane helped me load the boats and called a friend over to take our picture.  

Jeff McIntyre asks boaters to tell the story of their last swim.  When he asked EJ a few years ago, the story that was told was from “back in the nineties.”  When I am asked, I hope that this is still the story I get to tell.


About to get real.
About to get real.

River log: Mill Creek and Holly Creek

20160224 river log

We drove through the night to meet Justin Pagano somewhere near the Georgia-Tennessee border so that I could pick up a lightly used Jackson Karma that he had for sale. The plan started out as Tellico, then shifted to Chattooga Section 4, then back to Tellico when I saw the water start to rise. Storm warnings were coming in, and as we drove through Ohio and Kentucky the rain came down in drops of all sizes and even sheets. There was no way the Chattooga was going to stay within the safe zone if this weather was anything like consistent.

Sure enough, the message came in at around 9 that “everything is blown out.” Holly Creek, which Justin had suggested as “just like Tellico,” was above runnable. But maybe we could run this other nearby run that starts with a 40 foot waterfall. It turned out that he meant Mill Creek, in northwest Georgia.

We arrived at the chosen rendezvous- “on Old CCC Camp Road” wherever we happened to see a Tacoma full of kayaks – a bit after eleven. Among those kayaks was the large 2014 Jackson Karma that had brought me into contact with Justin through the WNC Gear Swap Facebook group. I hadn’t brought a boat down at all for this week in anticipation of committing to this boat. I’d better like it.

The Karma for me is a strange journey. I’ve been certain since Wilson Creek that it was time for a serious creeker. After countless backenders on the Upper Yough and seemingly every other steep creek I paddled in 2015, I was ready to part with my beloved Diesel. Hours after my first descent of Glen Park Falls at the end of 2015, I’d made a deal to sell the Diesel cheap to a Facebook friend who was struggling to learn in my old Nemesis. I was boatless for almost a month before picking up an old Nomad on the same group, in an epic adventure worthy of its own story during the massive southern blizzard. The Nomad was meant to hold me over while I decided between the Karma and a Recon, which seemed an impossible choice. As minimal an issue as this perhaps seems, I was torn between Wave Sport’s excellent 2014 seat and thigh braces, and the Karma’s innovative planing hull, and nobody on the blogosphere seemed to have a comparative review between the two. Everyone said Karma, but I’d struggled to roll it in pools, and the thigh braces posed a real concern. Nonetheless, Justin posted a nearly new boat on the group for just $650, nearly $200 cheaper than the only Recon I could find, and of course I love a good trip south.

So Karma it would be. We arrived at the top of Mill Creek and collectively elected to scout the waterfall with a long and steep hike. First was the entrance rapid, a hundred feet of drop in perhaps a thousand feet marred by a few blind drops into deadly strainers. That’s a pass for me, but let’s see this 40 foot “clean drop” I’d heard so much. Clean except for a pool supposedly all of eight feet deep, and a lead-in consisting of at least 20 feet of drop in continuous froth and long shallow slides. (AW says this is “Hickey drop falls” and it’s apparently quite runnable at lower levels.) I had left my phone behind and missed a great photo opportunity. There would be no chance of gopro footage to make this up. Not for my first time in a new boat, anyway, if ever. Thankfully I was not alone and we returned to the cars to run the middle section.

Other than a dozen significant strainers, the middle section of Mill Creek is a relatively modest narrow class 3. The Karma seemed to effortlessly plow through any kind of hole, except for one where I side-surfed a bit while avoiding a sudden riverwide strainer. I had a hard time keeping it straight – the planing hull with pronounced chines made turning very different than the Nomad. 

To be honest, Mill Creek quickly faded from memory after Holly. When we got off the river at 3:00, my shuttle bunny was ready to call it a day, and with inexplicable wetness inside my dry suit I was tempted to join in that call. But Justin insisted that we would be in and out in half an hour, that Holly was easy, and that I’d regret not running it. So after we had unequivocally agreed to head to lodging, I got back in to car to tell Amanda that we’d be doing this one quick run. Keep the car running.

