What Can You Gain from Facing Your Biggest Fear?

Doing what scares you is an exhilarating experience. Doing what scares you the most, can be freeing. After facing my own fears, it’s an experience I highly recommend.

According to the Washington Post reporting on a survey performed by Chapman University, the most common fears in American are (most feared at the top of the list):

  • public speaking
  • heights
  • bugs, snakes, other animals
  • drowning
  • blood and needles
  • claustrophobia
  • flying
  • strangers
  • zombies
  • darkness
  • clowns
  • ghosts

Are your fears on that list?  My biggest fear isn’t.

Mine is fast moving water. Drowning is on the list, but when I think about fast moving water, it’s not drowning I fear. It’s the absolute lack of control, being tossed around like a rag doll, and being slammed into things like the sandy or rocky bottom, boulders or manmade objects. Having been through some of that before, it’s a fear based on my previous experience.

Yep… that’s me… scared of big waves, fast moving rivers, strong undertows, tsunamis and other similar liquid bullies.

So imagine my response when my husband told me we were going on a whitewater rafting trip. And not just any white water.

“Called the ‘Beast of the East,’ and ranked one of the best whitewater runs in the world, the Gauley is a combination of heart-stopping excitement and breathtaking scenery. It boasts more Class IV and V rapids than any other eastern river and offers one of the most intense experiences in commercial rafting”. – wvcommerce.org

Every fall, the Army Corp of Engineers releases water from the Summersville Dam into the Gauley River, which cuts through the 1000-foot-deep New River Gorge. This 22-day release is at a rate of more than 19,000 gallons of water per second. The Upper Gauley (10 miles long) holds the title of one of America’s most challenging runs. It’s home to 50 rapids including Sweet’s Falls (formerly known as The Devil’s Backbone)—a 12-foot waterfall.

Search for Gauley River Rafting and Sweet’s Falls to see images and YouTube videos of the river and rapids.

So this run, suggested for professionals and adventure seekers, was going to be the site of my first ever whitewater experience! It’s a good thing they actually recommend you pee right inside your suit, because it was looking like it would probably happen whether I wanted it to or not. At least I wouldn’t have to be embarrassed about it.

My experience rafting the Gauley River

We headed out. Each of us was given a paddle, a lesson in proper paddling, a place to sit on the raft, and some basic training on what to do if we fell out or had to help someone back into the raft.

Once on the raft, I wedged my legs into the raft creases as deep as I could. I wanted to be stuck to it. My plan was to NOT fall out into a river that would sweep me away. I listened closely to our guide—Carsten—intending to do EVERYTHING he told me to since he was there to help us have fun and keep us safe.

Each time we’d approach the next class V rapid, Carsten would tell us where we wanted to be going into the rapid (where the raft should be) and what to do if we fell out. “On this one,” he’d say, “If you fall out, swim left. If you go right, you could be swept under and caught in the rocks below. Your best bet is to stay left!”

“Awesome,” I thought. “So much for being blissfully unaware.”

The rapids were so treacherous that people came to the river every day just do sit on the boulders above and watch the wipeouts. So not only did you have to worry about being snagged by rocks under the water that could trap you to death, but you had the added bonus of possibly being caught on video while fighting for your life.

Each time we made it through a rapid successfully, Carsten would yell “Paddle Up!” That was our queue to paddle high five as a team—a celebration of our success.

Coming up to some of the class V rapids, we could see people ahead of us in the river who’d fallen in and were floating raftless. We saw empty and near empty rafts floating near them and crowds above cheering and yelling—having gotten to see some good capsizes.

Our team coming into a big rapid on the Gauley River

Our team coming into a big rapid on the Gauley River

On one particularly rough rapid, Carsten did his usual suggesting of what to do in the event we fall out of the raft. We came into the rapid and our raft was almost standing straight up on its end. We went into the rapid with 7 of us in the raft. We came out of it with 3 of us in it.

Carsten gave the two of us left our marching orders. “Amiee!” he yelled. “Paddle! Paddle your hardest.” My raft mate, he ordered to rescue duty. It was my job to paddle us to each person. Carsten’s job to direct me and help steer, and my teammate’s job to reach over and pull our buddies out of the river and into the raft.

Not more than five minutes later, we had everyone back in the raft. No injuries and lots of laughs. I sighed relief for three reasons: everyone was safe, I didn’t fall in, and my arms could take a break from paddling. Whew!

Though I could barely walk when we first left the raft, because my legs had been wedged in so tight, my blood had to remember how to circulate through them, at the end of the run, I could look back on it as a great experience. I survived, but not just that. I had fun. I got to be part of the great stories our friends shared for years. I got to be part of a rescue effort. I got to face a fear and come through it successfully.

The biggest lesson I took from that day was this:

Each time Carsten told us of the difficulty we would face on each rapid and what to do if we were thrown from the raft, it was hard to hear. It increased my fear of the rapid each time, because the danger was real and it was laid out for us. No pretending it was worse in my mind than in reality. It was bad in both.

However, it was necessary to know what the danger was so we could prepare for it. So we would know how to handle ourselves if the worst happened.

I think it is better to know what we are getting ourselves into. To be prepared going in. To have a back up plan if things don’t go our way, so we can still navigate successfully and achieve our objectives despite challenges. I’ll take that over blissful ignorance any day.

And remember to celebrate your wins. Paddle Up!

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