Eric, our trip leader, asked, “How far do you want to go? We can take out at French Bar or Del Loma.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
“For a start, Del Loma is further downstream.”
“Ha, ha. — How far?”
“Not too far, but there is a Class III just below French Creek.”
The rapid I was really worried about was Cable Car Rapid, roaring a scant 200 yards downstream of our put in.
This year the water was low and the chicken route was obstructed by barely submerged rocks. We were going to have to take the more complicated and daring way, a way I wasn’t at all sure of for many reasons, the most obvious being that I knew I could pick my way down the chicken route, having done that many times, but I have ignored the harder route because I never needed to know it. I answered Eric’s question with a tilt of my head in the rapid’s direction.
“Cable Car’s enough, I think. Let’s take out at French Bar. Do we have time to inflate our flotation before the shuttle?” Once the shuttle was done things tended to happen quickly.
“No there’s no rush, you guys get your boat ready and then we’ll go.”
I started pulling things out of the back of the car; my mesh bag, my husband Charlie’s mesh bag, the bright purple bag with our flotation and thigh straps, our water bottles and bailers. They all got dumped near the front of the car. By the time I was done Charlie had lifted the hood and hooked up the air pump to the battery. Eric and Pam and Olson were standing on the shore looking at the river. They live in the neighborhood; they don’t have to break down their outfitting every time they go boating. Feeling behind already, I rushed to tie our air bags into the web of lines in the bow and stern of our boat, and bent awkwardly over them with the pump. When the bags were full of air I tested the lines, they made a nice deep thump as I plucked them. I remembered Bill, my boating papa saying to me, “Tie everything in as if the boat was going through a washing machine.”
The guys took off to run the shuttle, which was going to take about half an hour. Then I had time to get really nervous. Any time a married couple gets into a tandem canoe, people start teasing them, calling their boat, “The Divorce Boat.” Couples who live together really KNOW how to let ‘er rip when it comes to recriminations. Imagine a car with two sets of brakes and gas pedals and two steering wheels and both drivers have to work together to merge onto the busy freeway or zigzag into a parking space. It doesn’t take long for most couples to decide to get solo craft.
But, on a good day, I love the tango of tandem canoeing and the option of going solo has never been attractive to me even though my dread of blowing it with my husband has left me seriously considering duck taping my mouth shut. The only reason I don’t is because I am afraid of suffocating. At the beginning of every trip there is a grinding worry in my chest that my husband will stop forgiving me for my rages. That he will snap back and one of us will say something unforgivable. Some days we are better people than others. Adding to my angst was the not-so-distant roaring of the rapid downstream. I was getting queasy. I tried to stop thinking but still had vivid flashbacks of times when I wanted to smack him in the head with my paddle. There are more than the usual safety reasons we wear helmets in a tandem.
I started polishing off the details of outfitting our boat. I put my life jacket and helmet on the seat with my paddle so I would remember to put them on. I tied our spare paddle under the thwarts. I checked the knee pads. I tied my dry bag to a D-ring glued to the bottom of the boat and added a little rope leash with carabiners to the D-ring to hold my water bottle and bailer handy and out of the way. My drybag carried a spare set of warm clothes, a first aid kit and a large roll of duck tape for boat repairs. I started to tie in Charlie’s gear then stopped. Ongoing issue: he doesn’t like me messing with his stuff. Then I saw that both of the other paddlers were bored, staring across the river, waiting for the cars, while I was still frantically putting things in, snapping carabiners, tying gear down, untying it to put it in a better spot. I was starting to drip sweat from the tip of my nose. I forgot my spare set of keys and had to trot back to the campsite to find them and when I got back the car was back with the drivers. A family of teenage boys was hauling a bubblegum-pink raft down the boat ramp and our boats were in the way. We started rushing to get onto the water. As we drifted into the current I was unstrapping my dry bag, unrolling the opening, wrapping my keys in my sweater, rolling the bag back up and tying it back into the bottom of the boat. I was done even if I wasn’t done. I had to stop fiddling sometime. I took a deep breath.