The hike up (foot shuttle) is supposed to be 15 minutes, unless of course you’re 30 pounds overweight and struggling to balance a hundred gallons of new boat on your shoulder. It’s worth noting here that after last weekend’s challenges on the Yough and Stony, my confidence isn’t what it was in January. So when I looked down to see the curtain drop that caps out Turkey, I was ready to hike back out. But pride is a terrible thing, and swims be damned I never regret a tough run, but hikes out always seem to haunt me. So I proceeded through careful scouting and repeated back the line for the first two rapids as “stay down the middle.”

The first rapid began pushy but surprisingly rocky; I was broached on a boulder before I knew it, peeled back in and plowed a substantial hole, and got stuck in a central eddy. Justin tried to assist me out of the Eddy and proceeded onward a boat length or two ahead of me. He went over after the first big rock, where I found myself on nearly the same line but further right. It turned out the rock formed a nearly exposed shelf where I could park to wait out his carnage. I saw a single carp before spotting separation between boat and boater. The other two from our crew were already out of their boats with ropes ready when Justin dropped the ten-foot falls, boatless, and I was shortly behind, fully upright. I was stunned. The Karma was indeed taking care of me. Justin’s Villain was not far behind and exited its eddy before we had any hope of giving chase. This was Turkey, the most dangerous rapid, consisting of two substantial drops with a frothy hole in between and a curtain at the bottom. Following the first guy’s line, I made it through cleanly until rolling right after the curtain, but I made the roll, and at that moment the handling of the Karma gelled for me- it’s a giant playboat. It rolls like a playboat. It surfs like a playboat, except that it can also boof and punch holes. In my humble opinion I styled the run from there, although it was just class 3 boogie water. In hopes of finding the errant boat, we blew well past the standard takeout to give chase; two boaters stayed on after I hit my time limit and had to head out. I gave Justin his money and expressed my condolences.

It’s only been a day, but no activity has turned up online. If you find a red Villain or a paddle downstream of Holly Creek, please let me know. 

The fruits of the day's labor, my new 2014 Karma
The fruits of the day’s labor, my new 2014 Karma
Mill Creek
Mill Creek

Not exactly my best weekend

Some days I just don’t feel like a very good kayaker.  This weekend was two of those days.

Anthony rang my phone at 7:26 AM.  We both knew the local creek would still be iced over, but the next creek west, Chautauqua, was expected to break free and flow, according to the local paddlers in Erie PA.  So we should head over there.  I felt it was still a bit early but given the choice between sleeping in and paddling, I always know the answer.  I don’t have to want it, I need it.  I rolled out of bed, strapped the Nomad to the roof of the car, and hit the road.  The Tim Hortons stop was not optional, and my XL triple milk really … well, it was almost enough to get me to wake up.  I needed help from AWOLNATION and whatever other high-energy pop I could find in my phone. 

Half an hour from Chautauqua, my phone rang and it was Anthony again.  He’d beaten me out there, only to learn that the creek was still iced over.  We needed another plan.  Erie guys apparently were moving on to Walnut Creek, in their backyard.  “They say it’s great and it never runs.”  And it’s only another hour away.  I needed more coffee.

We arrived at the takeout and beheld the creek.  It was… well, a creek, I guess.  In the strictest sense of the word.  I was assured it would be epic once we were on it.  Spoiler alert, it wasn’t.  Now, that’s not to say that it isn’t a perfectly worth neighborhood run, but with the exception of one quality 3+ drop behind the Lowe’s, nothing about this run justified a three hour drive.  Anthony and Laura agreed and one of us suggested, half jokingly, that we might as well just proceed on down to the Lower Yough since we were basically halfway there.  We did the math and figured out that we could make it down in time for an evening Loop lap before sunset, so we did.  We met at the put-in at 4:45 and were on the water shortly after 5.  The level was 4.6 – not the highest I’ve done, but quite a bit higher than the usual level.

