I decided this year I wanted to know what people were talking about when they talked about whitewater kayaking. Get a kayaker going and he or she gets a faraway look in the eye that you don’t often see in this city. It is the kind of expression that belongs on the faces of people who have climbed big peaks or surfed big waves, members of a fraternity whose membership must be earned.
The Potomac River flows right through the city past Georgetown and the Jefferson Memorial. A few miles upstream, on the border between Virginia and Maryland, the Potomac plunges 76 vertical feet in a roaring torrent called Great Falls. Whitewater kayakers rate Great Falls as Class V or VI (ie, really hard and dangerous). Just below Great Falls is Mather Gorge, where numerous rapids are a much more manageable Class II or III, surrounded by acres of calm water where one can safely learn the strokes. Whitewater kayaking is one sport that the East Coast does very, very well.
I could have signed on with one of the local kayak outfitters, such as Potomac Paddlesports, but before I got around to it, I met Danny Stock. Danny is the friend of a friend who I have seen at dinners a few times. I knew he taught second grade and that he enjoyed kayaking. It wasn’t until May that we had a one-on-one conversation, and he mentioned in passing that he had tried out for the U.S. Olympic team.
Getting Out on the Water
I rounded up some friends and a few weeks later we met Danny on a Sunday afternoon by Old Angler’s Inn, a half-hour drive from downtown D.C. Hikers begin riverbank walks there. Danny’s truck was full of colorful plastic boats that were so short it didn’t even seem possible that I could fit my six-foot-two self into one of them. He handed out paddles, helmets, life jackets, and told each of us to put on these strange, rubbery cylinders called “spray skirts.”
Every sport has its barrier to entry. In skiing it’s learning to slide downhill with planks on your feet. In surfing it’s developing the strength to paddle out to the lineup without getting exhausted, and in mountaineering your ticket is scaling a steep glacier while wearing a harness and crampons. In kayaking, the barrier to entry is a two-millimeter layer of neoprene called a skirt.
There are two kinds of kayaks, open cockpit and closed cockpit. Open cockpits, often of the type called “sit on tops,” are for calm water. A closed cockpit is needed when the water is rough, and what seals the cockpit closed is the skirt. It prevents the boater from falling out, and the water from getting in.
He showed us how to hold the paddle, how to move the boat with the hips, how if necessary we could signal for rescue, and how Danny would use the nose of his kayak to rescue us if we flipped.
Wait — what does happen if this craft flips over?
As if reading our unsettled minds, Danny talked us through the simple maneuver of the “wet exit.” On the front of the spray skirt, at the most forward opening of the cockpit, was a loop of webbing. It is our emergency rip cord, Danny explained. By pulling on it, the skirt would pop its seal and we could simply leave the cockpit, float to the surface and swim to shore.
We knew we needed to know how to do a wet exit but could tell intuitively that a wet exit is for chumps. Safe, yes, but one would still have to navigate the waterlogged kayak to shore, drain gallons of water from it, maybe have someone recover your lost paddle, and take precious time to regain breath and composure while everyone waited.
The crucial thing we had to learn was to roll. If the current or some surprise element flipped you over, you needed to be able to use your paddle (or even your bare hands) to expeditiously right yourself, even in turbulent water. This is not an easy concept to get one’s head around.
Take, for example, the first time I flipped.
Rolling on a River
It happened, intentionally, after we had paddled just a few hundred feet upriver. At Danny’s urging I leaned far out to the side and flipped over. The feeling was extremely odd. I looked up and found I was looking down, at the nondescript silty riverbottom of the Potomac. I glanced to the side and peered downriver — or was it upriver? — into a muddy riverscape that vanished after a few dozen feet into a greenish haze. I looked down — or was it up? – and there was the dark silhouette of my kayak and the silvery, undulating river surface. I saw the blue sky, and on the borders of my vision the treeline. Up there is where I wanted to be, but I didn’t know how to get there. No air to breathe.
Then I felt my body lurch to the side as Danny turned me over. I outweigh him by at least thirty pounds but still he flipped me like a bathtub toy. I don’t know how he did it. I was sputtering and blinking and felt the ragged edges of panic dripping off of me, but Danny was laughing and so relaxed that I knew that everything was OK.
Subsequently I have been out several times with Danny and now I can pull off a roll, though it isn’t pretty. I can’t quite explain what it is I am doing. I reach the paddle out to the side and wrench my weight on it as I twist and lean far back over the kayak’s back deck. A guidebook to the sport, “Whitewater Kayaking: The Ultimate Guide,” takes five pages to explain just the basics of the roll, with photos, and even that barely makes the maneuver coherent. But the roll sure comes in handy.
This post was excerpted from a longer one on David’s blog, The Ferris Files.
Category: Lifestyle Design