Our boat, a Caper, is shaped like a light blue 15 foot long banana with the inner curve peeled away and scooped out from bow to stern. Like a banana it is also curved from side to side. This makes it an excellent whitewater play boat, quick and maneuverable, it will turn on a dime. It will do exactly what you tell it to do unless it is already doing exactly what the river has told it to do. Being in the right place is essential with this boat. All this curviness also makes it less stable than a traditional flat-bottomed lake boat. Another thing about the Caper is that the seats are very close to each other in the middle of the boat. I sit about 4 feet from the bow of the boat. Behind me there is room for a waterproof lunch box between us and then Charlie’s knees on kneepads with a low-slung thigh strap. After 18 years of teaching canoeing and taking beginners down the river, I have gotten habituated to paddling stern but in the Caper, Charlie is so close that I can’t see over him, so I sit in front where I feel I don’t belong.
Within seconds of getting into the boat, my heart was thumping. We paddled out into the pool by the boat ramp and tried a forward ferry across the river. I could feel that Charlie was having trouble balancing himself in the boat. I am tuned to feeling the boat tremble and lean as he shifts and tries to keep his balance. He usually settles down after a half hour or so, but the Big Bad Rapid was coming at the start and he wasn’t going to have time to wiggle around, relax and get comfortable before we were challenged.
After a few clumsy maneuvers, we pushed into the current, following Eric and Pam in their tandem and Olson in his solo.
As we approached the rapid, Eric signaled that we should catch up with him. He pointed to the left, “We’ll pull over in that eddy on the left while you scout on the right. You go up there,” he pointed to a rocky slope on the right hand shoreline. “When you get into position, we’ll go down so you can see what route we take.” He paddled off to the left and Olson and Charlie and I went right and pulled into a small eddy, tied up the boats and started climbing through the rocks and dry stickers to get to a spot clear of willows and brush so we could see the water.
I followed Charlie on the shore, while Eric and Pam waited for us on the opposite shore. When we looked like we were settled and ready to watch they started down, back-paddling and side-slipping to get into proper position.
Cable Car rapid drops down 3 ledges like a staircase that has been broken up in random places. The first step or ledge is made of large rocks, the parts above water being about the size of a couple of easy chairs and a loveseat. There is a gap on the left that collects most of the water which dumps over a 12 to 18 inch drop. Near the rock is a nice green chute leading past a small hole foaming with air. The farther the water falls and with more force, the bigger the hole. Because of the airiness, you don’t float, even when you have on a life jacket. You can also lose control of your boat in a hole because the current is whipping around in a gazillion directions and can wrench the boat off course, fill it with water and flip it over. It was a bit disconcerting to have a hole at the top of this rapid but this first little chute was the route of choice because it was the only place with enough water, the rest of the approach and the ledge being a tangle of obstructions.
Eric and Pam floated between some rocks at the top before we were really focused on them but we watched them slide into a place where the water temporarily smoothed out below the first ledge. They took the slow water to a chute on the right, neatly skirting a big boulder a bit left of the center. We kept staring at the noisy, rock-filled drop and its attendant holes. The last ledge has the biggest drop and most of the water on the right side funnels through two narrow slots between car-sized boulders and their holes. They slipped to the left again and passed between an exposed boulder and a submerged one, right of center. They made it look simple. They ferried over to a small beach on river left to watch us. Olson turned and headed back to his boat and started down before we got into ours so we missed his run.
Neither of us had paddled Class III for months. We stared at the noisy holes and pointed at the green tongues we should aim for and we discussed and pointed and debated and made ourselves very nervous. It all felt hypothetical since we knew that once we were at the top of the rapid we would be seeing a totally different river. Imagine trying to read a book looking at the pages from the edge instead of laid flat out in front of you. When you get involved with a drop, you are on your own and there is no time to stop and say, “Were we going to take this chute or the one next to it?” It all looks like a brand new world.