A few minutes in, at the entrance rapid, Laura took the first swim of the day.  Everyone had been clean in Erie regardless of a few sticky holes and some congestion with a raft.  Seeing Laura swim before we’d even hit the meat of Entrance made me feel a bit hesitant.  These waves were tall and the holes substantial.  I decided to take sneaky lines down the left, and minimized hole play.  In fact I spent about half my time in the rapid eddied out waiting for Laura’s recovery.  We held a meeting at the beach eddy to discuss a plan of attack for Cucumber.

Cucumber is one of my favorite “one drop” rapids anywhere.  At low water, it becomes possible to eddy out at the edge of the drop and surf down through the whole thing.  At medium levels, all lines are good lines if you’re balanced, but there are a few submerged rocks to trip you up if you’re inattentive.  At high levels it becomes a cluster of massive holes with a wide boof line to the left, and the river right eddy flushes out.  I can piece this all together now, to write, but in the upstream eddy I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the rapid was like above three feet.  I bullshitted my way through a rapid explanation for Laura, before volunteering to just lead her down a safe, easy line, skipping the eddy-hop I’d been planning to do, if I could have made the eddy.  Instead, my “easy” line led straight down a tongue into a massive peaking wave.  My Nomad caught some air coming over that wave, but ultimately crashed through.  Spinning upstream as I ferried left, I caught a glance of Laura running the boof line that neither of us realized was there.  Woos were hooed all around.  Anthony followed my clean line and showed me how easy it looks from downstream.

Next was… some other rapid.  It’s the Loop, to me it’s Entrance, Cucumber, something or other, maybe Bottle of Wine or something, Eddy Turn, and Railroad.  I don’t know the order or recognize most of them until I’m inside.  They’re all usually pretty manageable, a few flat slot moves and a lot of hidden surf spots and boofs.  Somewhere in the named rapids the names of which I forget, Anthony took a swim.  It wasn’t long, none of those rapids lasts too long, but he swam at least to the next eddy.  I joked that two out of three of us had swam so far, and quipped that it sounded like a bad omen for the third.  On the one hand I tell myself that’s a silly joke; I’m a solid class-4 boater with a reliable roll in almost every river condition, I’m not swimming on the Lower Yough.

That held true, and we got to the bottom of Railroad uneventfully.  Anthony ran the frog’s back slot move, which I don’t think is what that’s called, and I boofed a little left of that line, before somewhat accidentally taking the sneak line down to the bottom along river right.  I was at the takeout, and there was still almost half an hour until sunset.  I had to go back and surf for a while, or at least tire myself out with attainment drills.  So I started my way upstream in the right eddy, then up a level, then over and turn back into the holes to surf across.  I get across the first hole and slide into the second with a little too much angle.  My upstream edge catches and I find my paddle on the wrong side, getting ripped down by the current.  I can’t recover the brace and I’m upside down.  Looking back, I look disoriented in the GoPro video, taking far too long to move to a setup position.  I wasn’t sure if I’d flushed out of the hole.  I carped up, saw that I was still in the hole, and panicked.  I don’t know why I didn’t try again but a moment later I was watching my boat go over a rock without me.  No big deal, of course, as I have to get out of my boat here anyway; it’s the takeout.

Then I saw Laura’s unattended canoe.

I’d somehow landed sitting on a rock, so upon seeing the empty canoe I actually reached down for my whistle and blew.  Turning upstream, I saw the last thing I wanted to see – Anthony out of his boat.  All three boaters in the water, swimming past the takeout at minutes to sunset.  I watched helplessly as Laura eventually managed to catch and reenter her boat.  I passed a few eddies but I wasn’t getting out without my gear, Laura, and Anthony.  My hands were starting to freeze even in my pogies as I paddled downstream as fast as I could.  I came around a corner and caught sight of Laura again, now swimming.  I felt hypothermic signs coming on and decided I had to get out, equipment be damned.  Laura was near her boat and one advantage open boaters have is the ability to get back in midstream, so she would be okay as long as I didn’t make myself a worse victim.  As I warmed up on the rock, Anthony shouted something as he swam past, and I realized he was nowhere near his boat or paddle.  I lost sight of them downstream and quickly surmised that there was no path to hike along land.

