At the end of August I returned from 3.5 weeks of exploratory kayaking in the Philippines as part of the 2017 British Universities Kayaking Expedition (BUKE). A biannual event in which keen student boaters in the UK are selected to form a self-organised expedition team, BUKE is an incredible concept that has allowed many talented paddlers to spread their wings and venture to new lands in search of captivating whitewater.
For someone like myself, a club boater through and through, this is an amazing opportunity and I’m so grateful to have been part of this year’s team. As I’m in the middle of my PhD, I could afford less leave than the rest of the team (all undergrads and recent graduates) and my teammates are still exploring the Philippine jungles. You can keep up to date with the expedition at kayakthephilippines.wordpress.com or search for us on facebook and instagram.
This blog is my personal story.
P.S. If you can’t be bothered to read, there’s a video half way down!
I’d love to tell a story of epic rapids and smooth lines, of easy rides and just good times. But that wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal. Instead, I can share the adventure that has made me stronger and taught me so much. A few weeks have past since my return to the UK and I’ve had some time to reflect on this year’s expedition.
And there were many thoughts to sort through!
At first I felt very negative about the trip because I thought of all the things I didn’t achieve – it felt like a failed mission:
- I didn’t paddle well across the duration of the expedition.
- I didn’t complete a multiday trip (when you kayak with your camping gear in your boat and complete the section over several days)
- I didn’t get to enjoy completing first descents without messing up.
- I didn’t feel like an equal member of an expedition team.
For any kayakers reading this, it doesn’t come across as a particularly successful mission either. It’s taken me some time to realise that I have been judging success on the wrong metrics. Yes, the expedition was not the success that the Sacha in 2014 might have envisioned when applying to BUKE for the first time from the whitewater-lacking island of Singapore, but I’ve been through a lot since then and the markers need to change accordingly.
Following my incredible trip to Kyrgyzstan last summer, I was still keen to get on the water and competed in the Adidas Sickline Extreme Kayak World Championship in Oct 2016. I came a respectable 16th in the Women’s rankings and enjoyed the company of some much more experienced boaters, justifying my absence in London for the first week of my PhD. However, that was the last time I was to paddle challenging whitewater before the expedition. Struggling to adjust to life in the city and the difficulties of academic research, which seldom provides instant gratification, persistent self-doubt ebbed into the familiar dark fog of anxiety and depression and I struggled to keep my head up, despite supportive colleagues and a friendly supervisor. Close friends will know that this has always been a battle of mine and will be pleased to hear that I have been active in seeking support. And to anyone reading who finds them-self in similar (horribly smelly) shoes, I implore you to do the same, you are not alone.
Rather rambling background story now in place, it is easier to examine expedition with less critical eyes. If I had had a broken leg, or some other debilitating injury, I would not have expected so much of myself. I was incredibly anxious about this expedition before flying out and had considered pulling out numerous times with a variety of different excuses. But if fellow team mate, Lauren, was able to paddle the grand canyon with a broken leg (what a legend), then I wasn’t going to let anxiety stop me. I love kayaking, I just ‘forget’ that sometimes.
The expedition was a great success because:
- I was kayaking again, on challenging whitewater.
- I saw some beautiful new places, exciting rivers and met friendly people.
- I paddled a first descent river AND paddled it again after messing up.
- I survived an epic jungle hike with some ‘interesting’ wildlife encounters
- I helped plan and organise a kayaking expedition that achieved its objectives.
- I learned a lot to help me plan my next adventure and I left excited to do so.
- Did I mention I went kayaking on new rivers in the Philippines?!
If a picture is worth a thousand words then a video must equate an entire novel, so here’s a teaser of my time in the Philippines as part of this years British Universities Kayaking Expedition. There will be much more footage to come once the whole team has assembled again in the UK. Shout out to those who kept me going when things got tough!
I’m back at work in London with the same advice that I returned from Kyrgyzstan with – Get on the river more! This is important for all the obvious reasons of practice and skill accumulation etc., but I think I learned more in this trip about dealing with people, beating stigmas, and above all, doing what makes you happy.
I greatly anticipate more kayaking adventures to come in the future and I hope I can paddle more this year, but I’m also a scientist, a skier, a hiker, a climber, a swimmer, a traveller, a German student, a photographer and I can’t do it all at once. Do what makes you happy, find your balance, and remember that you are the only person you need to live up to.