I tend to paddle towards whatever I am looking at. On a good day that means I am looking at the safe chute that is clear of rocks, on a bad day that means I am staring and thereby heading straight towards, the big noisy foaming pile of water and rocks that I should be avoiding. So, maybe that is why, by the time Charlie and I had climbed into the Caper and approached the top of the rapid, we were in the wrong place. We were drifting slowly into a slot that had no exit. I heard my voice yelling at Charlie, “No, we can’t go this way! Back paddle!” Unfortunately we were committed; the current was too strong to fight. The bow suddenly swept right and the stern left and the boat hung sideways for an agonizing moment and then slid into a rock broadside. My inner voice was yelling at the already doomed boat, “OH NO don’t’ wrap canoe, please don’t wrap around the rock, we’ll never get you off!” My imagination flashed the image of the distant shore and tried to imagine a throw rope reaching the boat, wrapped on the rock in mid-stream, nope that wasn’t going to happen. This flash doesn’t take any time and I am back in the boat while I am flung to the side as we slide backwards off the rock into the hole behind it. We’re still upright! Maybe we can do the rapid backwards! I twist to my right to see where we are heading, but hope turns to dismay as the edge of the boat catches on the rock and water begins pouring over the side. I lean as hard as I can to the downstream side but the river outweighs me and I can’t even reach the water with my paddle to brace the boat. Then my face is heading for the foaming water and I better take a breath ‘cause I am going under.
All is water, movement and wet and cold and feeling myself pulling out of the thigh straps. My hand meets something hard and I instinctively shove at it, hoping to thrust myself away from it. It gives disconcertingly, then I feel that it is Charlie’s helmeted head. I float free of the boat and my head comes up almost immediately. Oh I hope I don’t ram into any rocks! I hope I don’t get squished between the boat and a rock. I look around to see a large eddy on river left. I wonder abstractly why it feels like I have cramps in both calves but I am still able to kick and so I forget about them. For the moment the water is deep and free of rocks. I hear Charlie asking, “Are you all right?” and I gasp out, “Yes! You?” We are on opposite sides of the boat, we always end up on opposite sides of the boat, I don’t know why.
He answers, “I’m OK, I lost my paddle. I’ve got the boat.”
I see the boat’s bow rope floating nearby and I grab it. “I have the boat and my paddle.” This feels like a significant accomplishment. Charlie just repeats, “Yes. I lost my paddle.” And then, “Go for the eddy! River left!” This turns out to be a futile effort as the current is sucking us down into the two bigger drops downstream and we are not able to fight the current. We speed up. It feels like we are in a flushing toilet as the river constricts between the rocks.
I hear someone downstream yelling, “Get your feet downstream!” The eddy is a lost cause. We have to get ready to swim the next drop. I have completely lost track of Charlie again and the boat is bumping up against a big rock, heading through a chute on the opposite side of the rock from me. As I accelerate I hang onto the rope, hoping I might drag the boat off the rock if it starts to wrap itself around the rock. The current is too strong and the rope slips out of my hands. It doesn’t even slow me down. I hear that voice yelling at me to keep my feet downstream. My body is in the right position but I have been spun so I am heading sideways over the ledge, I struggle around and just as I get my butt up and feet heading down I am sucked through and dropped into a hole. I am barely underwater long enough to experience a moment of dread that my feet might get caught between some rocks but I pop up, then enter another short period of calm water. Again, I have lost track of the boat and Charlie, and I am fearful that I will be battered by it and see that it is heading away from me, off to the right. Something good is happening but when I look to see where I am going, it does not look so good. I have been swept along on the far left and am heading for the worst hole of the rapid. The water is disappearing over a ledge. I can hear it roaring and see the foaming water flushing out the bottom and ramming into a truck sized boulder. In a fraction of a second I am going over the drop into the hole and I say to myself in an oddly distant way, “This is a good time to take a deep breath.” I suck air as deeply as I can just before my face is buried in the roaring, foaming water and I am upside down doing a back flip in the foam. Then I am up, blowing water out of my nose. There is a part of me that wants to curl up like a pillbug so none of my limbs can get caught in a rocky trap; I force myself to face what is coming and paddle with my hands to line up for the next thing, still trying to keep my feet and butt up. I have no idea what is going on. Charlie is 20 feet away, still in fast current but I can see Eric and Pam ferrying across the river to help him, he is still holding onto the Caper, yelling. “I lost my paddle.” He is angry with himself, wanting Eric and Pam to find his paddle more than help him get the boat out of the current.