I hopped back in.  A few hundred yards down I saw two boats and two boaters in an eddy.  Success!  But only two boats, we should have three.  It’s an eddy, anyway, and it’s getting too dark to worry about equipment; if we could make it to the car we could just set watch at the take out and hope the boat drifts down, or look for it in the morning.

As we all climbed on to stable dry ground, Anthony explained that he’d stashed his boat on land at the takeout and actually swam down without it.  Why he chose that over getting back in his boat to give chase is unclear, but chalk one up to the casualty mindset.  That meant we had two boats for three bodies, on the railroad side of the river, as opposed to the conveniently accessible bike trail on the other side.  But at this hour crossing the river seemed impractical, especially as one of us would have to swim.  We elected instead to climb a hundred feet to the railroad tracks and hike along them.  For this plan, being a boat short worked to our advantage as the canoe was an easier carry for two than one, taking turns with a rope.  50 feet shy of the top, I had the foresight to balance my boat on a rock and tie one end of my throw rope to the bow handle, and walk the rope up as I climbed.  This last stretch was about as vertical as loose dirt can get, but if you’re willing to lay down in the mud it’s not impossible to scramble up.  So we did.  Drysuits aren’t meant to stay clean anyway.  We all felt very clever for thinking to use our throw ropes.

Walking along the tracks was the easiest part of this whole adventure, except when the train came.  I could see that Laura and Anthony were at the narrowest section of the trail then, and I’m not quite sure where they would have gone if the train hadn’t been on the other track.  My GPS says that hike was only a bit over a mile, but it felt like forever by the time Laura signaled to me that we’d reached the fence by the cars.  The hike from the loop takeout to the put-in never felt like such a relaxing walk, after shedding boat, paddle, PFD, and skirt; just walking through town with a muddy throw rope slung over my shoulder so that I could pack it and shake off the dirt on my way back.

The rest of the night was unremarkable.  We hadn’t actually planned this trip, so after dinner at the pub we headed out of town to the nearest Walmart to grab some last-minute supplies, before camping in the pub’s parking lot. It rained all night, and in the morning the level read 5.7.  More than a foot higher, nearly double the water volume, but not quite high enough to start washing things out to my knowledge.  Too high for me to want to run without a local guide.  I shared my view with Laura and Anthony, and I think we were all on the same iffy page; we decided to skip it.  We scouted the waterslides of the Meadow, and saw that they were also frighteningly high.  So we opted for the Stony, an hour northish.

At the chosen section of the Stony, we learned of an “extra” rapid at the put-in via a “hiking only” (Toyota optional) trail.  So we headed up, scouted extensively, watched a local happen by, and then hopped on.  We had been planning on the sneaky left line, dodging the meat of each of the big holes and safely keeping a wide berth of the hidden pillow rock behind that one massive wave.  But the local started left, ferried upstream to river right, and snuck into the eddy right of the massive wave.  I elected to replicate this line.  I did not succeed.  Fine on the first hole but pushed a little further right.  I hit the second hole with that same bad angle that wiped me out in Railroad the day before, and to my astonishment backendered over in my Nomad.  Set up, hip snap, orient, I’m facing upstream but moving downstream, and by the time I’ve turned around I’ve drifted into the left sneak, slightly less sneaky backwards.  My left hand is throbbing again.  I must have impacted something hard with my paddle, or maybe it was just too much pressure in my roll.  In any event the pain was back.  I wasn’t looking forward to five more miles.  The local was waiting in the bottom eddy, and asked if he could tack on with us instead of continuing solo.  That meant there would still be three without me, and a safer crew than mine since there was now an experienced local involved.  So I opted to hike out, rather than further aggravate the hand injury when I’ve got a week of southeast creeking lined up.

As I reset shuttle and changed into street clothes, I started to feel a sense of remorse for walking off the river.  What a weekend this turned out to be for me – one of the most embarrassing beaters of my career so far, followed by an aborted run on a casual “to do” river and an aggravated injury.  And I still had to drive five hours home, get back to work, and prepare for the next trip.

