Thursday, July 28, 2011

open boating

In canoe and kayak parlance, the open boat is just a good old-fashioned canoe (English: Canadian canoe) though usually made of newfangled materials for whitewater boating. These are also known as Tupperware boats by the wood-and-canvas canoe snobs, who in turn are looked down upon by the birch-bark canoeists, and so on back to papyrus or so I guess. We paddle plastic quite happily. I figure the karma is different with a petroleum product under you, but the zen of paddling is the same. 

This year my old friend Jeff led with his chin, and agreed to organize the open canoe slalom National Championships. The plan was to hold it on the fine slalom course at Clear Creek in Golden, which is good at river flows from about 300 cfs up to 900 or so. Parenthetically, cfs here is a measure of water flow, cubic feet per second, rather than chronic fatigue syndrome, for which latter trouble canoeing is an antidote. Above 900 cfs that course becomes hairboating - boating extremely dangerous water within a hair's breadth of disaster - and not only that, but hairboating with no recovery pool below the rapids, where distressed boaters could be picked up. Instead they'd end up sucked into the Coors factory intake downstream and turned into ricewater beer. We had a long cold spring with extra snow falling in the mountains until June, followed by a warm snap so it all melted at once, producing a predicted 1400 cfs at Golden. The Coors fate was too ghastly to contemplate: Jeff and Julie picked up and moved the whole organization, volunteers and all, from Golden to the Arkansas river whitewater park in Salida. That's about a man-month of work to be done in a week. Luckily Julie was there to get it done faster than the men could have. 

Going out the first gate. 

Salida had a predicted 2500 cfs. Although this is nearly double the Golden flows, the river channel is far larger, so the course was still approximately manageable. In the event it started at 3400 and hit 4000 by Sunday, an historic high for July. Jeff had to keep changing the course as the eddies disappeared, boiled into a froth, etcetera. As Nate said at the Saturday awards introducing him, "and here's the man standing in front of the train, JEFF!" They pulled it off, no deaths and only one horrible swim, which happened after practice the first evening when the river had emptied of boaters. The swimmer made it out after a mile or so but the boat went on for ten after which it was no longer riverworthy. 

Pat the swimmer (also a competitor, announcer, and sea shanty singer - these fringe sports competitions don't happen without lots of help from everyone) got to work with fiberglass in camp that night, patching up the hull to race next day, but somehow contrived to get a fiber in his eye and scratch the cornea. One emergency room visit later he had a natty black eyepatch which did nothing for depth perception around the slalom gates, but went very well with the sea shanties. 

Two gate judges huddle in a passing rainstorm, a hired safety kayaker paid from Jeff and Julie's Fund for Indigent Paddlers waits in the eddy for someone to rescue, and the sun shines on the distant Mt. Princeton. We stayed with Jeff at their cabin in the shadow of that mountain, next to Mt. Antero. On all three mornings coming out along Chalk Creek, I got stuck behind gapers on the canyon road. Gapers are those folks who aren't used to mountain scenery, so drive along with their jaws hanging slack and heads swivelling, at 15mph. Bless them all, it's an understandable reaction, but I do wish they'd pull off occasionally to let their accumulating tail of cars go by.

The first day I'd hoped to compete in the solo playboat division. At 3700cfs and rising, not having boated whitewater in the past.. um.. year.. the better part of valour seemed for me to volunteer as gate judge, general dogsbody, etc.


In the afternoon I helped with the timing. The fastest run I timed that afternoon was a woman. The fastest run in the novice recreational boat category, was also a woman. Open boating slalom rewards skill far beyond strength: it's much more zen than kayaking, a sort of active meditation on the river. As the kayakers say respectfully of canoeists (or so we'd like to think), half the paddle, twice the paddler. Actually what they usually say is, "you're going to paddle that in a canoe ?" in tones of mixed wonder, incredulity and doubt.

Sitting on a handsome bit of Salida granite with a simple job to do and the river to watch, I found myself quite contented.
Mark Twain wrote,
The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book .. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. There was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip .. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparklingly renewed with every reperusal.
Looking into the face of the water, purling in the sun, was payment and recompense enough for far more work than I was doing. 