I hear, “Rope!” and see Olson’s bright red and yellow throw-rope rattle out in front of me and I grab onto it and hold on as it swings me away from the big rock and into the shore. I know I should stay on my back with the rope over my shoulder but passively letting Olson reel me in is not an option; I absolutely have to see where I am going. He is braced against my weight and the pull of the river and I swing like a pendulum towards the shore until I can see the bottom as it comes up, full of sharp, dark-green rocks. I protect my knees while trying to get a hand on something stationary and still hold onto my paddle and the rescue rope. I roll into the shallow water and finally get a grip on something that stops my motion. Its an awkward business but I am finally landed, a superfish flopping on the bank. I am numb, so full of adrenaline that I can’t even feel my face or the cold water. I can barely hear anything but at the same time I can hear minute scraping sounds as Olson, standing quietly by, is stuffing his throw rope back into the rescue bag. He’s saying something, “You OK?”
I am breathless and start coughing up some water. I pat the top of my helmet although the coughing is threatening to turn into dry heaves. I really do not want to go there; I remember other swims that were made hugely more dramatic by sucking in a bit of water. The swim and rescue were easy but the coughing left me exhausted and weeping helplessly on the shore. This time the coughing is just a reminder and is over quickly.
Eric and Pam had retrieved Charlie’s paddle and pushed our upside-down boat into the eddy. Charlie is hidden on the other side of the boat, I hear him call out, “Are you OK?”
“Yes! You?” I yell and pat my head again even though he can’t see me. His paddle flies out from his side of the boat and lands with a clatter on the rocks.
“Yeah, I’m OK.” His voice is disgusted.
Then we get to work sorting things out. I am on the wrong side of the river from my boat, so Eric and Pam leave Charlie to deal with the over-turned boat and ferry over to pick me up. I am wary of sitting with my feet tangled in the rope that binds in their flotation so I sit on a thwart in the bow of their boat as they take me across the river. I don’t like being up so high, it makes the boat incredibly unstable and I have a quick fantasy of asking them to tow me across, but the current is strong and my body would drag them too far downstream to get back to the eddy. I examine Eric’s knees on the floor of the boat so that I can keep my balance. By the time we get to Charlie, he has flipped the canoe upright and is looking for damage; it had bumped hard three times on the way down but there was no damage. The flotation bags had done their job. I check for my dry bag and water bottle, they are still tied to the bottom of the boat. “Did we lose anything?” I ask.
Charlie replied, “Yes, my water bottle and bailer, did you tie them in?”
”I think so, I tied them to that bag.” I point to my TP bag which is still tied to the gunwale. “Oh, well. Maybe I didn’t tie it in. I have enough water for us both. I thought I tied it in??? Didn’t I tie it in?” The bag remains a silent witness to whether or not I tied anything to it. I am rattled and starting to crash off the adrenalin. Is he going to be mad at me?
“Its OK. I don’t drink a lot on the river.” Then Charlie says, “What happened? I know you are going to say something.”
The way he says it is the red flag for the start of the usual recriminations and arguments after an accident. I don’t know why but for me the near-misses, where we narrowly escape trouble by skill or by accident, fill me with rage, but the complete loss of control in a flip just makes me grateful I am unhurt and not inclined to give into my lower self. “I don’t know. We went the wrong way and we couldn’t get us out of it. I’m sorry I pushed your head while you were under water.”
He laughed, “When did that happen? I didn’t even notice.”
After more mumbling and discussion we agree that we just got lost and it was no one’s fault. I said, “Well, at least we got that out of the way.”
As we settled into the boat, adjusting our thigh straps and getting our balance Eric and Pam floated up. I said with a big smile, “That was refreshing.” There was still a bit of quaver in my throat but Eric, Pam and Olson all laughed. It was such a hot day we didn’t even bother changing into our dry clothes.