Archive for October, 2012

I got a kayak for my birthday last month. My son Sam already had a kayak and he was itching to go down the section III of the Chatooga River so the following week we headed to the river.  I probably should have taken a lesson or read a book or something, but I have canoed on some whitewater (class 1 & 2) but never anything above class 2.  I assumed we would scout each section and portage around if it was too challenging.  After the second rapid Sam said “Dad, this will take forever if we stop for each rapid.” so we only stopped when the roar of the approaching rapid was deafening.  I think that happened 4 or 5 more times.  The section III of the Chatooga is 18 miles of about 50 or 60 different rapids with several class 2, 3, and I think at least one class 4 rapids (I call it a waterfall) at the end.

Obviously since I am writing this and you are reading it we survived.  It was not the brightest thing we have ever done… okay maybe it was the dumbest thing I have ever done, but we did survive and I learned a few lessons along the way.

The first lesson was learning to read the river.  I have been on whitewater a few times and I knew enough to know I had to find the “V” where the main channel flowed.  Since we were going in September the river was quite low.  That might have been why we were the only persons on the river.  I did okay in the rapids that had a well-defined channel.  However when the river is low the channel tends to meander.  This is when I learned how important it is to strive for the channel to be followed rather than looking for the rocks to be avoided.

With each rapid my pulse would rise a little and I would try to run through cleanly without scrapping bottom and especially without running into the large boulders.  I noticed though that the more I focused upon the boulders the more I seemed to smack into them.  After about three rough runs in a row including my first spill as I piled up on a boulder and flipped, I decided to focus more on the channel and pull hard to stay on course and not strive just to avoid the big rocks.  And suddenly I began moving through the rapids better.

I think that is true in life as well.  I think we all know people (and perhaps at times have been people) who live trying to avoid calamity and bad times.  Their life is spent striving not to make mistakes or not to get hurt.  I haven’t done a scientific observation on it, but it seems like their success at avoiding trouble, difficulty, and pain is no better than the one who takes no particular precautions.  And I would say they often miss a lot of the fun, spontaneous, and thrilling aspects of life.  On the other hand I have definitely noticed that persons who strive to live a good and full life do so.  Again I can’t say that they are dramatically less inclined to experience challenges in life, but I am convinced they are better able to find the channel that carries them through.

Another lesson was the close proximity of fear and thrill within my heart.  I know that my lack of experience combined with the fact that when I was looking for a map of the river on the internet that morning I read how a man had drowned on the river when his raft flipped.  It’s surprising how that thought ended up being a subtle undercurrent in my mind when we got to a major rapid.  Sam tried to be helpful in this.  He knew a lot of the details since he spent a good bit of time up near the river over the summer.  He said, “Dad, the guy who drowned was old, out-of-shape, and in a raft.  You’re in a kayak so it’s different.”  I guess I need to remind him that what goes unsaid is sometimes more painful than what is said.

Because the river was low, travel time was slow.  I had anticipated a 3-4 hour trip.  After 5 hours of almost constant paddling I began to get a little anxious since the light was fading.  Fortunately the dimming light was only a shower and not true night, but we began to pull as steady and strong as our tired limbs would take us.  We came to a very chaotic waterfall which proved too difficult even for Sam to navigate (the one of two that day) so we both portaged.  While I didn’t have a map (did I mention this was the dumbest thing I have ever done) I knew that the last rapid was a Class IV rapid called Bull Sluice.  I confidently told Sam we must be at the end since this had to be Bull Sluice.  Into the river below the falls we began paddling again only to run into another, and then another rapid.  Oh my!  By this time I had hot spots on the palms of both hands while Sam was beginning to suffer from repeated hand cramps.

I realized we were not too far from being in trouble.  I hadn’t prayed a lot before this time, but now I realized my nonchalance about the trip could have put my son and I into real danger.  While prayer began in earnest so did the steady paddling.  I was really surprised how sore all of my body was becoming, not just my hands and arms.  But I had to block all that out and focus upon getting to the Hwy bridge that marked the take-out.  At about 6-1/2 hours we began to hear another roar indicating a significant rapid or waterfall.  As we got to the top we back paddled briefly before Sam said, “I don’t think we have another choice.” and he pulled briskly into the chute.  I watched as he descended through a couple of 2 – 3 foot drops and then he disappeared over the last drop and came back into view about 2 seconds later whooping and hollering.  At least that’s what it looked like from where I was up above.  Whatever he was yelling was lost in the roar of the waterfalling.

Since he made it I assumed three things (you know what they say about assumptions don’t you.)  I assumed it was a relatively simple and straight chute. I assumed he was yelling for me to come on.  And he was letting me know that it was fun.  Assumption 1 was correct except for the fact that when Sam disappeared it was because he went over a 10 – 12 foot waterfall… not exactly simple for me.  Assumption 2 was correct that he was yelling at me, but he was warning me of the waterfall and that perhaps I needed to reconsider.  Assumption 3 was correct for him, but not necessarily for me.

I made it through the first two drops in good shape and quickly moved to the last drop.  There is a moment when you realize you have made a mistake but there is no way to undo it.

That was what I felt as I launched over the waterfall.

Now for an experienced kayaker I am sure Bull Sluice with low water is a minor thing.  For an inexperienced, tired, grandfather that was a true “OH NOOOO!” moment.  I had just enough time to think “This is when I die.” as I went over the edge and disappeared under the water.

Looking back I’m sure I could have managed it if I had a clue what to do.  As it was I was flipped and under my upside down kayak in the cold, churning water in a heartbeat.  I floated that way slamming and bumping against rocks for probably only a second or two before I realized, “why don’t you get up there where there is air and you don’t have to bang against all these rocks.”

Sammy, for his part, did ask me if I was alright before he started chuckling.  I didn’t chuckle, I had to belly laugh.  I had experienced terror, I thought I was going to die, and survived.  And I KNEW we were almost at the end now!  A few strokes later we saw the bridge and 30 minutes later we were loaded up and heading home.  We had been paddling for 6-1/2 hours and had covered 18 miles of river with many exciting twists and turns, but we had overcome our own inexperience and short-sightedness to make it to the end.  We had conquered the river.

Sam mentioned that he would like to have another friend that he could come up and kayak the river with him.  I mentioned Michael, his soon-to-be brother in-law.  He liked that idea and said, “Yeah, Michael would be good.  He can carry his own weight.”  As I tried to think of another friend he could ask Sam quietly said.  “You know Dad, you carry your own weight too.”

At that moment I don’t think there was a nicer thing Sammy could have said than that.

It was a good day.  A good day indeed!

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