Back in our crazy days, when Ed and I were younger, we played at whitewater canoeing. With our sixteen-foot Mad River Explorer strapped to the roof of the minivan, we would drive 7½ hours to the nearest Class III-IV whitewater: Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, where the strong and broad Youghiogheny River cut a spectacular gorge through pine-and-hemlock-covered sandstone cliffs.
Ohiopyle was a boater's mecca. In the parking lot across from Ohiopyle Falls, we often saw kayakers stripping off their driving clothes and zipping up neoprene wetsuits. Brightly-colored kayaks and canoes shaped like bullets or bananas or bathtubs lined the road. There were six and eight-person rubber rafts, too, and solo inflatable kayaks affectionately known as "duckies." Towels flapped from roof racks. Paddles were strewn on the grass like pick-up sticks.
Bronzed young men and women slung their kayaks over one shoulder as easily as I carried a book bag. The sinewy muscles in their calves worked as they crossed the road to the launch site, their sandals slapping against the pavement.
We were all headed to the Loop, a great horseshoe bend in the river boasting seven named rapids: Entrance, Cucumber, Piddly, Camel's Back, Eddy Turn, Dartmouth, and Railroad. Hardy paddlers could run the Loop in an hour and a half, climb a steep path out, walk a mile across the neck of the peninsula, hike back down to the put-in, and run it again.
Well, that wasn't us. We were never more than intermediate whitewater canoeists, unlike the "squirt boaters," kayakers who surfed the waves or did enders in the holes. They would drive the bow of the kayak deep into the water until the force of the current popped them backwards like a cork out of a champagne bottle. Sometimes, they twirled their boats while flying through the air.
We didn't get much whitewater practice. Ed and I lived in southeast Michigan, after all, where the nearest whitewater was Delhi Rapids on the Huron River outside of Ann Arbor, a piddling Class II, even in high water. We also had kids and jobs and middle-aged bones.
We did our best to be smart, though. We wore helmets and life vests and stuffed our canoe full of air bags that would displace most of the water if we capsized. A tandem canoe full of water exerts a force of two-thousand pounds—you don't want to get caught between a canoe full of water and a rock.
And, we took a two-day tandem whitewater canoeing class in 1984 from a barrel-chested instructor out of Washington, D.C., known as "Flip." We assumed he got the nickname because of his resemblance to the then-popular comedian, Flip Wilson. But he may have earned the sobriquet because he was strong enough to roll his open canoe, a recovery maneuver usually made only by kayakers or closed-deck canoeists. His bulging arms were thick as small trees.
With Flip's help, we became fairly confident of making complex moves in fast water. He demonstrated various strokes—draw, pry, low brace, and high brace, the latter enabling us to stay upright even when water was pouring over the opposite gunwale. We learned how to thread tight passages, ferry around ledges, and take refuge in mid-stream eddies so that strong currents or irregular waves did not swamp our canoe.
But, we were pushing it a bit to tackle the three Class IV rapids in the Loop by ourselves. Those rapids contained some large, unavoidable waves and some deep holes that required precise boat handling under pressure. However, the "pool-and-plunge" character of this stretch of the Yough reassured us: after every rapids was a pool of quieter water in which we could right our boat and gather our wits in case we flipped. Which we did. More than once.
We were also aided by Ron Rathnow's "Flip Map of the Youghiogheny River," part of the Great American Rivers Flip Map series printed by Menasha Ridge Press, publishers of our well-worn Appalachian Whitewater: The Central Mountains. Each page of the palm-sized flip map detailed a different rapids, using dots, arrows, circles, and squiggly or diagonal lines to depict rocks, ledges, waves, hydraulics, and eddies. Bright red arrows showed your options: Hero Route, Sneak Route, or Portage Route.
It was particularly important to note the hydraulics, also known as "holes," places in the river where a wave below a drop curls back on itself, creating a powerful and turbulent reversal of the current. A bad hole can capture and re-circulate capsized paddlers, tumbling them over and over, keeping them underwater. According to Appalachian Whitewater, Railroad Rapids has "a particularly juicy hydraulic known as Charlie's Washing Machine."
