Monday, August 13, 2018

open canoe nationals

Boofing rocks in the hot sun
I fought the course
and the course won

In retrospect it probably would have been better not to fight the course. This was the canoe National whitewater slalom races, held on a wild bit of BLM land just north of Buena Vista. As usual all my training plans went to heck, so came the day and I had not been in my solo boat on the river since 2011, whoops oh well.

We had warmed up with a 3 day wilderness trip on the Rio Chama in New Mexico. The takeout of this trip is near Ghost Ranch where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and worked for many years. Here's younger son and I at the bottom of Aragon Rapid.

This is not Aragorn of the Dunedain heir of Isuldur, nor the dragon Saphira and her boy Eragon, nor yet that Victorian land Erewhon though it is also found over the range. Aragon was a kingdom in Spain, presumably with the appropriate castles. Catherine of Aragon was Henry VIII's first wife, lasted eighteen years until her failure to produce a heir and the politics of the day started the beheadings and the Church of England. In Erewhon they did not allow machines, believing that Darwinian selection might produce a mechanical consciousness. Those Victorian novelists knew a thing or two. It's a long way from there to a campsite under the limber pines of New Mexico, loud with the voice of the rapid.

Over the range a small fire was burning, started by lightning some time before. We had paddled into camp watching the plume of smoke and wondering how close to camp it would be.. right over the hill in fact. We had good rains so chanced it and camped anyway. Several times in the night I woke up smelling smoke, had to go out and check if we needed to hide in the river. Luckily not.

After all that, drive six hours back to Denver, unpack, repack, and head out to Buena Vista.

There's a river out there somewhere beyond the cactus and I have the boats to do something about it. 

Looking downstream on the first evening, before the captains and the kings arrive.

Looking upstream from the middle of the course, racing day, as the boats and paddlers assemble in the top eddy.

The course designer created the most difficult slalom course I've ever paddled, way harder than the other two Nationals I attended. Eventually I figured out an approximate strategy for the first twelve gates but after that there was a sequence of downstream gates which beat me. Coming out of gate 12 was like going into a bad horror movie - terrible things keep happening faster than I can react to them for no good reason and they don't stop. My usual strategy for horror movies as a teenager was to close my eyes at the horrid bits, not useful in rapid whitewater.

The series of gates culminated in gate 16, dubbed "the suicide move", had to paddle straight at a rock in fast current and drop in behind it with a quick paddle stroke at the last split second. I did not manage this so usually just bounced off the rock and battled to stay upright.  Gate 16 is happening in the first pic above, though that is not me, but John from MT Canoes. They make light composite boats based on classic hulls from the plastic era. These are way lighter than plastic but I fear to paddle them as I'm a bit of a rock basher. My second canoe was fiberglass and more patch than boat by the time we'd finished battering it down the rivers. The plastic era ended when some GiantCorp bought out the manufacturers of Royalex and decided its profit margins were not sufficient to keep the CEOs in the style to which they wished to become accustomed. There is no replacement for Royalex - the composites are light but expensive and not nearly as durable, the polyethylene boats are tough but as heavy as the sins I can't forget. An old secondhand Royalex boat in decent condition is now more expensive that it was when new.

Another way around the rock to gate 16, worked for some but not for me.

The way it's supposed to look. This I think is Jerrod from Alabama. He'd been eager to leave AL until taking up whitewater, and realizing there were hundreds of runs available within an hour or two of home.

The first morning there was a yearling bear wandering around the camp. I got out of my car, thought "wow that's a BIG black Lab" and went to pat him, than noticed the rolling gait and realized it was a bear. He gave me a sad disillusioned look and walked off into the trees. Apparently he'd been eating garbage in town first. CPW came out and shot him with anesthetic darts, bundled off to an unknown fate. The second morning a mountain lion was reported up on the ridge above the campsites, eyeing the dogs.

This was probably the largest collection of canoes seen in the US since the last Nationals.

They littered the countryside, a terrain comprised of rocks, cactus, juniper, and a thirty foot steep drop from the plain to the river. This is fine if you have a light composite canoe, pick it up with one hand and walk off. We on the other hand had classic plastic weighing anything from 55lb to 76lb. Bucking those up and down from the river, then the quarter mile back to the top of the run, quite wore me out. I decided to start a new fitness program, CanoeFit ! Functional strength from lifting and carrying canoes up hills and over cactus and under scrubby juniper on rocky trails. You begin with the light short composite boats, and work your way up to Real Man boats, 18-20 foot Royalex weighing 80-110lbs. Like this one, from when we were young.

