Embracing Discomfort, Finding Community
By Jacob Kowalski
“Are you ready Jake?!” These are the words I heard as Josh (my coach, friend, and kayaking mentor) headed down the rapid before me. I watched him take powerful strokes through the rushing whitewater as I sat in the calm eddy upstream. The line I chose looked quite different as the smaller waves I had seen from land looked like they would swallow my boat now. My heart pounded and my mind raced as to how I should go about paddling the rapid without flipping. While the whitewater continued to rush down, I could only think back to how I managed to be crammed in a tiny boat, with rushing waters a full 24-hour drive from my home in northern Maine.
It all started for me when I was young; always wanting to be in the outdoors, whether that be in a boat fishing or climbing trees with my brother. Nature has always been something that I could escape to and be disconnect from technology, hangout with friends, or even to avoid doing homework (sorry mom). Yet it was only just recently where I really started to maximize the resources around my home at the foot of Baxter State Park and Katahdin. I began to do more hikes including Double Top, Katahdin, the Travelers Loop and others. While growing older, the ten-foot tree in the backyard just didn’t cut it for an adventurous teen. It wasn’t until the summer of 2016 when my brother Matt went on a paddling trip with a group called the Outdoor Sport Institute that I really found you could be pushed out of your comfort zone in a different way through outdoor sports.
After Matt came back from that trip, he was completely hooked on the sport of whitewater kayaking. When I heard this, I thought of the little boats launching off of waterfalls, not something that a high school student could ever do. All that summer he began to get more and more involved in the sport and his stoke level continued well into the fall. Matt wanted to share this sport he fell in love with, with others in his school and create a community of active outdoor pursuits, which is part of OSI’s mission. Pitching this idea to the school superintendent, it was actually passed as an excused absence. Was I really hearing that I could get out of school with a small group of friends and be in the outdoors? I couldn’t turn that offer down. Matt’s first trip added perspective to this sport for all of us. Instead of viewing this “unreachable” sport for pros, it can be modified for any person. After that trip my brother and I were stoked to get out again.
Since that first trip, I traveled to the coast of Maine with OSI on a kayak surf tour where we went in whitewater kayaks and surfed the tide as it came in and out. Also through OSI, I took a trip with some other amazing Maine high school students to Montana. While in Montana we backcountry skied, learned about snow and avalanches, and also how to tour and camp in remote mountains. This trip really opened my eyes on how there are many like-minded students around the state who want to do the same sports that I do. When you are in a small town the interest of some of these sports isn’t there but when you find another peer from another town it really helps you create this community of high school students who want to get out and enjoy the outdoors. Through OSI I’ve connected with those students who now are my friends that I keep in touch with. I feel that when you get out of your comfort zone the best things happen. In my case, trying a sport that I’ve never done and having the right people around me to help teach me makes me feel confident in my abilities. The mentors in OSI and members of the community are all stoked to get out there and redefine what is possible.
Without OSI offering what it does to the students of the state of Maine, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to travel all the way down the eastern seaboard or go west into the mountains, or even get out on the West Branch of the Penobscot (my local river). This program has opened my eyes about getting out of my comfort zone and trying new things whether that be a sub-zero yurt in Montana or rolling a kayak in a pond in North Carolina. Putting the sport aside, the program has also connected me with other students throughout the state who also enjoy the same things I like to do.
Thanks to the sense of community that they have taught me, I’ve begun to engage with my community, getting friends outdoors and into kayaks or hiking mountains. Without OSI I wouldn’t have the skills in outdoor sports that I do or have the connection to like-minded peers throughout the state and people within my local community.
This brings me back to where we started. I am still sitting in that eddy as the water rushes past me. All the training I have done throughout my career of kayaking has brought me to a difficult class III rapid in Tennessee. I watch Josh as he goes through the rapid and it makes me more certain as to where I want to go. I signal down to safety and they give me the OK. I give a few strokes to peel out of the eddy and then immediately go for the line I picked out moments earlier. Giving some powerful strokes through the water I start to notice that I came in with too much power and hit an eddy line which pushes me out of the main flow that I was shooting for originally. With my boat too far over to the left, I hit a rock which immediately spins me around. With the current pushing me it tries to catch the edge of the boat. Remembering what my coaches have taught me I began to brace against the rock instead of lowering my edge upstream which would flip me. After I collected myself I got out of the brace and powered through the last section of the rapid and celebrated my biggest whitewater success with the OSI community!