Not exactly one with the water
To get in the mood for a day of kayaking on the river, I reread prose from two of my favorite authors, David James Duncan and Norman MacLean. Most everyone is familiar with MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It,” a book that you can open to any page and find some of the most superb writing ever put on paper. The same is true of the lesser known “The River Why” by Duncan. Both novels are about the healing powers of mountain waters, dysfunctional families and fly-fishing. Neither novel is about kayaking, yet both inspired me to be on the water.This was going to be my first time river kayaking, and needless to say I was nervous. We were putting in on the Colorado River below Shoshone to avoid the rapids. I was hoping for class I water, and my companions assured me that the river had large, easy pools with some moving water in between.I would be boating with Richard, who had already perfected his roll in the swimming pool and was capable of performing that particularly useful maneuver even in moving water. The third person in our team was Andy, a gifted kayaker who had been boating for many years and has something of a cult following in teaching circles. I knew Andy from skiing, and I viewed him as one of the most naturally gifted athletes I have ever met. Andy has a body like Baryshnikov’s and his telemark skiing is one of the most beautiful winter ballets ever witnessed. My friends reported that he might even be a better kayaker than a skier.We started with a short class on dry land before entering the water just to make sure I had an understanding of exist strategies in case I flipped over. The day before, I had practiced holding my breath, and I was pretty sure I had a good minute under water before I would start to panic and thoughts of the drowning sequence from “The Perfect Storm” would begin filling my brain.We entered a quiet pool and I drifted slowly to the center ,making some lazy paddle strokes I remembered from my Midwestern canoe days. Just as I got to the middle of the river, the boat promptly flipped over. I was shocked to be suddenly upset down in the river, and immediately panicked as I struggled out of my boat in an attempt to regain air. The good minute I thought I had before panic set in turned out to be about 10 seconds.I wanted to learn the Eskimo roll, and Andy began to patiently explain all the components of the technique – especially the importance of your hips when it comes to getting back upright. He also explained that my head should be the last thing out of the water, not the firstI never got close to getting the roll that first day, discovering instead a position Bikram doesn’t teach, where my body could remain in the boat and my head would pop out of the water beside my boat. Richard was quick to point out that this was one of the most unusual and funny things he had ever seen. It appeared to be a detached head floating in the water alongside a kayak.Andy kept saying, “Ron, your head should be last out of the water, not first.” As the day progressed, Andy pointed out many important techniques for kayaking. Numerous times, he made analogies to skiing. Without being rude, I wanted to point out to Andy that I’m pretty sure I use my legs more while skiing than kayaking.For Richard I provided a year’s worth of comic relief – especially when I would enter an eddy, then flip over as soon I entered back into the current. Richard, on those occasions, continued to point out that I was becoming a really good swimmer.The importance training in the pool time became more evident to me as the day went on.In my struggles with this new activity, I completely lost the zenlike state that I was trying to achieve by being on the river. I never saw the circling bald eagle or the soaring cliff walls all around us, or really, any of my surroundings whatsoever. The ability to just relax and be one with the river was a foreign concept, one not accepted by my trying to force myself to learn a new sport. Ron is considering a black Speedo and swim goggles for his next Halloween costume in light of his struggles on the river. Give him some advice at firstname.lastname@example.org. His outdoors column appears Saturdays in The Aspen Times.
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