Close Calls: Nick in the Drink
Normally this section is not a big deal for an experienced kayaker during normal summer flows of 2400 to 3400 cfs. But on this day, the extra water did
Some paddlers attack with the ferocity and focus of a beagle on a bunny. Boaters whose inner drive has them constantly hungering for progression.
Go for the trick and no leaving the river until they stick it. Scouting a drop from four different vantage points before deciding on the hairy line. And then hammering it. Pushing the limits of the body, spirit and soul.
Then there are paddlers who just want to get out on the river and feel the current under their boat. They seek to effortlessly glide down the river, from eddy to current to eddy. Content to be a part of something whole. Certainly trying new moves from time to time, but mostly staying within their skills.
Not to be a centrist, but I believe I fall somewhere in between. I have friends who rip it up. As soon as they get on the river, they start toward that realm near the edge of their abilities, blurring its border outward.
On days when I am on and paddling with better kayakers, I find myself there too. I will pick up three new techniques in one afternoon and feel amazed. I feed off the fun the other kayakers are having in the hole or out on the current, and I join them in exercising the reaches of my ability.
But on other days, when I am left to my own devices, I thoroughly enjoy exploring rivers and skills I have known for years. And I enjoy immensely the days of paddling with others whose ambition to improve at kayaking is regular-sized.
But, it was on a recent day while paddling with the former - a solid, ambitious paddler called McNulty - when the river beat, spared and educated me.
In the morning, Zeke, Lincoln and I scouted and ran the Dry Way from Ripogenus Dam to Mckay Station. After a 30-minute hike, scouting along the right side, we put on just below the first drops and had clean lines. There are a couple big holes to look out for, a couple medium-sized ones to punch and some rock-dodging in a couple rapids, but all-in-all, it's a straight-forward, fun one mile run.
After getting out of our boats at McKay Station and walking up the hill to check the Gorge, we got back in and ran the Gorge and Cribworks of the West Branch of the Penobscot at 5300 cfs.
Normally this section is not a big deal for an experienced kayaker during normal summer flows of 2400 to 3400 cfs. But on this day, the extra water did not make things any easier. Exterminator Hole was ugly, while in the Crib, there was no way around punching a twisting hydraulic at the bottom of Turkey Chute.
For me the Crib was most exciting: Turkey Chute Hole snatched my WaveSport ZG and thrust it under water. I surfaced 10 feet downstream and rolled up in time to get flipped, ass-over-tea kettle, by the huge hole created by the rock known as "Pain in the ass."
Lincoln, in the Big EZ, had run the Crib first and he had also been mystery-moved by the Turkey Chute hole, but he kept a solid brace throughout and did not flip. He ran across the top of Pain-in-the-ass, avoiding the meat of the hole, and headed left to the safe outlet around the boulder pile river left.
Zeke ran last, and, after a tough go of it in the Gorge where he missed four rolls in a row on the Staircase, he deserved the easy Crib run he had, smoothly punching both Turkey and Final Chute holes without a threat of flipping in his Perception Java.
An hour and a half later, I found myself sitting in my boat on the edge of Ragged Stream (it crosses the Golden Rd. on the way to the Seboomook). At this point I was thinking the two small drops below me were a simple lead-in to a 20-foot slide into a pool. I had not seen the others running their lines, because the foam in my boat had fallen out and I had run back to car to get it, while they were already running it. This contributed to my somewhat hurried scout. But the line to the drop looked easy enough.
I drifted out into the current, ran the first little drop, punching the small, angular pourover at the bottom, and then dropped the second pourover.
This one was the one that would change my day. I was a sitting duck in my ZG playboat, and tired from the day's paddling. But excuses be damned. All of a sudden, I was stuck in a pourover and could not get out. I got flipped over three times and flailed while trying to roll against the recirculating water for what seemed like 10 seconds. It was at this time that I attempted to elongate my body and stretch back for the green water behind my stern, with hopes of spinning myself free. Then my right knee came from behind my thigh brace and I saw my old buddy Panic.
"Damn you," I said.
I pulled my skirt and I was swimming. Swimming, despite the fact I knew there was a shit ton of rocks, a 20-foot slide on one side and a very ugly corner in the Ragged Gorge where the water was dark yellow and didn't seem to go anywhere on the other. Swimming.
I went downstream with my feet in front of me, in a sitting position. I swam over a bunch of rocks, including one that spun me all the way out of the water. After hitting that rock I was swept toward the ugly corner of yellow. I went deep. The guy with the video camera turned it off.
The color turned from yellow to dark yellow to dark dark. My feet finally hit granite at the bottom of the falls and I pushed off it, upwards, with all my might, and was flushed downstream. I was rescued, by my brother, while other friends chased my boat and paddle downstream.
I knew it had been a bad swim - I felt absolutely beat up - but when I saw the way the others were looking at me afterwards, I realized I had also been spared.
(I walked away from it with a handful of cuts on my legs, a four-inch square bruise on my right calf and, of course, an extremely sore ass.) In the car ride home, when I began thinking about what had happened, my learning started to begin.
Don't run creeks in play boat.
Be sure of your line.
If you have the chance to watch a more experienced (or even any other) paddler run the line first, do it.
Don't forget what your consequences are.
Don't swim, man. Don't swim.
Zeke made a good point though, as we were headed home after what really was the best day of paddling all spring.
"Dude I hope you don't let this be one of those swims that changes your drive to paddle."
If anything, it has made me prepare better for pushing my limits.
Nick Callanan is the founder, publisher, webmaster and editor of No Umbrella.
- By: Nick Callahan