Musing on the events afterward, I debated for a while about whether to even write this up.  I feel a sense of shame about it.  My pride wants to keep this story to myself rather than openly admit failure on what could have been a simple and rewarding adventure.  But pride isn’t why I boat.  I boat to push myself, to do things that are hard, and to achieve something that feels meaningful.  And yeah, for the adrenaline, the adventure, and the comaraderie.  But not for bragging rights.  I can’t say that it’s been very long since my last swim, or since my last hike.  And I’m okay with that.

Personal First Descent log: Beaver Meadow Creek, Java, NY

February 3, 2016

I saw that the gages were all going mad overnight between the thaw and the rain, so before I got out of bed I texted Scott to see what was up.  

    Hey, it’s James, do we know if Beaver Meadow is in?

    I’m sure it’s running but I couldn’t find anyone to paddle it with so I’m doing Chautauqua instead.  I hope to hit it around 3 pm.  Have you ran it before?  It’s running V high not a good idea for first time.

Around 3 I got this disheartening text

    We’re just hitting cat up at three now.

The Cattaraugus is a great local class 2+/3- at ordinary levels that bumps up to 3+/4- at high water.  It was at high water, but it had been up plenty in the past few weeks and I just wasn’t feeling it enough to take the day off from work for it, as strange as it felt to skip a six-foot day.  

At 3:45 my phone rang.  It was Jonathan Ortiz, a phenomenal semi-pro paddler from Rochester, about an hour away and about the same distance from Beaver Meadow Creek.  “What up homie?  I’m thinking of hitting Beaver Meadow.  You down?”

I knew that it would take about an hour to load up my boat and drive to the takeout.  From there, we could maybe stage shuttle and get to the river in as little as 15 minutes or so, for a 5:00 launch time.  I reminded him that while I felt ready for the river, Scott had backed down from taking me down it for fear that the level was too high.  “Do you feel comfortable enough taking me down for my first time, while chasing daylight?”  He didn’t see a problem so we agreed to meet at the river.  

I arrived at the takeout first, right on time at 20 to 5.  The waterfall was visibly running with plenty of water and I didn’t see any exposed rock above or below it.  To be clear, when I say “the waterfall” I’m not implying that there’s any shortage of waterfalls on this creek, but there’s only one two-tiered drop visible from the street.  Jonathan was nowhere to be seen, but as I was scouting, the third paddler, Parker Czerniak, pulled up.  Time was ticking.  I called Ortiz and he said he was 5 minutes out.  4:50, still no sign of him.  It was 5:00 when he arrived at the takeout, and I was the only one dressed.  I strapped all three boats to the roof of my car while the other two got dressed, and when the last drysuit was zipped we piled in and bolted to the start.  It was 5:15 when we began the hike, and in a few minutes we were at the traditional put-in site where we discovered a downed tree creating a riverwide strainer.  Hiking down a bit from that we saw two more, putting on after the second strainer and boofing a partly submerged portion of the third.  We came to the first big drop and got out to scout, to discover the top blocked by another riverwide strainer.  We debated for a while over whether the second tier of the ledge could be run before ultimately all deciding to hike it and seal launch downstream.  

Beaver Meadow Creek is a low-volume steep creek.  There’s a decent number of waterfalls, by which I mean sheer vertical drops with a curtain, four or more feet.  The main attraction is Angel Falls, a four-tier drop totaling around 30 feet.  When we approached the lip of the first drop, a mandatory scout, darkness was already presenting a visibility issue, both for the paddlers and for our GoPro cameras.  The status lights of the cameras, which are of constant brightness day or night, served as a reference point as our eyes adjusted to the darkness; the brighter the red blinking lights, the darker we knew that it was, and it was only a matter of time before our eyes could no longer keep up.  At this point, the lights were starting to look bright.  

Ortiz ran first, letting me watch (and film) to get the line.  The top tier is a 12 foot boof onto a shallow ledge at river left, or a six foot boof onto an even shallower ledge followed by a second six-foot tier on the right.  We all chose the right line, because as awesome as the left looked, the shallow ledge meant near certain damage to boat and back.  Besides, the final drop is another 10+ footer into a bit of a pool.  So right line it is.