Back to the race.

Ota-san comes out from Japan every year to race and win. As shown he's always having a good time, too.

I am thinking much too hard. Whitewater slalom rewards a calm focus on moving smoothly through the river. Fighting the course means the course will always win. At first descent, crashing and splashing my way down, it made no sense at all. By the end it was clear it was beautifully integrated into the natural progression of rock and river, something like a work of art. Intellectually this was a delight, in the physical world I couldn't do it but at least it is wonderful to be able to try.

This gives a good sense of the infrastructure needed to hang all those gates. After one day there was already a fishing lure tangled and broken off on one of the overhead wires. I saved it when we took the gates down, mostly to spare anyone else from getting impaled by the treble barbed hooks.

Me and #2 son racing in the Citizen tandem class. We won this by virtue of being the only entrants in the class.. ha. We still did have to run at least some of the gates and stay upright, which was not a given on this course. #2 son asked, "so is this one of those medals for participation I keep hearing about ?"

Our thanks to the team of Oxenford/Carpenter in OC2 Rec, who had the fine idea of skipping the harder gates. Each missed gate is a 50 second penalty. We had done a class with Kent Ford before the race, flipped and swam out of the river. Kent was giving feedback to the other class participants, looked at us and said, "well, more time in the boat, really" which was uncontestable. I'd thought we would not race. Then Ms. Oxenford pointed out that it was possible to construct a Citizen version of the course by simply deciding to miss the risky difficult move from 7 to 8, and the peelout from 12. On our first run I also skipped 4 and 5 where we'd swum. Since we stayed up throughout that run, we included those on the second run and dropped our score by 100 seconds, which probably qualified us for Most Improved as well as National Champioeens in OC2 Citizen Rec.

We'd originally planned to be in the OC2 Youth/Senior class, before I realized #2 son had just turned 17 so was no longer a Youth. This turned out to be a good thing, as the Youth/Senior was unusually deep this year, packed with Whitterns and fierce young competitors from Spain. Here's one of them, paddling solo.

Esquif canoes donated one of their beautiful light boats as a door prize. Your fearless organizer Alan Whittern models one of the easier CanoeFit poses with it.

He worked himself to a wraith, putting this whole show on the river. Our profound thanks, Alan. I was also deeply impressed by the amount of work he got out of his daughters. Among many other tasks, they ran the radio communications between the score keepers (them), gate judges, and finish timer. When Alan got on the river for a solo run, the Disrespectful Daughter radio'd out, "old man Whittern is coming down the course now. Please have his cane ready for when he gets out of the boat". I'm sure they only do it because they love him..

#2 son, dear wife, and I all took turns as gate judges and finish timer. I really don't like judging but it's necessary for the racing. When #1 son was on swim team I'd sometimes volunteer as a stroke and turn judge, which requires disqualifying small children for stroke infractions. It was probably good for them to be disqualified in meets where it didn't matter, so they would not be disqualified in college team meets later in life. Still.

Eli takes that Equif boat or one just like it, through the gates. This looks a clear case of nominative determinism - a fine Old Testament name like that, suits the magnificent Old-Testament-patriarchal beard.

The slalom finished on the third day and the gates vanished from the river. All remaining competitors went off for the downriver racing, a four mile stretch below Buena Vista. I remained to fish a bit for the small wild brown trout. My first theory was they would have been disturbed by all the boat traffic, so would have developed good appetites and be easy to catch. The second theory was they would have been rested from fishermen, so would be easy to catch. Neither of these worked - it appears that frankly my dear they don't give a damn.  I caught a couple by grace of the fishing gods.

It was extremely strange to fish up through where the course had been. It felt like like losing your faith, all the structure and meaning we impose, gone from the world, and only bare rock and water left.

Of course the trout that live there find structure and meaning enough.

My thanks to the Oxenfords for hosting us, and to Ms. O for the pictures, which may also be found here. I have always depended on the kindness of strangers. Well, friends really, in this case.