Friday, May 12, 2006

kayaking, part three

The day after the pool and lake practice, we went to a local stream to practice our mad skillz on moving water. It was the perfect place to try it out. The current was moving, but wasn't overwhelming; there were fast places without any honest-to-God rapids; there were some great eddies; and we had one short portage.

We practiced eddy turns (paddling at 45 or so degrees to an eddy line, then turning and bracing into the current while leaning to pull your kayak around quickly into an eddy), peel-outs (pretty much the opposite of an eddy paddle out into the current at a sharp angle, then plant your paddle and lean downstream as soon as you feel the current catch you), and ferries (angling the boat upstream at just slightly off of 90 degrees and catching the current in such a way that you glide straight across the river and move slightly upstream instead of barreling on down the river).

We got to practice the eddy turns and peel-outs a LOT, which was good since they're used a lot when paddling whitewater. I loved peel-outs, and got pretty good at eddy turns, though my ferries always seemed to require a little more work than they should've.

All in all, it was an uneventful but enjoyable trip. I'd never paddled the stream we were on, even though I've volunteered for cleanups and logjam breakups before, so it was great to see it on a good day, with the water up and the trees beautiful and the birds singing.

The following weekend, most of the class went out to the St. Francis River in Missouri. I was feeling pretty nervous, but I was determined to face it and see what happened. MB and I drove over on Friday night, because everyone had said they'd be getting there early and camping out. We drove through rain and fog and along the windiest road EVER, only to find out that only the two main instructors were there. We got the tent up and roasted some hot dogs (I find it amusing that I won't eat hot dogs at home, but love them when camping.) and went to bed. We slept pretty good, and didn't get too wet even though it rained all night. The rest of the class arrived sometime in the night or early the next morning. We got decked out in colder-weather gear because it was still rainy and breezy the next day, and then headed for the river.

There were enough instructors and volunteers from the whitewater club to pair up each student with one experienced paddler. My boat buddy rocked. He was funny and patient and watched after me really well.

The first half of the river wasn't too bad. There was definite current, and some riffle-type stuff, but no real rapids. It was intimidating at first, and I learned right away that you really do have to paddle a lot in a whitewater river (even a class I river), or you just get pinballed off of every rock in sight. The instructors told us over and over that if we weren't sure which side to paddle on, it was best just to paddle. Better to paddle on the wrong side than to not do anything. By the time we got to the end of the first half, I was feeling a lot more confident. I asked my boat buddy if he thought I could handle the second half of the river, and he said I could, so I decided to trust his judgement over my own insecurities.

We got out at the halfway point to take a pit stop and stretch. That's where we saw this incredibly cool tree:

Then it was back into the boats for the second half of our trip. I didn't know it until later, but the second half of the trip is apparently Missouri's "premier whitewater run." Please note, also, that all the photos in this entry were either taken the next day, or found on the American Whitewater site about the run. The river was a LOT lower the day we ran it. That presented its own set of challenges, but I don't want anyone to think we were out there ripping class III/IVs when we were really doing IIs and maybe a few IIIs.

The first part of the run was what I would've called rapids at the time. Then we came up on the first big rapid, the confidence-inspiringly-named "Big Drop." There was a plan for how we were all going to get down Big Drop. We were to go down the smaller rapid, pull into an eddy under some willows, and then wait until we got the go-ahead from the instructor who'd already gone through.

Here's the rapid above Big Drop:

One of the main instructors went down first with his student, a guy named E. who had consistently been nailing everything through the whole class. A few moments later, my boating buddy headed down and I followed. Imagine my surprise and concern when I come around the bend above the first big rapid to see E's boat wedged sideways against a giant rock in the middle of the rapid and E. standing on the side of the river. I had to wait in the eddy for about 10 or 15 minutes. First, I waited while the instructors and my friend A.--who is an experienced whitewater canoeist--worked to free E's kayak. Then, I had to wait while the other students came down, because they'd apparently decided it was time to run.

The whole key to making it through the rapid was to go to the left of the big rock and then paddle hard all the way down. I got to wait and tell everyone, "Go to the left, and then PADDLE!" The instructors were sitting at the bottom and yelling, "Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!" There were two random guys who were kayaking with us and I think one of them made it down without flipping, but the other didn't. I think my friend R. made it and didn't flip, or if he did flip he rolled back up. The only other girl in the class got stuck on the big rock on the wrong side, got free, then dumped at the bottom. I think the one guy who was good at everything made it.

Then it was just me, A., and a guy named B., who had flipped in the rapid above Big Drop and was still getting back into his kayak. I told A. she could go first. I said, "You've done this before, right?" A. said, "Yeah, but it was a year ago and I was scared shitless." And then she was gone. Thanks! Way to make a girl feel confident! So I sat there, with a literal lump of fear in my stomach, waiting for the go-ahead signal, but not sure I wanted to see it. Then it was my turn. I figured, what the hell...I'm either going to make it or I'm not! I powered out of the eddy, squeaked by the rock on the left side, and then paddled like hell. And I made it! I didn't even come close to flipping! Holy cow.

Running the rapids wasn't a big adrenaline rush or a roller coaster stomach churning ride, but through the whole day, there was a definite cycle of challenge and accomplishment. It was GREAT.

There was a consistent pattern of smaller rapids and eddy-catching, and occasionally a bigger rapid. In one large eddy where the whole class was congregating, I noticed a snake swimming up against the rock at the bank, trying to crawl out but getting sloshed around. Apparently the kid who was good at EVERYTHING is afraid of snakes. He's behind me going, "Get away from the snake! Stay away from the snake!" My friend R. came into the eddy and said, "Oh, hey! A banded water snake!"

Then someone bumped the rock right next to the snake, and the snake said:

And we said, "Hello, Mr. Copperhead!" and got the hell out of the eddy.

The next major rapid was called Double Drop. The key to Double Drop was to go between the large rock in the middle (hidden) and the gigantor rock on the right side of the rapid:

I got to the right, but then as I passed the gigantor rock, my kayak decided to tip me completely INTO the rock. I saw the rock coming at my face, I felt the kayak sliding out from under my center of balance, so I did the only thing I could think of...I let go of the paddle, reached out and pushed off of the rock, got myself upright again, and kept paddling. I figured I'd get teased for it, but it seems I did my very first "unintendo"...doing something cool totally by mistake. My boating buddy was impressed, and I was still right-side-up, so all was well.

I actually made it through the entire trip without flipping one time. No one else in the whole class managed that. I wasn't the best paddler and certainly not the most technically skilled, but I was the only one who didn't swim at all. Both instructors and my boat buddy complimented me, and I just wanted to run the river again. It was a really great trip. A lot less scary than I had expected!

Reading: Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo

Playing: Within a Mile of Home by Flogging Molly

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