I hit hard at the first tier, and harder at the second.  I am not sure, looking back, whether one of these was the drop that cracked my boat, but I hit almost vertically a few times and the hits were hard.  Reviewing the GoPro footage, though, my lines were clean so I’m not entirely sure where the boat cracked.  After Angel there is some class 2 boogie water, a few slide drops, and a 10 foot or so pool drop waterfall into the eddy above Mosh Pit.  

Mosh Pit is one of those rapids that makes the whole thing worthwhile.  I imagine that it’s a breathtaking sight to come around the corner and see the series of ledge drops and reaction waves lined up – but I’m limited to imagination as I haven’t actually seen the run.  As we prepared for this rapid, the last of the daylight faded away and we were running in full darkness.  And to add to the blindness, only Ortiz got out to scout – to check for downed trees, which weren’t in the way, as far as could be seen anyway.  I asked him for the line.  “Stay left in the current.”  I wasn’t sure whether that meant “stay at the left edge of the main channel” or “stay river left where the main current is.”  I shouted back, “I’ll follow you.”  

That’s when I discovered the extent of water in my boat.  I had felt a bit of sloshing at this point, and even in my drysuit my legs felt a bit wet.  But I wasn’t sure of the extent of it until I felt the boat’s hesitation to ferry.  Getting into the flow meant ferrying upstream just a bit down from the curtains of the previous waterfall, a hole I didn’t want to get too close to.  Put simply, my boat wasn’t behaving properly.  The ferry was sluggish and when it came time that I had to turn I wasn’t far enough toward river left, and then the turn itself went slow.  I wasn’t in full control.  I entered the rapid too far right but there was nothing to be done.  I let the current drag me through, reaction wave after reaction wave.  I did my best to stay upright and to push forward to blast through the few big holes that came in the middle.  One knocked a contact lens off center, taking away what little vision I had.  A few blinks later I was back to dim visibility, using the flashing red light on Jonathan’s GoPro as my lighthouse.  Just head toward that light, generally, and I should be okay.  Only my boat was losing speed, and maybe sinking a little.  Parker passed me as I kept slowing down in the holes while he was sensibly maintaining speed.  After the second bend in the river, they were gone.  

I caught up briefly in the mild doldrum between Mosh Pit and the waterfalls in town, the finale.  I was within shouting distance of the others, and shouted out that my boat was filling with water.  “Do you want to stop and empty it?”  No way, I said, observing that at this point the banks were too steep to climb out, and worrying that if I got out I might not be able to get back in.  At some point my hand came out of a pogie and wouldn’t go back in, so I had cold to contend with.  Light came back into the world as we entered the town of Java, where the river winds behind a few houses and businesses before plunging under a bridge for the final pitch-dark stretch to the takeout.  A small ledge drop snuck up on me ahead of where I’d been warned to stay left for the first big drop, then center for the second… I strayed a bit too far left and slammed into a rock wall, with the inertia of not just myself and my boat but an extra hundred or two pounds of water creating a free surface effect inside.  The boat crashed against the wall pinning the paddle between the two, and my left hand didn’t quite back off fast enough to avoid the impact.  It felt like a bone may have shattered, but again there was nothing to do besides loosen my grip and stay with it.  Every move took twice the effort, I hit bottom in every shallow spot, and every ferry was in slow motion as once again I lost sight of the others.  Stay left at the first big drop… is this big?  No that was just three feet, couldn’t have been it.  Here it is, a big boulder that I can plainly see I want to be left of.  Boof, turn, ferry.  I may have made the center, but I may have been a bit left of where I should be.  Boofing is hopeless when your boat weighs more than you.  I hit the bottom of the last waterfall hard, again in sudden darkness passing under the bridge.  But that was the end of the meat.  

