Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 2: In Over My Head)

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Spot Locator Coordinates from the start-, and end-points of my whitewater kayaking trip!

I had no idea what awaited me as I kayaked down the West Branch of the Penobscot River towards my campsite at Abol Pines… I thought that I was headed for a relaxing day of still water, and class II (novice) whitewater… If I’d had the slightest clue that I was headed towards ledges, waterfalls, and class IV (advanced) rapids with my collapsable ORU kayak, I would have turned around and run the other way… Instead, I was happily, if somewhat cautiously paddling downriver from Big Eddy, and looking forward to my newest adventure… (Check out “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 1: The Calm Before the Storm” for the back story)

Little Ambejackmockamus Falls (Class III+)

As I paddled down the river I continually scouted ahead of me looking for whitewater and drops (the places where the water drops out of sight, below the horizon)… I didn’t expect to see any, but ever since encountering surprise rapids and drops on a tubing trip on the Nolichuky River in Tennessee, I always keep an eye out for them… especially on unfamiliar rivers.

After paddling for about a mile, I saw some whitewater ahead. It looked a little rougher than I expected for Class II, but not too scary… My brain started calculating trajectories, trying to figure out the least exciting (safest) path through the whitewater… From where I was it was clear that the path to the left had the most obstacles, so I followed the open channel in the middle towards the bend… As I paddled through the channel the next stretch of whitewater came into view… the left side of the river definitely looked rougher, so I veered to the right where I figured I’d be able to avoid the worst of it…

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I paddled through the easy chutes, dips, and waves, and found it absolutely exhilarating! My brain was constantly modeling, mapping, and optimizing my route while my body made-it-happen… I was in the zone! I’d always thought of kayaking as a relaxing, low-energy sport, and had never considered taking up whitewater kayaking, but as I fought my way through what felt like a challenging line I thought, “This could be a lot of fun!” The route-finding aspects of it reminded me of rock-climbing, but with more engineering… and my college fluid dynamics classes were finally coming in handy!

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The view Penobscot River as viewed from Abol Bridge, ME

“This is why people kayak with skirts,” I had thought when the first wave had crashed into my boat and left a small deposit of water. Each successive wave had similarly felt the need to leave a souvenir in my boat, so by the time I got to the end of the first rapid (Little Ambejacmackamus Falls) I was sitting in an inch-deep puddle of water… I wasn’t in any danger of capsizing, but the water was changing the way my kayak handled, so I decided to play it safe, pull over, and take a break.

I dragged my boat out of the water and looked back at what I’d just come through, it didn’t look like a Class II to me… I’d felt comfortable and in control as I’d gone through it, but I would have guessed it to be closer to a Class III… “I wouldn’t want to be going through anything rougher than that, but that was kind of fun,” I thought as I emptied out my boat.

Selfie taken on a section of stillwater on my kayaking trip down the Penobscot River

With a smile on my face, I got back in my kayak and headed down the river. The water was relatively calm, and I relaxed into the steady rhythm of paddling… It was really great to be outside again! After about a mile, I could see the signs of some whitewater down by the next bend… From a distance it looked fairly similar to what I’d just gone through, but I wanted to check it out so I paddled towards the right side of the river. I hoped that from there I’d be able to get a sneak peak of what lay around the corner. It didn’t really help… It was a tight corner and I couldn’t see much, but it was clear that this water was definitely more violent than what I’d just gone through…

“Oh sh**! That’s definitely not class II,” I thought as the current propelled me forward and I got a closer look at the frothy water ahead… I scanned the banks looking for a place to portage, but didn’t see anything… Nothing!… I’d gone towards the right-side of the river to try to scout out the bend, but now a steep rock ledge was rising up in front of me, fast… There would be no bail out points on this side… and I still didn’t see any bailout spots on the other side…

  • “Portage or portaging is the practice of carrying water craft or cargo over land, either around an obstacle in a river, or between two bodies of water. A place where this carrying occurs is also called a portage.”-Wikipedia

Even though I didn’t see anywhere to portage on the far side, the shore looked brushy, not cliffy there, so I hoped that I might be able to make something work… Could I safely cross to the other side of the river? I did a quick assessment of the river and its currents… No, I couldn’t safely get across… I’d committed too far to the right side of the river while trying to scout the rapids… Now, to get to the other side of the river before the rapids started I’d have to cut an almost perpendicular line across it… I’d end up broadside to the current, a sure recipe for capsizing my kayak, and then I’d end up swimming the entirety of whatever lay ahead… that seemed like a bad plan.

