Eddy Out | Emily Hightower

Issue #25

An eddy in a river is where water flows back upstream to fill in behind an obstacle like a rock or bend in the river. Eddy’s are often calm. This eddy was different. The water was calm but my nervous system was flooded with rapids of stress hormones. 

The other river guide was sitting casually on the side of his raft. Feet propped up on the cooler doling out snacks and conversations with his guests. I was about to poo my pants trying not to let the 12 year old kid, mom, and other guests on my raft sense how nervous I was. Annoyed at their casual small talk I had other things on my mind. The rapid just below our eddy was a class IV called False Flush. It contained a ‘must make move’ followed by an absolutely must make eddy for a mandatory portage around the next rapid. Royal Flush is a class VI rapid that is, by definition, ‘unrunnable’. Just move the “I” to the other side of the “V” and you have twisted guts.

How was this other guide so chill? 

This wasn’t just about not feeling the urge to shit myself. This was about making sure the paying customers, as well as myself, didn’t die. 

The problem was pretty simple. Unregulated nervous energy spoils performance. To function well through risk (running whitewater or giving a presentation in public) we need to be focused and energized but not overly anxious. Anxiety, however, usually produces more of itself.

In this situation, if I’m anxious I make people on my boat anxious. When people are nervous they don’t paddle well. Swims, flips, and a potential miss of the eddy to portage around the unrunnable Royal Flush all become more likely. A runaway train starts. Anxiety creates anxiety. Been there?

So I thought more about the ucpoming rapid. Enter left avoid the large hole then move right and avoid being pushed on the rock that flips boats on river left. Line up to hit the waves in a big drop, then immediately start heading right to catch a small eddy above Royal Flush. Flip, swim without catching people, or miss that eddy and you run the unrunnable.

I had to get it together. But the unregulated nervous energy infected my thoughts. Instead of planning I was worrying. What if someone swims? Which spot should the young girl sit in so I can keep an eye on her? What if the mom stops paddling to keep looking back at her daughter? What if we miss the eddy above Royal Flush? Why can’t I stop my hands from shaking?

How is this other guide SO CHILL? 

What is his secret?

Then I realized it. 

He’s in the eddy. 

I was downstream in my mind playing out mus- make moves and terrifying scenarios. 

And he was in the eddy. 

And so was I, if I would only notice. We were not, in fact, downstream. 

Somehow this moment grabbed me in my physiology. Literally, I realized myself in present time. My guts started to mellow out. I took a few breaths and noticed the calm water where we were parked. The buzz of negative ions from the rapids behind and below us. The perfect breeze easing the bright hot sun to an ideal temperature. The smell of sunscreen. The way my body was positioned in real time. I started engaging with ease with everyone in my boat. In fact being centered and present became the very secret power that would keep me resourced for whatever came next. There was suddenly no negative stress in that eddy.

This is not a small thing.

Once I got present, I realized I didn’t know and couldn’t plan for exactly what was going to happen in False Flush. It’s a wild river at high water with commercial guests. I knew only that I was in choice to run it. I had enough experience to guide it so if things went south that was part of running rivers. We had a system in place to help make sure everyone made the lower eddy. Throw bags, safety kayakers. This wasn’t General Powell’s raw expedition into the unknown. This was a well-oiled commercial operation. 

I was in choice. It was a clear choice. Decide to be present and enjoy each part of the river from eddy, to pulling into the current, to running features and beyond, or be downstream spending my energy worrying, depleting resources, and infecting the group with jitters.

We all spend way too much time thinking about what’s ‘downstream’. When you’re flipped about the future, you make it more likely to flip IN the future. It’s one thing to assess an upcoming situation; to apply logic, reasoning, and knowledge to be prepared. It’s another to do that with negative anxiety. Your state during preparation determines a lot about how you will perform. You can assess with anxiety and worry, or you can assess with presence. 

How many times have you been awake in the middle of the night worrying about the future? Meanwhile you’re just in a safe warm bed. Whatever you’re facing when you face it you’ll face it and learn. Usually anxiety goes down when we finally engage with the risk. The trick is not taking the risk a thousand times in your mind before you actually get there.

Worrying is ineffective on so many levels. In the simplest terms, it’s missing the reality of the moment to pay interest against your own nervous system and performance. 

I’m not immune to worry. But since that experience on the Kern River so many years ago when I find myself fixating on a future problem/ ‘rapid’, I often remember that eddy. This helps me practice presence, preparation, and a release from the expense of worry.

Calm waters are nice but they are much sweeter when a chosen adventure awaits downstream. Lean into the excitement of that. It shows you that you care. Use the stress to train presence. Notice the environment around you, regulate the one inside of you. We are all capable of so much more when we drop the future worry and outcome-fondling to kick our feet up in the eddy of presence.

Bottoms Down,

Emily Hightower

Emily Hightower

Emily Hightower is an explorer of human potential at SH//FT.


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