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Retrieving the Stoke

I’ve had something to confess to for a while, something I go through every year, but this year seems to have had a prolonged period: I lose my enthusiasm for paddling. I still enjoy it when I go out, but when sitting at home, it’s easy to make excuses: it will take too long, the weather’s not right, no one else will show up.

Normally I paddle a little in the winter, then run a program and get excited, then start planning the season, then I teach some courses, and at some point I go somewhere far away, where I finally experience something new. My stoke returns, and thus we proclaim the mystery of our faith.

Well, since ending my last pool program right before Covid broke out in the US last year, this pattern has been awry. Restrictions were in; even being outdoors was uncertain, given the limited understanding of the virus at the time. I did get away to a new locale in October, but that was also in the context of pursuing a higher-level instructor credential, so there was a bit of pressure to both learn and perform.

I’m happy to say that I’ve finally recovered my stoke, over halfway through the summer, thanks to some friends at the KCCNY (Kayak and Canoe Club of New York).

Basically they put together a weekend of paddling and instruction on the Deerfield River in Massachusetts. An advanced group took two days of instruction on a Class III/IV dam release called the Dryway; I went along with the beginner class on the Fife. I’m not a beginner, but I’m not ready for the hard stuff; I wanted something easy to get my whitewater confidence back on.

The first day was a little slow for me, as we had a family of absolute beginners along with a couple of young men who were game for anything and had some experience. With my instructor hat tucked away, I observed how the instructors organized the class, dealt with the wide disparity in ability and comfort levels, and came up with ideas on the fly of where to go. Ultimately we did two stay-and-plays, at an eddy near the put-in and another at the take-out.

We also took a look at the Zoar Gap, a Class III feature that is essentially a rapid series of drops through a fast-moving constriction. We got out to scout it and I got a good idea of what to do, but opted out of the Gap that day. Three of our group went through, two by swimming.

I played with eddies, and ferrying, and just got used to my boat again. I paddle whitewater so infrequently, there’s always a getting-to-know-you period with my boat, a Remix 59.

The next day was much more interesting. The family of beginners backed out, having already had two weeks away from home, and the weather was not looking pleasant. One of our group backed out due to a wrist injury, and so we were left with me, the two guys, the instructor, and some random guy we met in the parking lot named Jimmy. We later added someone from the advanced group who’d decided not to paddle the Dryway that day. He came to watch us and hopped in not long after.

Being a more experienced group, we ran the river, stopping to play on features along the way. It turned out that Jimmy was also a whitewater instructor, so between him and our instructor from the club, I got a lot of great tips, leading to me playing on holes.

A hole, for those unfamiliar, is a vertical hydraulic. As water pours over a rock or a ledge and drops, it plunges down, only to recirculate back up. Imagine a bicycle wheel spinning with the top edge rotating upstream; a hole will pull you in, and if it’s large enough, you can play tricks with it. If it’s too large you might get stuck, in our out of your boat.

So I did a lot of that; surfing forward upstream on the smaller holes, and playing a game of chicken with the larger holes. I got confident at coming off a hole as well, getting sideways to it and moving off to come out.

On one larger hole, my bow dove under the water, I got sideways, and quickly recovered from the stern getting pulled under. It was a trick!

I also learned a lot about my boat and how to compare it to other boats. The Remix is a big, floaty boat, which means it doesn’t submerge easily, but is a bit harder to roll than a low volume boat. I saw this when comparing to one of our instructors’ Dagger RPM, which routinely went underwater plowing through holes and waves.

I had one swim, when I lost my balance on an eddy turn and blew my roll. I was out of air, and in a bit of cold shock, and near shore anyway, so I hopped out and took a break.

When we came to the end, there was a choice to make: run the Zoar Gap, or take out early and either walk or wait.

I’d been thinking I would skip the gap, because I was already tired before my swim, and had been fighting a headache. However, we were going to take out to scout it, and I began to think I might run it after all.

“Oh, no, no no no. The water level is lower and the route I usually take might not work,” said one of our instructors. I’m paraphrasing but not by much. It wasn’t selling me.

However as we all looked, some of what I’d seen before still seemed true. Basically there is a hole, with eddies to either side after, and then a diagonal set of holes that are best avoided. We watched a couple of kayaks move through, each taking one of the two routes we considered, some with the eddy, and they all worked out.

Well what the hell, you only live once, right? The worst case would be a short swim in fast water.

We went back to our boats and determined an order. One instructor paddled ahead to be ready for a rescue, and another was the caboose for similar reasons. I was to be the third. Off we went.

I slowed myself down to ensure a raft got well ahead of me. The trick about entering a feature you’ve scouted is to match what you saw from high up with what you see from down below. Suddenly, I was at the threshold.

I paddled to get momentum through the first hole. I wasn’t going to muck about with the eddies; I would just maneuver quickly to avoid the big hole river right. I saw my predecessor’s helmet . . .and then realized he was standing on a rock.

No time for that, I moved quickly to the right, but not so close as to hit a large rock. I would later learn that that rock was what waylaid our companion. I got into the eddy and started to compare notes, when I heard calling out to chase the paddle – which is something the guy behind me did. He managed to catch it and bring it back.

In short order, we were all through the gap, with only the one swim amongst us. After that, we played at ferrying and feature play in current much strong that what we’d experienced previously. Eventually we went below the next bridge, to the area we’d ended the previous day, and had a little more play before finally taking out.

Published in Kayaking Whitewater


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