Wednesday, June 20, 2012

swimming the rapids

In all my years of kayaking, I've never flipped a kayak over. Except on purpose, when we flipped in pools and in bays wearing dry suits, all part of practice to see if we could get back in. You cling to the side of your boat blowing up your paddle float, positioning the paddle just right so you can stabilize yourself and climb in. We also practiced helping other people get in their overturned boats, pulling their kayak over ours to empty out the water and holding on. Eric the kayak instructor would come by to offer advice as we bailed out the boats and tried again.

a calm day on the Gulf of Alaska.

In all the days to come, the big southern swell tossing my boat like driftwood, the twelve foot seas, the gale winds, the horizontal rain, the breakers behind the boat, the combination of wind and tide and shallow points turning the ocean into a washing machine, I never, ever flipped. I knew, despite our practicing, that it would be flirting with death to do so, even though we carried matches and clif bars and Epirbs in our life vests. The chances of executing a perfect save would be difficult at best in real, desperate conditions. People who lost their boats died, simple as that. Rolling a fully loaded sea kayak is a skill few people possess.

Of course a river is a whole different thing than an ocean. You have more chances to save yourself in an ocean, to see and avoid rocks and standing waves and eddies. With a river you have a split second to decide: this way or that?

Immediately prior to the big flip.

A standing wave determined my fate on the Grande Ronde river. A brisk wind, a light boat, and before I knew it I was swimming a rapid. You may dismiss a rapid as "only a Class II", but I am here to tell you, when you are swept into the current, your boat long gone, it feels like much more. Everything I had ever learned or read passed through my mind: Feet downstream. Try to eddy out. The current was too strong right away to make it to the bank, so I tumbled with the current, hoping to avoid rocks. Earlier in the day I had contemplated ditching the wetsuit because it was so hot. I had instead rolled it to my waist and now I was glad for it.

Finally I was able to scull to shore, stumbling to my feet in the willows. Far downstream, my boat and camera bag hurtled towards the confluence of the Snake. A man in an RV stopped and waved his hands ineffectually. I looked down: I was still holding  my paddle.

Sometimes things become so ingrained that you do them without thinking. When a coastal grizzly charged us a few years ago, years of training kicked in. The rest of the group screamed, "What do we do?" as I stood there and waved my arms to appear taller. It had happened this time too. Eric the kayak instructor, long dead by his own hand, had drilled it in all his students: Never, ever let go of the paddle.

I could only take pictures in the calm water.

Flipping on an eighty degree day is much less serious than in the rain-swept Alaskan ocean, although people in other boats weren't wearing helmets for no reason. With some teamwork we were able to scoop up the river yard sale and continue on, my only gift to the river a pair of sunglasses.

You can be doing something you have done for years and be blind-sided. I continue to learn this lesson.


  1. I solo canoe--14'or shorter with center seat--but am not really very good at balance things, so I tend to dump a lot. But luckily I'm very good at hanging onto both my paddle and the boat and at getting to shore. I'm sure practice has helped! And it feels a lot more secure having that boat with me going thru rapids with my feet pointed downstream, working over to an eddy.

    I'd suggest taking advantage of more warm days and do some practice--although an open canoe is a lot easier to grab onto.

    Re: Pedicures

    I happened to see a remarkably nice "reality" show about the Salt Lake Dance West ballet company. Really nice kids working really hard at something they really love. Gives one hope!

    Anyway, they went to get pedicures at a salon and one girl said not to touch her calluses--she NEEDS them.


  2. pics in rough water...really? You know what that means...helmet cam next.

    Glad all is ok.

    Practice to me doesn't make perfect, but it sure as heck helps in situations like this.

    Sunglasses are totally replaceable and if they had corkies on them somebody else will probably find them downstream and give them a new home.

    @Tom...while getting a pedicure the gal in the chair next to me was an ice skater, and she said the same thing.

  3. Great story. My old man was a hoop coach. He had his share of being blindsided. He always thought of himself first and foremost as a teacher. I can hear him saying, "Time is always well spent on fundamentals" I like it",Never,ever let go of your paddle".

  4. But you kept your cool (maybe even cold) and made a great save! (From one of the downstream rafters)


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