My friend Erik's brother and sister were coming to Duluth for a visit, and Erik wanted to take them kayaking on the Brule River. He wondered if I would be interested in going along.
Hmmm. Kayaking. Let's take a quick inventory of my skills:
1) Do I know how to roll a kayak? No.
2) Have I ever been in a kayak? No.
3) Can I swim? No.
OK, sounds good, let's go!
Actually, foolish as I was in those years, I was not entirely irresponsible. My first reaction was actually, No, absolutely not, are you crazy?
But Erik laughed. He told me it was easy. The Brule is a shallow river to begin with--knee-deep at the edge, and about five or six feet in the middle, with occasional nine-foot pools. He told me that this summer it was particularly low and slow. He told me that HG, a rotund and unathletic woman we worked with, had gone kayaking the weekend before and had not had a bit of trouble.
If she can do it, you can, Erik said.
What could I do? I said OK.
On Saturday, Erik, Lisa and Roland picked me up and we headed to Wisconsin.
As we walked down to the river, it appeared to be neither low nor slow. The week had been rainy, and I thought the water looked alarmingly high and fast.
I know you're thinking, Hmmm, this sounds familiar--isn't she going to set her leg on fire any minute now? But you're thinking of a different folly of a trip on the Brule. (That one was in a canoe.)
The kayak rental people were helpful. They told me how to sit in the kayak, and they tied the spray skirt around my waist. If for some reason you flip over, you're supposed to somehow disengage the skirt and swim to the surface. But I had no idea how to get out of the skirt, and, as I said, I couldn't swim anyway. I decided I just wouldn't flip over. Much simpler that way.
They handed me a long paddle, with a blade on each end. And then, one by one, they shoved us into the river.
I glided off, and my first thought was of how wonderful it was to be so low in the water--in a kayak, you bob along almost at surface level. My next thought was, Wow, this water is fast. And my third thought was a very startled Hey! That's not supposed to happen!
Despite my frantic paddling, my kayak was slowly sweeping around until I was backwards. Facing up river, I bobbed downstream.
I stroked diligently on one side and managed to turn the now fast-moving boat so that I was facing in the same direction I was headed. But after not too long, it began to sweep around until once again I was facing the way I had come.
I could see Roland and Lisa, bobbing along behind me.
I could hear Erik laughing at me up ahead.
I muttered and cursed. I paddled valiantly. And then--WHOMP! I stopped suddenly. I had run up onto a rock. I pushed off with my paddle and headed downstream again. Backward.
The scenery was gorgeous--pine trees growing close to river's edge, hawks soaring through the overcast sky. But I hardly took it in. I was battling the swift current, and trying in vain to stay pointed in the right direction. Every now and then I'd run aground on another rock and have to shove off again, and each time I could hear Erik laugh.
Lisa paddled up by my side. It's harder than it looks, isn't it? she said, and before I could answer her, the current swept both of us up onto a rock so big and so high that we were almost completely out of the water.
It took us several minutes of jouncing in our kayaks and pushing with our paddles to worm our way back down the rock and into the water. And then the river narrowed, and curved. The current picked up.
I shot around the bend and saw Erik. He was off to the side, at the river bank, holding onto a tree branch to stay put. He called to me. You might want to come over here, he said. The water's pretty rough up ahead.
I paddled toward him as hard as I could, but my puny arms and utter lack of technique were no match for the current, which had suddenly begun to roar and foam. You might want to come over here, I fumed. Yeah. Like it's that easy.
I had no more time to think. The strong current swept me down the river. I could see nothing but white water up ahead, and what appeared to be a rocky waterfall. It looked like the river dropped several feet. I was powerless to control the kayak; the water swept me forward toward the rocks. I will ride it down, I thought. I will trust the boat. I will just offer myself up to the river.
I quit paddling. I quit fighting. I made myself relax and let the water do what it would.
I shot down the waterfall in a blink of an eye. I remember it all vividly--the bounce bounce bounce as the kayak jumped from left to right, finding the narrow zig-zag path between the rocks. The way I let myself lean and bounce with it. The way the water churned and roiled. The roar. The noise. The utter fear mingled with an almost serene trust in my fate.
The water spat me out into a calmer part of the river. I paddled over to the bank and waited for the others. My limbs were rubber. But I was still upright, and the rest of the afternoon, after that, was easy.
A note on the photos: The top photo is from Google, of someone whitewater kayaking in Turkey. OK, that's not at all what the Brule River looks like. But that few seconds when I was going down the waterfall? That's exactly what it felt like. (Erik will laugh when he sees this picture.)
The other two photos are of Erik, but obviously not from that day. The middle picture is of him and a friend, in September on a much quieter river. And the bottom photo is from August, when I visited him in San Francisco.
This blog post, by the way, was inspired by La Vespita, whose post about daredevil skiing reminded me of this adventure.
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