The Sandbags of Time

I look at the call list on my phone. Galen’s name alternates in red and black down the screen. Phone tag. I touch his name and finally get him on the line. He is asking my opinion on whether or not he can handle running Marsh Creek into the Middle Fork Salmon. It almost feels like he wants permission.

You think I got it? I mean, I’ve been hearing that she’s clear of wood. And it’s really just continuous class III right? And I’ve been in my boat about 10 times since the last time I saw you.

I can not imagine this type of conversation feels foreign to other boaters. The whitewater rating system provides a compass of risk assessment, but it is our friends and mentors that set the declination of that compass. They expand on the I-VI rating system, tailoring it to current conditions and the skills of the first-timer. That is the best-case scenario. All too often, I find myself talking to strangers—on the internet or at the Dirty Shame Saloon—because I have nowhere else to turn for peer-review.


This system routinely goes awry. When you consult with close friends their desire to see you succeed  sometimes overshadows their critical analysis. When you consult with strangers they also tend to veer in a positive direction “Oh yeah, when we ran it back in ’06, it went fine…just fine! And we were using a fleet of Jackson Rockers and Dagger CFSs. These new boats will practically paddle you down that stretch! Yeah, you got it.

These days, I am routinely caught on both sides of those words. I am a class V minus kayaker. I rarely find myself paddling with people on my level because I am at an awkward place. Many stop before they get here, justifiably content with paddling safer whitewater. Others go bigger, and they blast past this V minus crap and become full-fledged, jaded gnar-stars.

The result? I am constantly asking or being asked those five words: “You think I got it?” I have two hats on the rack—mentor and mentee. While the persistent lack of peers often makes being a V minus boater feel like a lesser known circle of Dante’s, I am grateful for the dual perspectives.

Flip-flopping between these two roles makes one intimately familiar with the common flaws of the “you got it” call. For example, wearing the mentor hat day after day diminishes our ability to step outside of our own shoes and into those of the on-the-fence boater. Our positive experiences cloud our minds. We stand confidently on the Big Brother scout rock and think, “‘Hmmm. Popping your boat over the guard hole and staying on the dance floor until that perfect moment where you turn the bow to jangle down the left line. Shit… I’ve never had an issue with that move! It’s a class III-IV move at best.’ Yeah (on-the-fence boater), you got it! Easy peezy.


The other heuristic trap mentors fall into is fear of suppressing the stoke. We see Johnny Newboater eyeing a drop like a kid in a candy store, and we desperately want to be the 1950s do-gooder with the go-ahead: “Take a piece son, on me.” Our mental vision of Johnny styling that line glows in slow-motion 1080p on a 70-inch screen with saturated colors and dubstep. On the other hand, the line-gone-wrong is the dim light of C-SPAN on mute coming through a doorway down the hall. Even when there might be a 50/50 chance of Johnny styling or botching the line, we are drawn to the better outcome. We are dangerously optimistic. So we say, “You got it.”

Similarly, we don’t want to suppress our own stoke. Groups feed off a good rhythm. Part of that rhythm is running a drop, gliding into an eddy, and then hootin’ and hollerin’ others over the ledge. So when Johnny chooses to walk it momentarily breaks this rhythm. Spines tingle and hands chill sitting in eddies; the stoke cools too. Sometimes we even need to get out of our boats and help Johnny return to the water. So instead we say, “You got it.” I see mentors fall into these heuristic traps again and again.


Reversing the roles, Johnny Newboater is not entirely innocent either. He is falling into the exact same traps: thinking how easy it looks, being dangerously optimistic, and wanting to keep up.

So what do we do? Unfortunately, the nebulous I-VI rating system is here to stay. I would not be the first—and I will not be the last—to point out that this system is far from perfect. But even if we revamp the rating system, it will never stand alone. Mentors will remain crucial interpreters of a system designed to be informative and suggestive. They help assess how actual paddler ability stacks up against the challenge. They know where we excel, where we struggle, and how we handle hairy situations. Sure, a nuanced rating system could spit out a more informative number than I-VI. But this will not put the mentor out of work. You can not automate that job.

If we accept that the “you think I got it” question is here to stay, let’s improve it. The change begins with the mentor. If you are a gnar-star hearing, “You think I got it?” more than you ask it I have a couple challenges for you:

First, say more than, “You got it.” Create a discussion, explain the hazards, weigh the commitment and compare it to runs Johnny knows. Sacrificing a few minutes to go over these things will  help Johnny’s decision-making and improve your overall “you got it.” decision, preventing you from using the answer as a cheap cop-out.

Second challenge: do something you suck at. Take a day off, stroll down to Beater Bakery, and eat some humble pie—you might still taste it on your lips next time you are on the scout rock at Big Brother.  There are a whole slew of things (mountain biking, squirtboating, yoga) that I suck at. They are less fun than taking a lap down the Truss. But every time I do them I feel like a beginner. That humility stays with me and helps me empathize with Johnny Newboater when he asks, “You think I got it?”

Maybe someday I will graduate from Class V minus purgatory. When that happens, I will watch my mentee hat collect dust on the rack, as my mentor hat develops sweat stains of everyday use. That role-shifting carries a responsibility to empathize with the mentee’s ability to handle the challenge before him or her. So I keep mountain biking, squirtboating, and trying to touch my toes with a straight back. When I suck less at those things I will find new ones. I owe it to Johnny Newboater.


All photos Matthias Fostvedt