First-day jitters

This time of year, there are two words that strike fear in the heart of recreational, weekend weenie boaters everywhere: Smelter Rapid.

Sure, we may seem cool, calm and collected on the outside, but underneath all the Gore-tex and neoprene, mouths dry up, throats lump, knees tremble and guts coil.

Of course, I’m not talking about the rad boating set here. You know, the ones who can hand roll with one arm tied behind their backs while going over a waterfall and make it look easy. While most of us claw our way out of holes as if trying to escape the clutches of an evil monster, they actually try to stay in – with huge smiles on their faces. These are typically the same people who are only recognizable by the boat attached to their lower torso and whose legs don’t see the light of day from April to July. When they do finally hit dry land, they are instantly detectable by the distinct perfume of musty polypropylene.

Then there’s the rest of us. No matter how long we’ve been boating, we are still filled with dread and anxiety that first day back in the boat. See, unlike riding a bicycle, it is entirely possible to forget how to paddle – just ask anyone who has suffered roll amnesia in the frigid April run-off. One moment you’re rolling like an Olympian, and the next, you’re swimming like one. Not exactly a great confidence-builder, but it does make things interesting.

I know, on the grand scale of river ratings, Smelter barely pushes class III, making it only slightly more technical than the big slide at the Rec Center. But over the years, I’ve been sufficiently worked in there enough to develop a healthy neurosis. In fact, the more time I’ve spent on the river over the years, the more anxious I’ve become. Chalk it up to experience, I guess.

There is a part of me that yearns for the early days, when there was no guesswork. A flip automatically meant carnage, at least making for consistency. Many times I was so prepared, I was out of my boat even before it fully tipped. Take my very first Smelter experience. Fresh out of kayak school (where I quickly sank to the bottom of my class) I shouldered my brand new hunk of plastic and boldly ambled down the path to the put-in above the rapid. I was accompanied by my soon-to-be betrothed, who had a full two weeks more experience under his rip cord than I. Knowing full well I could no more roll than speak Swahili or pilot a 747, the plan called for sending him in first, so in the inevitable event that I swam, he could pick up the wreckage. Of course we neglected to plan for what would happen in the also highly likely event that we both swam. From a safe distance of about 20 feet, I watched in horror as he hit the hole sideways, flipped and soon was bobbing alongside his half-sinking craft. Paralyzed by fear, I quickly followed suit, writhing free of my boat quicker than Houdini in chains. Like a pair of synchronized swimmers, minus the matching suits (that came in later years), we bobbed down the river in unison. As luck would have it, there was one lone Good Samaritan on the river, who plucked us both out, like a couple of drowned rats.

Extremely stupid, yes. But there’s something to be said for dumb luck. It’s a well-known fact that beginning boaters have a grace period, where the sun always shines, waves are friendly and knights in shining white boats with gilded throw ropes are always on hand. Unfortunately for me, the honeymoon is long past. Instead, I have settled into a sort of love-hate relationship – triumphant moments of greatness followed by complete and utter failure, including but not limited to black eyes, bloody shins and bruised egos. However, the drudgery of suiting up for my first outing last week was softened when I slipped on my shorts to realize they seemed much looser than I remembered. I was congratulating myself on my sudden and inadvertent weight loss, when I realized something was awry. Not only had I somehow ended up with my husband’s shorts, but I also ended up with his XL spray skirt, which I had used the year prior in my maternal state. Panicked, I rummaged through my bag in hopes that I had overlooked my own gear, but it was nowhere to be found (and still isn’t.) Too late to turn back, I was forced to make do, reminding myself that drunk college kids in cotton go through Smelter riding giant blow-up alligators all the time.

“Maybe we should walk Smelter,” my boating friend suggested, just as eager to relieve herself of the first-day pressure.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can run from the river, but you can’t hide. However, as I slipped into my boat, I encountered setback No. 2: The bulkhead for my boat was missing. For those unfamiliar with the inner workings of a kayak, this is equivalent to taking a ride on the “Runaway Mineshaft” without a safety bar. Instead of being tightly jammed into my boat ready for combat, I was comfortably reclined for a day at the beach.

As I set sail in my Barcalounger and baggy skirt, I reasoned that perhaps the river would take pity on me. The thought had barely left my brain when I hit the hole and, just like old times, found myself upside down. Water immediately began pouring in around my waist, and I could feel my hull filling up like the ballroom on the Titanic. My paddle was floating somewhere in the stratosphere and that point, and I thought perhaps it was going to be my day to swim. But the pendulum swung the other way, and I was able to right the Barca after an initial struggle.

Adrenaline pumping (it doesn’t take much these days), I turned to flash the victory sign to my boating partner, who also happened to be returning to an upright position.

We had tamed the mighty Smelter, at least for now, and my tempestuous love affair with the river was once again back on.

– Missy Votel



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