Ride a Kayak, Tame a River

Awkwardness yields to control, and control to freedom in a boat with no keel

THE first time I headed downriver strapped into a kayak, I felt like a toothpick being tossed around the waves of the Pacific Ocean. There is nothing to compare to the sensation of being on a river in a kayak. The boat has no rudder, leaving it free to spin and wander at every whim of the current. Direction rests with you ... and the river.

But with practice, this sense of helplessness gives place to one of control, and control to freedom. There seems no limit to the challenge nor the potential for adventure in a kayak.

I first tried kayaking in the fall of last year. Most seasoned paddlers probably wouldn't think much of Vermont's West River, but to me it may as well have been the Amazon. As I navigated my little rented boat down this river lined with trees blazing with October colors, I began to appreciate the interaction of the current, the boat, and me. It was exhilarating.

But then there they were: the Dumplings, a series of boulders forming the one significant rapid on the upper part of the West River. For the accomplished kayaker, the Dumplings (complete with an audience lining the bank) were a place to play and show off. For me - terror. The boulders were mountains, and the current spun in every direction at once.

My fellow paddler explained the exact course to take and assured me that I ``could make it through just fine.'' Wrong. No sooner had I entered the rapid than I found myself upside down. The standard way to right your boat is called an ``Eskimo roll'' (see photos). I had yet to fully master this aspect of the sport, but it was either try or pop my sprayskirt, roll out of the boat, and swim.

Amid the flurry of white water, I thought to myself ``OK, set up ... '' that is, lean over the bow of the boat, and thrust the paddle above the surface of the water on the left-hand side, `` ... now go!'' I swept the paddle out from the boat: My head shot out of the water barely long enough to get a quick breath, and then it was back among the trout. A second attempt yielded the same result. At this point, frustration had surpassed my desire for air. I gained what little composure I could (difficult to do as one's nose fills with water), set up, and without knowing quite how or why, I was upright - backwards, but upright.

I felt as though I had conquered the world! My friend, his boat by my side ready to help, seemed more proud and excited than I (if that was possible), and the crowd on the bank was half laughing, half clapping for the novice.

From this single day's trip, just a few hours from my home in Boston, I was hooked. As soon as my head left the water that third time I knew I would be doing this for the rest of my life. But little did I know that I had merely gotten a glimpse into the world of this sport.

I soon discovered a whole kayaking civilization, a world of adventure enthusiasts who live for the river. No matter where you are, East or West, you can mention a particular run and paddlers will not only know it, but refer to the same spots on the river. Holes, waves, and even rocks acquire names that become part of kayaking lore.

There is an intimate kayaking community that spans the globe. Unrelated paddlers in North Carolina and Colorado, for example, will talk with equal admiration of the Sneiders, exceptionally innovative brothers kayaking in Virginia.

Brown's Canyon is a section of the Arkansas River in Colorado. Pulling off the river for some lunch I spoke with Tom Karnuta and Lisa Chaple of the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center (RMOC) in Howard, Colo. We had just run the Zoom Flume rapid, the biggie of Brown's. Pulling my boat from the 45-degree (F.) water and spreading out in the 85-degree sunshine, in awe of the majestic rock formations encasing the river on each side, I completely forgot what it felt like to sit behind a desk.

Tom and Lisa explain that, for them, the thrill of kayaking comes from the freedom it gives them to explore untouched corners of the world. Lisa offers her recent trip to Costa Rica as an example: She and her friends had kayaked into a tropical rain forest completely inaccessible except by river. At times they even encountered areas that the raft carrying their supplies could not traverse, but the kayaks forged on. She says it was an area ``I know only a few others have ever been able to see.'' And the threat of a dam may close it off to others in the future.

For her, this is freedom.

From the places it allows you to go, to the people it allows you to know, to the sense of achievement it allows you to feel, kayaking carries one into journeys pulled from the pages of adventure novels. Whether you are puttering around a lake, or battling the Arkansas River's Pine Creek (class V, on a scale of I to VI), kayaking ``is something you will never outgrow,'' says Tom. ``The challenge is absolutely endless.'' Tomorrow: The kayaking community.

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