Dawn patrol

“C’mon. It’ll make for a great story.”

The words painfully reverberated through my head as I shivered in the early (very early) morning cold. Like jumping into a chilly lake, I held my breath as I took the plunge from cozy sweats to the inhospitable 40-degree air. A sudden wave of goosebumps washed over me as frozen fingers fumbled with neoprene, neck gaskets and Gore-Tex.

Nearby, the river churned by at a respectable four grand, and my empty stomach, objecting to the unusually early double-whammy of coffee and adrenaline, joined in unison. Maybe it was nerves, but in the few short minutes I had been awake, I had already managed to pee three times – sort of adding new meaning to the “wee” hours – and forgotten (perhaps subconsciously on purpose) my paddle in the shuttle car.

It wasn’t so much the thought of high-water that sent my bladder and brain stem aflutter as it was the thought of being on the river at such an ungodly hour of the day. – 6:15 a.m. last time I checked. A rotten time for just about anything other than burrowing under down comforters for one last half hour of quality R.E.M.

For some reason, the thought of a kayak mission didn’t seem so bad the night before while basking in the glow of a beer-buzz and patio candlelight. The whole thing came about when I bemoaned the fact that out-of-state travel that weekend would likely mean missing the peak flow on the Animas – which has an uncanny habit of falling on Memorial Weekend. See, just as season-passholders like to have bragging rights to the biggest powder day of the year, so, too, do river folk. In fact, in the 13 or so years I’ve been on the river, I’ve made every high-water event. There was the time I was 5½ months pregnant and had to wear my husband’s dry top (hey, I never said I was smart) as well as the uneventful summer of 2001, when it peaked at a piddly 850 (somehow still managed to come out of it with a black eye, however.) There was the season I cleared out the cobwebs and black widows and set sail for the first time at 4,500, proving warm-ups are overrated as are floatbags; and the time I skipped out on a deadline day to play hooky at five grand (not a popular move with the boss.) In fact, the only exception in those 13 years was the eight grand flood in the fall of 2006, a dirty trick Mother Nature played on me while vacationing in the Midwest. I will never forgive her for that one.

Anyway, when it appeared that sun angles, temperatures and the calendar were all conspiring to cheat me of this year’s big flows, I knew it called for drastic measures. As such, I allowed myself to be persuaded into a 6 a.m. river rendezvous before hitting the road. And, of course, there was the added possibility that it would “make for a good story” as my cohorts pointed out, which us worn-out writer types feebly grasp for at every opportunity.

Finally, convinced that I had completely wrung my bladder dry of every last drop of liquid and pushing off from dry land, I hoped that “story” wouldn’t come at my expense. See, fate has a funny way of doing that if you tempt her enough. Especially early in the morning when you’re not quite awake, have a queasy stomach, can’t feel your hands in the icy snowmelt and are having trouble seeing thanks to the glint of the rising sun off the water. Not to mention, there’s not a soul around and the river is completely deserted, making a protracted swim to the stateline a distinctly ironic possibility.

After a few bracing slaps of ice water to the face, as if to say, “hey dummy, wake up,” I emerged from my post-slumber fog. Suddenly, I found myself in a completely new place, despite the fact I had been there a thousands times before. The way the sun made the water a deep hue of bronze rather than the typical high-noon shade of mud and the hills were drawn out as if in watercolors rather than the harsh contrasts of the midday sun was almost like a dream. There were no waiting lines in the eddies, no rafts of screaming patrons to battle for your favorite wave and no carnage pigeons camped out on the rocks. In fact, the only onlookers were a family of Canadian geese and some guys at the A-LP suckhole trying to remove debris with a stick who curiously disregarded our overzealous waves. Occasionally, we would catch a glimpse of a car or truck passing by, oblivious to us on its way to work, school or someplace else. I couldn’t help but think how lucky we were to be down there, all alone, with the river to ourselves. Like first tracks on a powder day. Only better.

I soon forgot all about my cold hands, interrupted R.E.M. and stomach of nerves. In fact, I even forgot about the time, and the fact that I had to catch a flight in a few hours and hadn’t even begun to pack. Because, for those few wonderful moments, I remembered why it is that I live here, or better yet, why I work my ass off to live here.

OK, so it doesn’t exactly make for a “great story,” but in my view, it still makes for a damned good one.

– Missy Votel