I read rivers for pleasure only, canoeing, fishing and swimming. The first two readings are quite similar, since the canoeist is looking for many of the same things in the river as a fish: trout don't like to live in turbulence any more than a boater does. Late that day there was a small hatch of caddis fly. I wanted to add the pages on fishing, but there wasn't time. To quote myself,
finding fish means reading the river, like a book in a new language,  "like any writing to the illiterate"; deciphering the meanings of leaves that pause in the current, a curl of water on the surface from a boulder five feet down; things for which an instinct would need no elucidation, though dry observation needs a slow long chain of reasons. Carefully, attentively, I watch the tip of the line as it drifts, imagining the fly's progress as it lifts and swirls over the rocks. From diving in rivers, I know the cool gloom down there, under a bright and dancing sky: holding in a break of the current, seeing the drift of small particles of detritus blowing by, travelling fast in one place.
Our good dog Artie waits patiently, bored under the tree.. "so when do I get to run for ten miles wagging happily the whole way ?" As I write he's lying on my feet keeping them warm, sighing occasionally for the pheasants I missed on Sunday.

Sunday morning, and the river she done rise. The original plan was to have son Ian and Jeff's daughter compete in the tandem canoe youth division. This section was nowhere worse than class III, but it had considerable exposure, as the climbers say: a flip and swim here had the potential to be extremely nasty. We decided not to sacrifice our children to the strong brown god of the river, at least today. 

Instead we raced as father and offspring, in the mixed tandem division. Here Jeff and daughter peel out of the bridge eddy, very very carefully. To explicate a bit - see how the boat is aligned with the streak of white water running across the river, which is a wave. An unguarded moment on exiting the eddy will put the boat up on the wave and surf it across the channel, leaving you perfectly positioned to smash down onto that bridge wave visible at the top right, flip and swim through the bridge. This happened to a few racers, giving the rest of us an opportunity to practice our rescue skills. Jeff is already turned and safe below the wave, well set up for the next gate downstream. 

Nate and his son show why they won the division, staying focused in the rain - just look at those beautiful co-ordinated paddle strokes.  Compare and contrast with my disorderly thrashing, below.

We stayed up and made most of the gates, which is about as much as I ever can manage. Dilettantes never never will triumph, but that's OK, we had a good time. Racing is a kind of joy unrepeatable in any other life. The best writing on this is by Jamie McEwan (Sandra Boynton's husband) in a canoeing magazine, not online unfortunately - "The Sublime Irrelevance of Racing", Canoe and Kayak, March, 1997. I clipped that article and saved it, in so safe a place that I've never found it again. A newer essay from Jamie,
competition inevitably brings stress and pain--and that's exactly what we're looking for. We crave intensity. As Charlotte Brontë wrote: "It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it." 
Ian and I were fourth by 27 seconds to Jeff and daughter's third place. This seemed after all fair, Jeff deserved more than one medal. 

This be the bridge.. fortunately it has a friendly abutment, rounded and smooth, so the water, boats and boaters roll off it easily. Other bridges, such as Mean Bridge on the Bridges run of the Poudre, have sharp abutments which trap and wrap boats. Mean Bridge used to be known as Killer Bridge since it has taken a life or two, but the name was changed to reduce stress for new boaters. 

After our second run I was sitting below the bridge cogitating, and not buckled in to the thigh straps. Yells and whistles from upstream alerted us to the imminent appearance of racer wreckage coming down. The safety kayaker and I ferried out, he went after the swimmer and I went after the boat. There are various ways to retrieve a flipped canoe: the safest for the retriever is to use your boat as a barge and keep bumping the hull of the other boat until it gets to shore. As a practicing coward, this is my usual method. I'd almost got the boat into an eddy, then looked at the six-foot wave preceding a strainer just downstream and made an executive decision to let the boat go. It worked out since there were people below salvaging a boat from previous carnage, and the new boat came right by them into the next eddy. Yoicks. Open boaters know we're all just in between swims. 

Pat's sea shanty was sung at the awards to reward the most difficult feat in canoe slalom, a clean tandem run. I regret to say I don't remember all of it, only this fragment:
with our spins and braces we can win this race
we might even have some fun, boys,
we might even have some fun 

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