Autumn Phillips: A lesson in humility |

Autumn Phillips: A lesson in humility

The first time I was baptized, the pastor held a piece of white fabric over my nose and held me under the water.

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,” he said, and then he lifted me up again.

I was 5, and the entire congregation was watching.

Behind the baptistery was a painting of a river — the river Jordan.

The pastor and I were fully clothed, complete with Sunday shoes, and our clothes were heavy as we walked out of the water.

The second time I was baptized, I was 30. It was early evening in the pool at the Steamboat Springs Health and Recreation Center. I was fully clothed and in a kayak.

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High above us, people were running in place on treadmills and Stairmasters, watching us through the window. They had box seats to my humiliation.

I paddled out into the middle of the pool, and the instructor balanced my boat for a second on his knee before letting me fall into the water. This time, there was no cloth over my nose, and there was no one to lift me out. I was to baptize myself.

The chlorine water seeped into my clothes as I hung there from the boat. On paper, it’s a simple movement of the hands and hips that brings you back to the surface. Underwater, it’s much more complicated.

“I’m scared.”

“This is the pool. Nothing bad can happen to you here,” the instructor said.

I swam out of the boat.

If the last obstacle to enlightenment is the ego, I recommend kayaking as a spiritual tool. The first thing I learned was humility. Humbled by being at the beginning again. Humbled by the river.


When can you call yourself a kayaker? Is it that first day when you put on a skirt that’s longer in the front than it is in the back? Does it happen when you subscribe to Paddler Magazine (or just put the sticker on your car)?

Are you initiated by a certain river or wave?

I don’t know. Right now, I’m too busy swallowing water and losing my sunglasses.

For the past two weeks, I have been taking Barry Smith’s famous two-week kayak class where he baby steps you into the river, gains your trust and then leads you into the rapids.

Barry Smith is the kind of teacher who gathers his students around like baby ducks. He gives you the basics, and then the rest of the lesson is a story he tells about the river and the wildlife along its banks.

Your form is important, but it seems more important to him that you appreciate where you are and why you are there.

It’s a refreshing change from what outdoor recreation has become in the past few years — a place to where the competitiveness of the asphalt world has been seeping onto hiking trails and climbing routes. Where it’s more about the biggest, the best and the most expensive than it is about being humbled and awakened by the nature around you.

Sitting in the cradle of a boat, you’re given a new way of looking at the world. Maybe there’s something about being cut in half — traveling at child height — that gives you the new perspective.

As the water pulled us, we relaxed into our new seats and watched the sun set behind Tree Haus. A beaver swam by. A crane flew over.

In two weeks, we traveled up and down the Yampa River, exploring town from below.

We were in the middle of downtown, but we were backstage — watching everything happen from behind the curtain.

At the end of the night, when we had used the last piece of light from the day, we pulled our kayaks out of the water. We walked away from the river and onto the sidewalk.

As the traffic light changed from red to green and the cars sped by, I felt for a moment that I knew something no one else did.

Then I got in my car and rejoined the crowd.