The Third Eye
Over the last few days I've been working on compiling, labeling and watching all of the kayaking clips I've acquired over the last year or so. While doing that I've been pondering something a friend said in the back of my mind, " GoPros make you swim." It was said jokingly at the takeout, a bit of ribbing after I'd made a questionable move, and thankfully pulled off a solid recovery.
I'd been crafting another post, something a bit more in line with recent articles and personal musings on risk management, motivation and responsibility. But the thoughts that have been popping up are just as interesting; and I hope, will tie into the other thoughts I have been forming.
Filming kayaking isn't easy. You have to be able to kayak what you want to shoot, or be a very willing hiker, climber, and skilled outdoors person if you aren't comfortable kayaking with an expensive camera. For that reason, personal action cameras are a huge hit with whitewater kayakers, and many other action sports. Simply attach the camera of your choosing to your helmet and off you go. Who doesn't like watching people doing "awesome things"?
So,why exactly do "GoPros make you swim'? To be perfectly clear; they don't. From a technical aspect, you are placing additional weight on your helmet and head. Your head is a 12 lb bowling ball that pulls you under mid eskimo roll if you lift it too early (at all). That means adding another weight may make rolling more difficult. But if you're taking a highly advanced piece of digital equipment down whitewater; at a cost of $150-500, rolling shouldn't be a concern. At least not one that would affect your ability to complete your line.
With that out of the way let's consider some other reasons a small format point of view (POV) action camera could impact your safety. This season I’ve taken two tracks with filming. I’ve consciously chosen to film while out paddling and I’ve consciously chosen not to bring my camera gear on an equal number of lines. After all, film while paddling- and -paddling to film are two very different things. I think that distinction is partly what my friend was referencing.
Paddling something just so you’ll have a cool shot of it can lead you a lot of places and it can also lead to swimming. In the kayaking community this is known as ‘kodak courage’. For kayaking, and I imagine for most adventure sports, kodak courage isn't a new thing. From the very moment that adventure enthusiasts were able to share ‘timeless’ images of our exploits people have sought to do bigger,better, badder things for the camera. For some a few scrapes may be worth an epic story and an even better shot. But that road and its rationalizations are a dangerous path to wander down.
In the already dynamic arena of personal decision making while whitewater kayaking, paddling to film can add an unnecessary layer of risk. That includes fear of losing the gear or trying to fiddle with a GoPro when you should be focused on paddling. Worrying about your camera can lead you to putting yourself in a dangerous, poorly planned or ill thought out positions just to get a shot can all contribute to a bad time while 'playing.' On the other hand, a number of things may negate the effect of a camera's presence. Common sense tends to be one, but generally it is most effective when combined with a good understanding of one's skill level and a fair amount of self confidence. The ability to say no to yourself; as well as the hype, can help you avoid the perils of kodak courage. There's a distinct line between confirming with yourself that you would still run a drop if the cameras weren’t flashing and actually having to ask yourself that question in seriousness. Ideally, one should land on the side of self confirmation rather than self affirmation.
I probably film my paddling about half of the time I go and then another half of those instances I forget to turn it on. These are not great odds for acquiring “breathtaking footage”. More often than not, I turn my camera on for rapids and drops that I want to remember or review later. I actively review paddling footage to look for mistakes, reasons for mess-ups, good lines, scout better lines and new eddies as well as just revisit the scenery. Sometimes I can use old footage to compare changes in the river between high water events. Of course, I already have this information both firsthand and from friends, but reviewing footage is like studying for a test: every bit of study helps.
I also film to mark an ‘accomplishment’ aspect on the river. I film certain rivers, trips, and drops because they mark a culmination of some goal for me. They are worth recording not just for safety considerations or a trip report but to celebrate a milestone I worked hard to achieve. I may even make a little film commemorating the run. Filming is never the goal, however, even in instances when I may be paddling something with the intent to film it. The filming is the last thing of importance. This is where the small format POV camera shines. One button press is the only requirement. This way the camera is the last thing I’m thinking about before dropping into hard or difficult whitewater. I often press record a minute or so before just so I can make sure all my focus is on the task at hand—not the camera on my head. I’m never worried about losing my action camera on the river regardless of its cost. I’d rather it snap off or break than I get stuck somewhere or injured because I was trying to protect it. I’m slightly more protective of my DSLR primarily because to lose it— barring forgetfulness, I may have to swim out my kayak.
We also shouldn't be so concerned with filming or shooting that we don't set proper safety. If the photographer is the only one at the bottom of a rapid they may be the only one in position to provide safety for the next paddler. This may be dependent on the best location for a photo relative to the best location to set safety. They should take this into account if they are the only one who will be downstream. Regardless by being there they should understand they are safety first and photographer second. They should have that rope in hand already or immediately near them. They should be ready to drop their camera gear and throw their rope if the situation requires it. If they want to film no matter what happens they should bring another paddler down with them.
For me a camera is a way to make a more concrete memory of the places I've been. It is a way to share and remember those places with friends. The moment I let that camera dictate my behavior, then I may end up swimming.