Relying on Rathnow's graphics, and scouting from shore above the trickier rapids, we had a chance of avoiding disaster.
I should have looked more carefully at Rathnow's diagram of Railroad Rapids when I ran the Loop solo on June 27, 1994. Fresh from a women-only whitewater canoeing class at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in North Carolina, I'd graduated to my own solo canoe: a 13-foot Dagger Impulse constructed of red Royalex, a tough composite of vinyl, plastic and foam. I'd splurged to add gleaming ash trim. With a deep bow and four inches of rocker, the Impulse would pivot easily and ride up on the waves.
Kneeling astride the foam saddle, my thighs secured with straps attached to D-rings on the bottom of the canoe, I could lean out over my paddle and the canoe would lean with me, the more quickly to turn or the more solidly to brace. What a sweet boat.
But paddling solo, I was responsible for every decision, every move. No Ed steering in the stern or lending strength in the bow. I was on my own.
"It's all in the hips," my NOC instructor had said. "Sit up straight and turn your torso like a horse on a carousel pole. But keep your hips flexible. Loose hips save ships."
On that June day, I was paddling my new Impulse. Ed was paddling a beat-up old Blue Hole, the grandaddy of whitewater canoes, that he'd bought used from a friend for $250.
The first rapids, Entrance, went fast. The water was up, brown and swirling, from last night's rain. I took the sneak route down the right. "Coward," Ed teased.
I didn't want to play the waves or the holes. I just wanted to stay upright.
The next big rapids was Cucumber, a tumultuous drop squeezed between large boulders. The guidebook said that swimming Cucumber must be like getting flushed down the toilet. The current above Cucumber kept pushing me right when I needed to go left to set up for the drop. Draw, draw. My arms felt limp, ineffectual. But somehow I made it to the left, and then bloop, I was riding the tongue, down the brown water, down into the standing waves that turned me sideways and squirted me into the eddy. "I did it," I whooped. And set to bailing the water out of the canoe.
We took the next three rapids cleanly, except I broached on a rock in Dartmouth and had to lean downstream to let the current lift the boat free. "Steady, girl, steady," I told myself. Watching Ed pivot neatly into a micro-eddy below a rock in the middle of the stream, I became impatient with my own caution. I took off for Railroad Rapids without a word.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. I couldn't remember which way the flip map had said to go. As I saw the railroad trestle high above the river, the roar from the water hit me and I was at the top of the drop. I couldn't see anything but a horizon line where the river fell away in front of me.
Just as I planted my paddle deeply and pulled right, a man sitting on the shore yelled, "Go left, go left." But it was too late. The current swept me forward over the four-foot drop and a wave hit me. I was under water in an instant. And out of the canoe.
My head popped up and there was the red underside of the canoe beside me and my paddle in my hand and water churning all around me. Shit! I was in Charlie's Washing Machine, one of the nastiest holes in the river. I'd even aimed for it. All I could see was foaming white water.
My shin scraped a rock. A kayaker pulled alongside me and I grabbed the tow loop on his boat, kicking toward the boulders by shore. I humped myself onto a rock like a sea lion, water streaming from under my helmet over my face and down my back. I stretched out, panting.
Another kayaker was sitting in the eddy in a battered lime green squirt boat with duct tape on the bow. He raised one eyebrow, smiling.
"That was an adventurous line you took," he said.
I could see Ed downstream pulling my canoe toward the shore. I looked down at my dripping wetsuit. I'd made it! Every inch of me felt alive. I smiled back.
"Yes, it was," I said.
Sure, it's wise to avoid mishaps if we can. But the places where we've been trashed make the best stories. Our own personal flip maps, so to speak. I do know this: Turbulence doesn't last forever. And strangers are often kind.
So, be a little crazy today. Dare something. Take the adventurous route. If nothing else, when it's all over, you'll have a glorious story to tell.
Scripture: "'Lord, if it's you,' Peter replied, 'tell me to come to you on the water.'
'Come,' Jesus said." Matthew 14:28-29 (NIV)
Playlist: "Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)," Words and Music by Matt Crocker, Joel Houston & Salomon Ligthelm, Hillsong Music Publishing, 2012.