Howdy Mabel

Either the boat shrunk or the previous winter was especially cruel. You carefully wedge your feet in first as you redistribute your excess “winter padding” in the cockpit, which you realize is really more akin to a small torture chamber. Crammed in tighter than Houdini in a milk can, you feel slightly faint as the new neck gasket begins to complicate breathing. With one hard, labored gasp, you heave forward, straining to get the rubber seal over the plastic lip in one full swoop. You hear that familiar “pop” from behind and hope it was the spray skirt and not the veins in your neck, which are bulging from the boa constrictor-like hold of the dry top. After several more failed attempts, you’re forced to grovel for help seeing as how you are no longer able to walk, your legs comfortably numb in their pretzel contortion. You curse yourself for forgetting your booties as you push off into the frozen, brown torrent. No use, can’t feel your feet anyway, you reason, as the icy facials come fast and furious.

You question your sanity as your partner yells across the waves if you want to scout. You shake your head no, mostly because you’re lazy and you know getting out of your boat would mean repeating the same, painful process all over again. And also because, even though you wouldn’t mind looking at the run at 6,200 cfs, you know such actions typically backfire, big time.

You decide to try your luck and find the entrance waves surprisingly smooth; fun even. You begin to think you’ve got it made – not bad for one of the first outings of the year. Meanwhile, your partner, who you’ve invited along because of all the safety talks you’ve had drilled into your head over the years about never boating alone, makes a sudden move right. From your recollection the run is left, but you figure she must know something you don’t, even though this is her first time in a boat in a year.

Of course, not even the man of steel could complete such a miraculous ferry at that flow, let alone a middle-aged soccer mom fighting the “Howdy Mabel” upper arm flap. Suddenly, you find yourself in the cold embrace of an angry pile of foam, its mean, white clutches firmly grasped around your ridiculously tiny vessel. Exactly where you were window-shaded five times in a row last year before being spit out like a discarded bone that has had its marrow sucked out. Exactly where you didn’t want to be: sidesurfing the jaws of death.

Behind you, hoots of approval come from the carnage gallery, and you’re thankful that at least your accidental surf has landed you with your back to them. Your identity secure for now, panic eventually gives way to the serenity of submission, sort of like what happens before you see the white light, or so you’ve heard.

But then the Grim Reaper’s fickle fingers of death lessen their grip ever so slightly, and you know now’s the time to make a break. You go for your patented move, the only one you’ve ever been able to really master: the upstream faceplant.

Now, you’re in the dark belly of the beast, the only sound its hungry rumbling. You think you see daylight and desperately reach for it, only to be foiled by your own head, which despite being connected to your body, has a mind of its own. You catch a micro sip of air and go right back down. By now, the carnage pigeons have worked themselves into a frenzy as you go for attempt No. 2, which isn’t pretty but somehow allows you to killer high brace your way upright. The face, already tinged blue from oxygen depletion, is now a bright purple from the trauma of the ordeal. Or so you’re told in the recovery eddy, where you readjust your helmet, which is sitting askew over your eyes, and try to control the spasmodic panting/sobbing.

“You did great,” your warm and dry, and soon-to-be ex-paddling companion tells you with a smile.

But you know the truth. You got worked in front of god and everyone. A lifeless ragdoll tossed around for the amusement of all to see. And on top of it all, your trusty roll, the one that has saved you from certain self-inflicted decimation countless times, seems to have evaporated in the froth.

You try to regain your composure, even though a half-naked college kid on a blow-up brontosaurus just rode by, having the time of his life. He’ll get his, you think, as you wobble back out into the current like a scared rubber duck.

A few days later, after the wounds have healed and emotional scarring subsided, you venture back out. But this time, the river booty slides in effortlessly, the skirt fits like a glove and even the Howdy Mabels seem to be waving “adios.”

Alas, the raging torrent you looked so forward to doing battle with is gone, replaced by a mere green trickle of its former self.

And while you now know that maybe the vegetable garden will get planted after all, the mountain of dirty clothes washed and you just might catch a glimpse of the spouse and maybe even say “hi,” you can’t help but want to savor every last drop.

– Missy Votel