Friday, April 19, 2019

Paddling Whitewater: Off the Couch

Off the couch is an expression that comes up a lot in whitewater kayaking. It often refers to the first runs of the season after a layoff of several months; when you're skills are rusty, you're not in paddling shape, and even your gear is a little bit questionable (if you can even find it in the back of the garage). Sometimes you come off the couch because of an injury, or because you've been too busy to boat for a bit. Sometimes your period of inactivity is as much as a year, maybe even two. For me it's been three years since I sat in a whitewater boat, and four years since I paddled anything of consequence. That's not just off-the-couch, it's off-the-coma-bed.

But when my best friend invited me on a weekend of paddling a classic Class IV stretch of whitewater in far northern California it was too tempting to pass up. The Smith River has long been on my list of must-do drainages, and the NF Smith seemed within reason - maybe. Jumping back into whitewater at Class IV seemed reasonable - I used to paddle much harder stuff - but it also seemed like it might be a mistake to paddle a thirteen mile wilderness stretch, a river we didn't know, a long way from home, with only the two of us. When a storm came in the weekend before and the river spiked to 30,000 cfs, I definitely had second thoughts.

But things came together like all great river trips do. I went to the pool a couple weeks ahead of time to make sure my boat still floats and my roll still works. Yes to both, and I ended up spending most of my time teaching a newbie how to roll - so that muscle still works too. I replaced the gaskets on my drysuit, and as ugly as the result looked it was completely effective at keeping me dry. I even dug up my pogies and a thermos for hot chocolate.

At the last minute we acquired some local boaters for the first day of paddling. Probably because the flows came down to an ideal level: plenty of water to cover the rocks without being pushy. They even arranged a shuttle rig from some local rafting company which saved us time and money. And as if to confirm a divine blessing on the trip the day turned out to be sunny and warm. All good, right?

Then why did I feel so nervous? Putting on I had a few butterflies in my stomach. The first several rapids were class III or easier, but each horizon line had me wondering if I was really prepared and all-to-ready to let someone else lead the way. When we got to the first big rapid which required a scout the group ahead of us was busy recovering from a piton that lead to a swim. I got out of my boat to take a look and the butterflies had grown into condors flying circles in my gut. The rapid looked fine - solid class IV, but with an easy sneak route and several other options well within my abilities, even if my boat control was a pale imitation of my past grace and skill.

I looked at the rapid for a long time. Too long. Even watching the others go down the middle and cruise through without problem didn't quell my anxiety. I chose to run the sneak and it was as easy as it looked. I hadn't really paddled anything hard, certainly hadn't executed any diffucult move, but somehow having avoided the disaster my mind had created totally changed my outlook. I breathed deeper and started to trust that I really was a whitewater kayaker and not some impostor who didn't belong.

With eight miles left to go, I slowly loosened up. My strokes became more fluid. My boat more responsive. When I dropped into one of the harder rapids without any beta or anyone to follow I simply dodged a few holes and powered through the last drop without the slightest hesitation. I wasn't exactly the graceful paddler I used to be in my memory, and I wouldn't say I was strong and carefree. But I could handle it. I knew I'd be fine. And I was. I enjoyed the beautiful scenery: waterfalls coming in every hundred yards, carnivorous plants lining the shores, and even some caves to paddle into in a pristine wilderness. That's what paddling is supposed to be about.

The day ended with the locals heading home and me and my mate camping out under clouding skies and a decision on what to paddle the next day. We checked out a stretch of the Middle Fork that was lower and easier. Nah. Too easy. Too roadside. We checked out a stretch of the South Fork Smith that was higher and harder. No go. I felt more confident but not stupid. Two rusty paddlers didn't make for a good exploratory team. We decided to run the North Fork again. Maybe be able to enjoy it right from the start this time with the confidence of knowing everything goes. We could handle it.

But we didn't have to handle it on our own. We hooked up with another crew from Oregon, who knew the river well and gave us strength in numbers. Maybe we didn't need the support, but another part of paddling the river is meeting other members of the tribe and sharing some camaraderie and maybe even a takeout beer. I let them lead the way most of the time. I still ran the sneak on the hard rapid. I had come of the couch not to restart my career but to enjoy a weekend, and as the weekend wound down with each short rapid in the final miles I knew I didn't need to improve or test myself any further. I paddled some Class IV whitewater, but I was a pale shadow of my former self when it came to skills and abilities. But I was as happy as ever. I enjoyed myself immensely even knowing it  be another year or several before I ever get back out on such a river. That was the real goal and the mission was accomplished.