Friday, August 3, 2012

White water kayaking

White Water Kayaking

            “White water kayaking is not dangerous,” said my good friend Ken Platner.  “How many people do you ever hear that get killed on white water?  And most people that get hurt, get hurt rafting and not kayaking.  You’re a helicopter pilot for God’s sake!  Piloting is much more dangerous than kayaking.”
            “What about that scar over your eye?  Didn’t you tell me that you flipped upside down and hit your head on a rock when you were kayaking on the Pigeon River?”
            “Ah, that was nothing, just a little bump.  I had a helmet on, so I wasn’t going to get badly hurt. And haven’t you ever heard that chicks dig scars.”
            “Yeah, I heard that when I was 18 years old.  I can’t imagine going down a river upside down and banging my head on rocks, with or without a helmet.”
            “That’s why you learn to roll.  We practice every Tuesday night at the Freedom Hall pool, so when you flip in the river, you roll back up.  Come on Tuesday and I’ll bring my extra kayak and teach you.”
            “Then why didn’t you roll in the Pigeon.”
            “Well every once in a while you don’t quite make it, so that’s why we practice.  Come on, at least try it for one Tuesday night.”
            Reluctantly I agreed.
            Ken was right, after one night at the pool, with his instruction, I was able to roll a kayak upright from an upside down position.  I couldn’t do it every time, but I could do it most of the time. And I rolled the last 7 times in a row.  I was feeling so confident that I agreed to kayak the lower portion of the Nolichuckie gorge with Ken and his friends on the following Thursday. 
            We drove three vehicles from Johnson City to Irwin and then snaked our way through the back roads until we came to our finish point on the river and left one of the cars.  The people from the cars piled into the back of Ken’s truck and we drove another 10 miles to our starting place.  The water bubbled over the rocks as we prepared to launch our kayaks into the Nolachuckie River.  Ken had brought me a complete kayaking outfit including lifejacket, rubber skirt, helmet and nose plugs.  I climbed into my kayak and sealed the rubber skirt over the lip that surrounded the opening and wiggled my way into the river, following the other experienced kayakers down the river.  Ken was in the lead.  At first, the current seemed pretty benign, but I could see that it was quickly gathering steam.  Dan Jorgenson, a man of about 60 years of age, took responsibility for me and allowed me to pass him, yelling instructions as I headed for the first series of rapids.
            “Keep the nose of the kayak straight and paddle as hard as you can.  If you turn sideways, lean down the river.  If you lean up river, you’ll flip….now, paddle, paddle, paddle!”
            I paddled as hard as I could. The kayak was hard to keep straight but somehow I managed to make my way through the rapids without tipping over.  My heart was racing with both excitement and terror.  The water slowed again and I was able to relax and catch my breath..
            “You did great,” Dan said.
            “That wasn’t too bad,” I answered.  “If they’re all like that, I’ll be okay.”
            “That was a small one,” he said.  “They only get bigger from here.”
            “Great,” I thought.
            But to my amazement, with Dan’s constant instruction, I stayed upright through the next 3 series of rapids.
            “Okay,” yelled Dan. “The next rapid is called radio tower.  It’s a pretty big hole, so you really have to concentrate on keeping the kayak straight.  There are rocks all around it, and if you hit one of those rocks, it will turn you sideways and you know what to do if you get turned sideways?”
            “Lean down river,” I answered.
            He smiled like a proud teacher.
            I looked ahead and watched each of the other kayakers row directly into the drop-off and disappear into the white foamy wake and then magically reappear about 50 yards down river.  I paddled as hard as I could, but right before the rapid my kayak hit a small rock and turned sideways and instinctively I leaned upstream and instantantly I was upside down.  For a few seconds I was in shock, not knowing what to do as I continued down the river upside down.  My head was like the keel of a sailboat that was run aground bouncing from rock to rock.  I had forgotten everything Ken had taught me about rolling in the pool and had only one thought on my mind, GET OUT OF THE KAYAK OR DIE!  I reached for the tab that attached the skirt to the kayak, pulled it and exited, surfacing about 50 yards from the rapid.
            The others scrambled to collect all my loose equipment.
            “You okay,” laughed Don.  “You’re supposed to go down the river with your head above water.”
            “Yeah, I think I’m fine,” I replied.  “Am I bleeding?”
            “I don’t see anything, you must have caught all those rocks with your helmet.”
            “I’m done.  Is there a place I can pull out and carry my kayak to the car?”
.           “Come on, only one more and we’re through.  Now listen to me carefully, if you do this right, it will be real easy.  You need to paddle hard to the right hand portion of the river because the rapid is much smaller on that side.  If you go left, there’s a small waterfall that is for experts only.  Do you hear me….for experts only.  There’s a rock that separates the two paths, so remember stay to the right of the rock.”
            “To the right, to the right,” I told myself as I scooted down the river.  I paddled as hard as I could to the right.  The current was picking up speed and I could see the big rock that separated life from death.   I paddled and paddled and even though I was pointed in the right direction, I just couldn’t overcome the current and make it to the other side of the rock.  BOOM!  I hit the rock with the front, left hand side of the kayak and turned sideways against the rock.  I leaned toward the rock so I wouldn’t flip over and waited for my destiny….it wasn’t good!  The kayak slid across the rock and the current spun me around so that I proceeded down the river backwards!  And what was worse, I was on the wrong side of the rock heading backwards over the waterfall.
            “Turn around, turn around,” came a chorus of screams, thinking that I actually had control of the kayak.
            Within a matter of seconds, I flew backwards over the small waterfall, and everything went into slow motion.  The kayak plunged into the surf like a lawn dart into soft dirt and I took a deep breath waiting for it to flip.  I disappeared under water and then resurfaced upright.  By some strange miracle, I didn’t flip.   I rode the current until it slowed down and then turned the kayak around.
            “Show off,” laughed Ken.  “Here, we didn’t even think you should go over that rapid and you do it backwards just to show us all up, and you were saying that kayaking was dangerous.  You’ve got this sport licked and it’s only your first time.”
            “It wasn’t intentional,” I squeaked.
            All the way home the kayakers laughed at my first day on the river.
            “Do you believe me now that white water kayaking isn’t dangerous?” asked Ken.
            I didn’t answer and just stared ahead.
            That was the last time I ever went white water kayaking.