+5 7 votes

The Kayak of Good and Evil

A friend of mine who is retired, loves whitewater kayaking, of intermediate ability, and who gets out on the Wenatchee River (Peshastin to Cashmere) many times each year has had a discouraging week. My friend paddles with others but, even more often, he paddles alone -- it's so much faster and more spontaneous to get out if you don't need to call and coordinate with others. Anyway I had this recent exchange with my friend, henceforth known as 'Bummer' because, given the mistakes he made, he prefers not to be publicly humiliated. Bummer's first email was sent a week ago after a solo kayaking session (something he's done for many years without major mishap).

"I lost my kayak. I got into a situation where I couldn’t roll up, and then I got separated from my boat in a rapid. I was kind of concerned about the boulders I was hitting and the next time I saw the boat it was 50 yards away, and I was way too cold to go after it. Sometimes I’m amazed at my incompetence. The kayak has my name and phone # written inside, so if an honest person finds it, they can contact me. This happened on Tuesday, and we haven’t gotten a phone call. If you happen to be paddling in the Wenatchee, keep an eye out for a green boat. It’s possible that it got stuck in an eddy somewhere. Sometimes I think that losing my boat is a  good thing – I might be too old to be doing this."

I was a few days behind in my emails when I opened Bummer's note and responded:

“Did you get re-united with your kayak? It would be discouraging if you’re not called by whoever fishes the kayak from the river. I disagree that losing your kayak would be a good thing. You still have many good paddle trips ahead. Kayaking keeps you active and it demands you keep honing skills, remain fit, etc. so it’s physically good for you.

Instead of giving it up, I would suggest that maybe this indicates you should paddle with a partner and, when you don’t, that you take on easier stretches of water.”


Bummer's next response to me:

“No, I haven’t gotten a phone call. The problem I had was last Tuesday, so it’s been almost a week. It should have been found by now. I thought about asking a canoeing friend if he’d paddle down from Cashmere in a canoe with me. The water is rising, so the boat has probably gotten flushed out of whatever eddy it might have been in. It seems like it would be at the Rock Island Dam by now.

I got a new paddle with a bent shaft. The blade offset is different from my old paddle – I didn’t practice the roll with that paddle because the water was cold – I thought I’d be all right.

Paddling is an excellent motivation for me to be fit, and everyone needs motivation.

Paddling requires a confidence that you’ll be able to handle whatever difficulties you get yourself into. I’m not sure I’m as mentally sharp as I used to be. I have peripheral neuropathy also, and I don’t have as much feeling in my hands as I did. On the other hand, I do have some experience, and with a little practice (I didn’t paddle much last year because of surgery) my roll could be as good as ever.

I’m real aware now, of the danger of swimming. My problem was compounded by the fact that I wasn’t wearing shoes. It’s hard to find a spot to get out of the river, and if you do, it might be a long way from a road, and a long way from Cashmere. I got pretty bruised up – I chased my boat for a while and also got hypothermic. The penalty for not rolling up is serious.

I really like paddling with people, but also like paddling alone, too. When I go alone, I can do a run and be back home in two hours or less, so it can be a break in a day devoted to something else – I think I’m also a lot more tuned into nature and the beauty of the outdoors when I'm alone. The downside is that I tend to be more adventuresome than reason would suggest. I’m always tempted to look for the route between Snowblower and Safeway, for example. I’m not even sure they aren’t connected. There’s an edge or horizon line that you can’t see over, so you pick a spot and hope for the best – I’ve survived a lot of bad guesses. I guess I’m arguing that stupid people like me shouldn’t paddle.

Yet the thought of not paddling in the future is kind of hard – It’s like a death.”

My next response to Bummer:

“It's discouraging you haven’t gotten a call. Your floatation bags were good so the boat will have been found. I suspect an unethical person has capitalized on your misfortune. That same person has probably used a solvent to easily erase your name and address from the inside of your kayak, and is trying to convince himself that this lowlife behavior is OK. You’re too nice a person and your religious beliefs don’t condone wishing misfortune on anyone, but I’m not constrained by such beliefs. Each time this person runs the river I hope he worries his bad Karma will be repaid with the bad luck this theft warrants.

I agree with you about the need for motivation. Especially as you age you need things that keep you excited and engaged … even if they ‘might’ hurt you.

Look at all the insight ('experience') you’ve gained from this recent scrape. Examples of what you've learned: practicing with new equipment is important, missing your roll is serious business, swimming when the river is cold is dangerous for several reasons (hypothermia being just one), hitting the right spot between Snowblower/Safeway is a gamble, paddling within your ability level is something you usually do but you can be a little reckless, eliminating paddling from your life is eliminating something important.

The conclusion isn’t that you should stop paddling or that you’re foolish to continue paddling. The conclusion is that you should simply manage the new hazards you know about.  Here's how:

  • Now that you know it's a problem, practice with the new paddle. You know the cold water deters your willingness to practice so in early season you need a hood under your helmet to avoid ice-cream headaches. Another possibility: Maybe you should go back to the old paddle which served you so well.
  • Wearing footwear in the boat is mandatory.
  • Perhaps a bombproof firestarter and waterproof matches should be in your PDF (wood is easy to find but you need a reliable method for getting a fire going very fast when you’re wet and shaking badly). This is very doable.
  • When paddling alone you should stick to rules you've made that are more conservative than the rules employed when you’re paddling with a partner (e.g., you’ll take the sneak route around rapids or features where the possibility of swimming is higher).”

Bummer's last response on this thread:

 “This has been an interesting experience – and a humiliating one. I got out of the river under a bridge, which was convenient. I needed to find someone who would help me – I saw a church in Dryden and found that the front door was locked. There was a sign that said “If you need help, come to the parsonage behind the church.” I needed help, so that’s what I did. I knocked – They welcomed me in, noticed that I was cold and suggested that I take a hot bath, and then they drove me to Cashmere where my wife was waiting to pick me up. We went to church there Sunday to return the dry clothes that they had loaned me. Everyone wanted to hear all the details about the stranger who knocked on their door and then took a half-hour bath (it takes a long time to warm up). It’s good for people to get recognition when they do a good thing, but my incompetence as a paddler was on full display – that part wasn’t fun.

So, you think I should go to the kayak store in Leavenworth and buy a new boat? If I could find a short one (that I fit in), I could put it up on its nose and learn to do cartwheels and flips. Now, that would be exercise. I wouldn’t need whitewater – with all my splashing, I could make my own whitewater in the Columbia. On the other hand, kayaks are expensive. I’m getting more yard work done than I would be if I were paddling. Our place is starting to look pretty good. How does yard work rank as a motivator? The river is at 13,800 cfs and rising – it’s really fun at this level.

Thanks for your thoughts and suggestions. You’ve been helpful in lots of situations over the years. You’re a pretty nice person and have a desire for justice – that’s not a bad thing. I know someone who agrees with that kind of thought, but His name isn’t Karma.”

My last response:

“You do need to find another boat. Check Craig's List – maybe you can buy your Jackson 4Fun back from the person who found it and who hopes to profit from that which isn’t his.

Of course if gardening delivers the same connection to Nature, the outdoors, your thoughts, the Big Picture, this beautiful region we live in... then maybe it deserves your full attention. I don't see it giving you all those good things, so I'm looking forward to seeing you in another boat soon. On the scope of things the $1000 spent on a new boat or the $500 spent on an excellent used boat is cheap for all the experiences, insights, friends, and joy kayaking has brought you.”