I paddled through a quarter mile of flat water, nearly missing the slow downstream turn to the takeout as the creek bed widened and the current slowed to nothing.   I was exhausted from ferrying my heavily loaded boat and my left hand was swelling and inflamed with pain.  I couldn’t see it to determine whether it was red or purple, but I knew I’d rather avoid using it.  I hopped out of my boat and rolled sideways into the shallow bank.  Standing up in the waist-high freezing water felt strangely satisfying.  I tried to lift my boat to slide onto the bank without luck; I had to roll it sideways to start dumping water before I could even lift an end on to the bank.  It was as flooded as if I’d taken a swim, even though I miraculously hadn’t.  I popped open the drain plug and watched the boat happily relieve itself as I dragged it slowly up the hill, daintily carrying my paddle in the curled fingers of my swelling left hand while dragging the gradually lightening boat up the hill with my right.  By the time I got to the road Parker had his headlights on, in which I could examine the damage.  The base of my thumb was swollen to half again its usual size, but it was red, not black or blue, a welcome sign that there was probably no fracture.  The boat, on the other hand, was most definitely fractured, but not nearly as bad as I feared; near the centerline by the foot block I found a 6 inch split, which we deemed weldable.  This was the first time I had this boat out on big water and I fear it may not get another chance.  

And that was the run.  Beaver Meadow Creek, the elusive local legend, after dark, half swamped and half blind.  

It doesn’t get any better than this.  


2015 and 2016

In 2015 I had 20 personal first descents including a dozen new class 4 rivers or discrete sections and eight or nine proper waterfalls, depending on what you count. It’s been a phenomenal year for my whitewater life. It’s also the first year in which I had a solid and consistent roll. My paddling has come further in 2015 than any prior year.

In work, I went from struggling on my own, to struggling with a firm, to my dream job, although now I’m struggling with my old lack of discipline.

2016 has clear goals. One, achieve a consistent and balanced work routine and meet certain financial benchmarks. Two, focus less on the raw number of PFDs and instead work on becoming a confident class 5 boater, and learn some freestyle moves. Some of the steps required to achieve these goals resemble traditional New Years resolutions: eat better, exercise more consistently, pay down debt, save money, cut out distractions. All of this is within my power to achieve.

2015 was fantastic. 2016 will be even better. 

LWC prototype trip, day 2

Okay, so it looks like I’m going to need an alarm clock after all. The car sleeping setup is a success in that it’s super comfy, but a fail in that it made it a little too easy to sleep in. Today hasn’t exemplified productivity; finding good work environments remains a work in progress. Really, it’s going to just come down to the Starbucks routine most of the time, and here I am now at Books A Million in Morgantown, WV where I found a table to sit at for a few hours in return for a cup of coffee.  

Speaking of coffee, today’s photo for sharing is this mind numbingly boring snap of my breakfast setup. I’ve been starting my days simple with two packets of instant oatmeal and a cup of instant coffee. The oatmeal (Aldi) is great, but the coffee (Dollar General I think, maybe Walmart) could easily be better. Still, breakfast costs me roughly 40 cents, so that makes it hard to beat. Now if only I could get myself to eat that cheaply for every meal. 

Camp cookware
Camp cookware

Actually, more on that breakfast setup. What you see in this picture isn’t really a lot of money at all. The costliest item is the stove which I think was about $40. It burns isobutane, essentially lighter fuel, and one of those canisters costs about $5 and seems to last forever- I’m on probably my third canister in the last three years, although that’s really only about two months of camping; maybe soon I’ll have a better idea how long they actually last.

Lets see… stove $40, pot $20 (most critical), bowl $5, cup $5,  $1.69 can opener, garage sale silverware ($0.50?), $10-ish coffee mug, and of course maybe $5 in consumables… I do think this kit is overkill as it’s redundant to have both a steel cup and a mug, but the cup is great for soups and chili and stuff. So the camp kitchen is maybe $86 with fuel and I think that’s kinda on the spendy side for me. Yet plenty of people have spent more than that on just the stove, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve left off the photo the extras that almost never get used like the frying pan. 

Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to get a photo of the sleep setup. 

Life without Compromise: Day 1


Today has been Day 1 of my “life without compromise prototype trip.”

