After three intensely hard turns and what had been a bony 10 miles on the Arkansas River, I was one fried puppy. My energy and concentration were lapsing. I was ready to be done. In fact, I was ready to be done three miles before. But in front of me another froth-lined granite wall waited, patiently.
My intentions were simple enough. I would skirt what looked like rather mellow water to avoid being pushed up against the wall or getting caught in the undercut.
I'd heard terrible things about undercuts. Eddies, on the other hand, those swirling funky pits of hydraulic confusion, don't nearly get the negative press they deserve; I decided to disregard the eddy's disruptive power. But as I maneuvered downstream, I was, once again, reminded of what I should have known. (I'd been down this river before.) An eddy really can be a pain in the ass.
In microseconds my river world was literally turned upside down.
Attaining a "fish's perspective" can be just fine, I thought. The water wasn't really that cold, and it was amazingly clear.
Clear water in the Arkansas is better for fishing than boating. Boaters want a full river of swiftly moving, usually muddy, snowmelt. Fly fishermen prefer slower clear water where the trout can notice their attempts at allure.
For some reason this is what I was thinking as I bobbed upside down, still in my kayak.
Steve and I had planned the trip a week before, mindful of the mid-June deadline when snowmelt subsides, and Steve wanted to jump on it. But my enthusiasm had instantly begun to wane. It has always been very hard for me to relax on the river. Unlike static surfaces like dirt trails or snow, a river has the ultimate power. A boater must understand this.
Once I figured out I was upside down, panic set in and I proceeded to do everything wrong. When I attempted to roll over, instead of "kissing the deck" (leaning forward), I leaned back, trying to break the surface, searching for sweet, bug-filled air. After several unsuccessful gymnastic maneuvers I realized I just needed to get out of the boat and pulled the skirt strap.
Usually when you "kiss the deck" and pull the skirt strap, you just roll forward, easily exiting the boat. That's the typical wet exit. But not this wet exit. While attempting to shove myself out of the cockpit I managed to jam my feet in the boat. This was the moment I'd feared.
Seconds later, after breaking free of the boat, I hung across the kayak bow, exhausted. I sighed, and then I laughed, uncontrollably. Circling inside the frigid water of the eddy I considered the mistakes and misjudgments that had landed me in the drink.
As we dragged my water-filled kayak up on a rock bar, I asked Steve where the takeout was. (I wasn't too keen on much more boating, thank you.) He grinned, shook his head and pointed a few yards downstream. I laughed again. I'd managed to swim only a hundred yards from the takeout.
When I look back on that day, I remember that life is good, as long as you're occasionally willing to take a swim. Just be sure to learn how to roll.
Jim Williams is a writer|recreation junkie living in Salida, Colo. His work can be found online at www.rectimes.com