Beyond the comfort zone
White water challenge
If we advocate challenging students, we must be ready to challenge ourselves. Outdoor educator David Gregory leaves his zone to see what it’s like.
Content or complacent?
How easily we find ourselves sitting back, content with our repetitious working lives. Sometimes, even with variety at work, it can still become too comfortable, and therefore, possibly, mundane. Recently, my colleagues and I spent some time developing new options for our outdoor education program. The main aim was to have plans B, C and D, just in case weather or circumstances prevented us going with plan A. For this, we headed to Canberra to conduct some “reccies”, assessing the suitability of new and different expeditions.
One of our aims was to discover an expedition that could link hiking, mountain biking and canoeing together into a seamless journey. So off we went into the Brindabella ranges, a mountain range just south of Canberra through which the Murrumbidgee River flows and at points, narrows into mini gorges to create some exciting white water.
The upper section of the river where we wanted to put in, seemed to be completely hemmed in by private properties filled with wrecked cars and uninviting signs. Thankfully, we weren’t chased out by too many toothless, gun-toting madmen trying to protect their moonshine stills.
Eventually we put in the boats at a ford, a gentle, shallow stream over the road, which quickly turned into some moderate rapids. Getting on the water, I was slightly nervous, as I’d never canoed on white water. Being at the front of an open canoe, only having a single blade and paddling towards the first rapid was a new experience. I found myself way outside my comfort zone.
As we hit the first rapid, the boat got caught on a rock. I quickly shifted my body to counterbalance the boat that was now tilted up at an alarming angle. We’d only paddled about 50m and already it was precarious. It was going to be a very interesting day.
We finally managed to shuffle off the rock back into the stream and bumped clumsily across several other rocks. I was now hoping the entire day wasn’t going to be like this.
Thankfully, the river widened and deepened a little and as my nerves eased, I tried to read the river ahead and anticipate potential bumps. After about half an hour, the river began to narrow again and the land started to drop away at a much steeper rate. I became increasingly nervous; I could see the bubbling white water in front getting funnelled into an even tighter stretch of the river. Despite having a highly experienced instructor in the back of the boat steering, I was a bundle of nerves.
We paddled hard towards the first rapid and as we hit it, we turned hard right! We traversed the second rapid before swiftly changing direction again to negotiate a third. With my heart pounding and my knuckles going white, we slid through onto a fast-flowing rapid train that bounced us up and down, splashing masses of water over the bow.
A few hundred metres on, we came to a more extreme section. Pulling off into an eddy, we broke for lunch and examined the rapids ahead from the riverbank. It was increasingly obvious that we were getting funnelled into a gorge. Examining options, we decided to portage the boats for a couple of hundred metres to avoid some of the more extreme rapids. The feeling of relief rippled through me but it was an arduous task dragging the canoes and equipment over the rocky embankment.
Finding a calm little eddy on the other side, we slid the boat back in and continued on our way. Within minutes, the rocks either side of us became pillar-like, towering higher and higher.
Pulling in to another eddy, we assessed what was a massive grade 3 rapid split into two streams. Both directions were filled with nasty looking strainers. A strainer is an object in the water, usually a tree branch or similar, that catches solid objects as the water goes through it. A strainer can capture you; you get pinned there and might even drown.
We’d hit a point in the river where it was no longer safe to paddle, nor was it easy or suitable to portage (carry the canoes) due to the increasingly large rocky outcrops. Emptying everything out of the boats we decided to line them down the rapids instead. Lining is when you attach a rope to the boat and allow the boat to float down the rapid whilst you use the rope to guide it. Sounds easy? Not really… if the boat tips over at any point you need to let go of the rope immediately. A capsized canoe fills with water and suddenly it weighs around 400kg. The risk is you get snatched off the rocks and dragged down into the water.
Interspersing lining, paddling and portaging it took us around two hours to cover 500m! The air felt cool and the sun hung low in the western sky. The expedition was supposed to take a couple of hours; it was in its sixth hour. On the map the river appeared to again broaden. We paddled forth hoping our reading of the map was correct. As we rounded the next bend, a feeling of relief flooded over me. We were heading towards a wide, smooth flowing section of the Murrumbidgee!
With the light fading and the day well and truly done, the sight of Thawa Bridge ahead in the distance was a wonderful sight to see.
A sense of achievement
It was dusk as we stepped out of the boat. I felt a sense of achievement! Despite it being a harrowing experience at the start of the day and feeling completely out of my depth, it’d turned into an excellent adventure.
Often at work, we can become stagnant in our repetitive roles. Experiences such as this push us and remind us that we must also be prepared to push ourselves outside our comfort zones if we want to grow. There’s no point in encouraging students to push their boundaries and limits, if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves. Feeling the fear that your students feel when they start a new activity for the first time is an important part of being able to empathise and thus better support them.
Challenge yourself! Go out and find options B, C, D and in doing so experience something new. Ultimately, the more we test our comfort zone, the more we grow and this translates into far better teaching and mentorship for our students.
David is an experienced outdoor education teacher from Australia who’s worked on various domestic and international programs for over 16 years. David has planned and led outdoor education programs for students from primary age, through senior school. David’s a keen snow skier and outside of the outdoors he enjoys museums and art galleries, his favourite being the V&A in London.
For more about his work, click the picture or see http://www.davidgregory.com.au/
Feature Image: Aerial view of the Murrumbidgee River and Wagga Beach
Below – The challenges of the Murrumbidgee River