In the blink of an eye, the rapids started, and my dreams of portaging around whatever lie ahead disappeared…

The view of Katahdin from my Oru Kayak after I’d gone through some of the rapids on the Penobscot River in it!

Big Ambejackmockamus Falls (Class IV)

I had passed the point of no return, so I braced myself and prepared to face the unknown…

I entered the rapids with laser focus, there was no room for doubt or uncertainty… My brain was calculating, my body acting, and both were engaging with my environment in a perfect symphony of effort… As the waves crashed around me, all conscious thoughts were replaced… It was all calculations, actions, and reactions… My movements were smooth, and my lines were good… I was through the fist 90-degree bend in the river, through the straight-away, and coming into the next bend… This was well beyond my skill level, but I was doing it!

“Fu**!…” I whimpered. I was coming up on the second 90-degree bend in the river, when I finally caught a glimpse of what was ahead… I started to panic… My boat was filling with water, the worst was yet to come, and I was already at the top of my game…

“Don’t Panic! Panicking never makes it better! Don’t… Panic…” I reminded myself, quelling my panic and getting back to the task at hand… It didn’t matter if my plight was completely and utterly without hope… I would own it, and there was a certain kind of hope in that… I took a deep breath, paddled through the wall of water in front of me, and went over the first drop…

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The whitewater surged around me, but miraculously, my kayak and I both made it through the drop in one piece!… In between waves I could now see a whitewater kayaker pulled ashore to the left side of the rapids ahead of me, and I could see a couple of rafts full of people further down… The end was in sight, maybe I would somehow make it all the way through?… Or even better, if that kayaker could pull out of the water over there, maybe I could too?!  My origami kayak had gotten me through more of the whitewater than I could have ever imagined, but it was almost completely full of water now, and I had no way to stop and empty it… I was in way over my head… If I could get off of the river and out of these rapids I definitely would!

I was still on the right-side of the river, but the kayaker was on the left bank of the river so I shifted my heading slightly, hoping to slowly make my way towards them. As soon I began to alter my course, my kayak suddenly slipped into a hole… a small, seemingly still spot, surrounded by walls of whitewater… The wave in front of me looked huge! It must have been at least five feet tall…

  • Hole or hydraulic: “A river feature created when water flows over a rock or shelf in the river, drops, comes back up, mixes with the air and travels upstream back toward the obstacle that it flowed over.  This creates green water that is flowing downstream and a foam pile or backwash of aerated water that flows back up and into the green water creating a continuous flow cycle.”

Time seemed to stop then, with the gigantic wave hanging above me… I looked at the level of water in my boat, it was almost completely full… All of the stories I’d ever heard about small boats taking on water, and facing giant waves flooded through my mind… For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly understood what they must have been going through…

My kayak was brilliant… It wasn’t sinking, but the water had given it a critical instability… Any more water, and it was going to tip… It didn’t matter how well I handled the looming wave in front of me, the physics of it were impossible… The boat was going to capsize! I was going to end up swimming…

“I know the physics are impossible, but maybe I’m wrong… maybe somehow this will work,” I mumbled as time resumed and I started to paddle out of the hole, towards the crest of the wave… I knew that as soon as I went through the crest, water would spill into my boat and it would capsize, but the only hope I had was in embracing my fate… besides… maybe I was wrong.

TO BE CONTINUED… See “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! Part 3: Taking the Plunge”

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5 thoughts on “Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 2: In Over My Head)

  1. Pingback: Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 3: Taking the Plunge) | Patches Thru

  2. Pingback: Real Kayakers Wear Skirts! (Part 4: Gently Down the Stream?) | Patches Thru

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