Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Rolling on the River

I've hurt my right arm, so typing is difficult (and driving, and drying my hair and...) I've decided to post an old piece originally published in Canoe and Kayak Magazine.

My adventure as a Wild Woman began one frigid Christmas Eve in Montreal. My husband ordered me upstairs while he placed one last Christmas gift under the tree. Despite my uncanny knack for guessing gifts (and sensing the presence of chocolate in the house) he was confident that I would not guess this one.

I felt a rush of cold air as I climbed the stairs, then heard a crash and mumbled cursing as my mystery gift was maneuvered into the house. Ah, so it was large and it survived minus 30 temperatures. Unlikely to be that lovely Moorcroft vase I’d had my eye on. After several minutes, my husband emerged triumphant and with a smug little wink, he climbed into bed.

The next morning our three children waited at the top of the stairs while we took the annual family photos. They inched down the steps in a tight knot, tickling each other and pondering the nature of The Gift, then ran into the family room. Shoved under the tree, over the couch, across the kitchen table, its rudder resting just under the light fixture (now missing one bulb, which explained the crash and the cursing) was a bright yellow, 17-foot kayak.

“It’s a one woman kayak,” my husband said proudly. “I could have purchased a two seater, but I thought you needed to have some private time, without me or the kids. You can just take it out on the lake at the cottage whenever you feel the need. There’s even a storage compartment if you want to take a long trip.”

Wow. This was the equivalent of having my own cabin, albeit a floating one. And one available only in summer. And I’d have to paddle it. Nevertheless, I hugged my husband who had heard my pleas for quiet time and answered them with a big yellow kayak. Not exactly a week in the south of France, but still...

The following May, I arranged an all day lesson with “H2O Adventures.” I had had my own H2O adventure as a child when I tumbled off my grandmother’s dock. It triggered a life-long fear of drowning, and I could still recall the panic and disorientation as I flailed and choked before being yanked up to safety by my ashen faced grandmother.

With some trepidation, I drove to the mouth of the river where the lessons would take place. Fear of drowning was supplanted by a different kind of anxiety as I sized up my classmates. The great divide between the young and hip, and the middle-aged and big-hipped, is never so great as when both are clothed in bathing suits. My classmates were bronzed, bikinied young girls and buff young men in bandanas who slid their kayaks off roof-racks with ease. I couldn’t even reach my kayak, let alone lift it off the family van. Pete, one of the young instructors, appeared before me.

"Let me help you, ma'am."

Exsqueeze me? Tell me you did not just call me "ma’am.”

You know you’ve crossed the great gulf of youth and plunged into middle-age when cute young guys call you ma’am. I looked around at the flat stomachs and pierced navels and hugged my life jacket closer, painfully aware I hadn’t shown my belly in public since my third child was born. With a sigh, I wriggled into my fetching kayak apron and lurched to the shore of the quiet shallows where the lessons took place.

Wedging myself into the kayak without flipping proved to be my first challenge. They say women come in either Pear or Apple shapes? I’m more Idaho Potato, and it soon became clear there was no graceful way to ease myself in. Once in, I feared I would never get out, and they would have to grease me and pop me out like those portly passengers on airline toilets who inadvertently flush while sitting, thus creating an airtight buttock vacuum necessitating an urgent plea over the loudspeaker, for “all those with leftover butter pats, please report to the rear.”

Next came the Eskimo Roll, or as one of the Vegan participants corrected the instructor, the more P.C. “Inuit” Roll. Recovering from a capsize was of prime importance. However, my kayak was a stable sea kayak, so it could not easily roll over and up like a white water kayak. After a few spluttering attempts, someone took pity and tossed me an old pair of nose plugs. My young classmates rolled and shook off the water as easily as slick seals. Though I suspected I looked like an aging, synchronized swimmer who took one too many dives in the shallow end, I smiled and waved as my kayak was ignominiously flipped over by a couple of strong assistants.

While dangling upside down in the water, I hugged the kayak and brightly tapped three times on the hull to let Pete know I was okay (twice on the pipes, tap tap, if the answer is nooo....) Then, I was supposed to either execute The Roll, or do a Wet Exit - while still hanging upside down, I must lean forward, unhook the skirt, and slip out of the kayak “as though removing a pair of pants,” then swim to the surface.

Now unless I’m wearing pajamas, when I remove a pair of pants it takes several minutes to peel them off my hips and wiggle them from side to side down to my toes. My motivation for a nimble Wet Exit came in a vision of me being carted off to the local ER jammed in a bright yellow kayak, the rescuers having been unable to extract my lifeless, nose-plugged body, my family forced to build a custom designed crypt to accommodate me and Old Yellow.

However, as the day wore on, I mastered the J-stroke, the low brace turn and the reverse paddle, though the roll would continue to elude me. I learned to right an upturned, waterlogged kayak in the middle of the lake, bail it and climb back in (not something one wants captured on video if one fears blackmail.)

Our day ended with praise and an invitation to attempt a crossing of the rapids, a place referred to as The Drop. Though not part of the course, we were deemed an adept group ready for the challenge. We paddled to the base of the roaring rapids and watched as white water kayaks, built for speed and maneuverability, whipped around rocks, their helmeted occupants spinning and popping up in the roiling foam like corks. I looked at the raging river, swollen by spring rains, and my mouth went dry.

“Ma’am? You can just wait here in this quiet eddy and watch.” Pete gave me a benign smile.

There was that cursed "ma'am" again. It worked like a red flag. In my mind’s eye, I could see my husband slapping his forehead.

“Oh, really? Well, I will do it, or die trying.”

Pete waited with me as one kayaker after another struggled against the current to the other side of the river. You must lean into the current, almost to the point of water washing over you, and once you start, you can’t stop paddling, he explained. You have to resist your instincts to lean back, as the water will push the boat over and drag you, upside down and over the rocks, to the base of the river (where your lifeless body will be crowbarred out of the kayak surrounded by youngsters shaking their heads and whispering, “Dude, if only you’d mastered the Inuit Roll. Rest in peace, ma’am.”) My classmates were anxiously watching from the other side of the river. It was now or never.

“GO, GO, GO!” I could hear their shouts above the roar of the rapids. Pete was right behind me, shouting to lean in, to keep going and paddle hard (like stopping midway was an option?) My arms were leaden, a full day of paddling in the sun taking its toll. I was almost there, just a bit further. My back ached from the effort. Then suddenly, I arrived on the other side. I was surrounded by cheering kids, pounding their kayaks and waving their paddles – my comrades-in-arms. I grinned back through my tears.

“Hey, nice going.” Pete grinned and gave me a high-five.

And he didn’t call me ma’am.


Nan said...

That is awesome! I loved this story. I love your writing. You are an absolute riot! :^D

A Novel Woman said...

Thanks, Nan! If you think my writing is funny, you should see me get out of a kayak.