Let me go back a step.  I’ve been reshaping my life in accordance with a principle called “Life Without Compromise,” which I’ve been learning from Eric Jackson.  I could go on about LWC for a while, but suffice for now to say that more will come on the topic.  EJ is a well-known whitewater kayaker whose current claim to fame is Jackson Kayak, arguably the dominant manufacturer in whitewater kayaking, but if you ask him he’ll tell you that his life is about his priorities, and that business only makes it to number four on the list, after his wife, his kids, and kayaking.  Anyway, LWC is a fairly straightforward plan that I’ve decided to get wholly on board with.  I quit my day job and replaced it with one with flexible hours and without a fixed office location so that I could get my priorities in order.  I’ve evaluated my life and concluded that I have four priorities right now:


    Practicing law



A month ago, my life was dominated by compromise.  If you looked at how I spent my time, you’d see:

    Helping someone else practice law

    Kayaking (on weekends)

    Trying to catch up on everything else

    Actually practicing law for my clients

    Writing stuff I didn’t enjoy or care about

    Feeling bad about not doing what I really cared about

I’m sorry if that list isn’t very articulate, but frankly it’s a good representation of how I felt.  My life actually looked fairly ordered: I was in a predictable place for 40 hours a week, doing nominally productive stuff that someone claimed to care about, and I was spending a solid two days a week doing the things I cared about.  But on slight examination, it wasn’t really like that.  My 40 hours at work weren’t spent meeting my goals or fulfilling my values.  More than half of that time was spent on tasks that didn’t relate to my primary practice area at all, and because of how my pay scale was written, that time actually took away from my income potential too, so I wasn’t even proceeding toward my financial goals.  My weekends “spent kayaking” were really mostly spent driving and setting up logistics, although indeed I did get in a lot of great runs; in fact 2015 has been a simply fantastic paddling year for me so far.  But I wasn’t getting any writing done at all, other than what looked like writing but didn’t really advance my priorities.  

Worse still, I was drowning financially.  I was stuck in a low salary with no real hope of bringing my income up – the structure at that firm left me powerless to raise my income in the immediate future, and the busywork thrown in (often as “punishment” for making my own time-management choices) took away time that I could have spent boosting my income.  It was a stifling environment for me.

So I decided that a change was in order.  I left that firm, and kept theoutside firm relationships that provided me with stable and immediate revenue, with one primary role providing me with more than enough work to make up for the lost salary and giving me back control of both my income and my time. Now, I have enough work to meet my financial goals, but I’m not stuck working on someone else’s terms, and I can see how my work translates directly into meeting my goals and satisfying my priorities.  So the “work” aspect of my Life Without Compromise may be covered.  But I’ll have to see if it works.  

There’s one major downside to leaving a salaried office position in favor of my new arrangement.  No longer do I have a guarantee of a certain income – I only get paid for the work that I actually complete and bill.  Nor do I have someone else helping me to stay organized – I have to discipline and schedule my own time.  But the only way to see if it works is to try it.  

In my first two weeks away from my salaried job, I learned that home isn’t a very productive environment for me. It’s loaded with distractions and derailments. I guess that’s not surprising; all the way back to first grade I’ve always had problems getting things done at home. Some things never really change.  And worse, I wasn’t fulfilling my priorities; I still only kayaked on the weekends, for whatever reason.  Could be that Buffalo just doesn’t have daily flow.  

This plan is about life without compromise. I’m choosing to focus on four priorities: kayaking, practicing law, writing, and friends. Buffalo is great for friends and not so bad for practicing law, but less ideal for kayaking. So here I am in Ohiopyle, PA, where there’s great kayaking and easy access. The plan is to kayak a bit every day, and work 5-6 hours in the other part of the day.  This is my “prototype trip” and my main goal of this week is to just see if it works.  I need to engage each of my priorities, but also work enough to pay my bills.  If I don’t learn how to be productive, I may have to go back to the drawing board.   

Today isn’t yet a big success. I only got through about five hours of work, and a lot of that wasn’t billable stuff.  But actually, that’s not a bad start either. 

I may or may not be more productive on the road. Currently, I’m still struggling to work out the logistics because sitting in my car itself isn’t the most productive environment. But it’s a learning process, and I’ll see how it goes.