Upriver

A semi-spiritual experience from an unlikely mentor, if you’re open to the possibility.

“Can I offer you some advice?” he asked.

I had been head down in the evening sun, trying like mad to keep the kayak on a straight line. No sooner would I get a few strokes ahead the nose would slowly begin to yaw, the stern just a few seconds behind, and the boat would slowly veer to the left. Constant left turns are good for race cars, but out on the water, I know that it only creates more work, more friction, getting nowhere, and I was feeling powerless to stop it.

Throughout the struggle and wasted energy, I had slipped to the back of the pack of 18, and in a competitive world such as it is, you do not want to dwell at the rear of the pack. Although this cruise was pleasure, it was also work in the literal sense, the group being coworkers trying to shed stress during a long week of meetings.

He paddled over to me, sunlight glinting off of the paddle each time it emerged from the water, as if the answer to his question was plainly scrawled on my face. His boat cut through headwinds and currents with the grace and ease of a waterborne creature, which made perfect sense in my head, for he was the prototypical lifelong kayaker, tall, thin, slightly unkempt beard and wild curly hair. He could have been born from this water.

“God, yes,” I said. “I can’t seem to keep it on a straight line.”

“Yeah, no worries, it’s something most people struggle with at first.” But this wasn’t my first rodeo.

My first encounter included a brief introduction to paddling and safety instructions that were summed up in, “If you roll the boat, hang on and don’t panic, I’ll come roll you over.” And everything was fine floating along with the current. It wasn’t until we tried to turn around and go upriver that the defects in my technique became some plainly evident. I couldn’t surmount three knots of current, and my traveling companion that day couldn’t teach me enough technique to get it done. So maybe it didn’t actually count.

“First, try widening your grip on the paddle,” he said, holding his up in the air to show me his hands.

I held up my paddle to measure my grip. My hands had a mere forearm’s length between them. I spread them just outside the width of my shoulders.

“That’s great,” he said. “Now remember what we talked about on the dock…”

He lifted his paddle and gripped it wide as he had instructed me to do. “What you want to do is dip the paddle in the water at your feet and sweep it back to your seat.” He put his paddle in the water and the boat jumped forward with such grace and ease of a social debutante that it seemed an embarrassment for me to even try. “Feet to seat - that’s what you need to remember.”

“Keep the paddle centered in front of you, as if it were suspended on a string. Cut to the left; cut to the right.”

“Dip.” Now that was an interesting choice of words. A dip is dainty, it’s easy, it’s soft, it’s what you do when you’re trying to relax in the water — you take a dip. I had been trying to jam my paddle into the water like a shovel into earth and pull back with authority to move the boat forward. So I tried softening my approach.

I dipped my paddle into the water at my feet and swept back to my seat, and already the boat was responding better.

“That’s great,” he said. “Now, to keep it on a truly straight line, we want to aim for a fixed point in space up the river. Whatever you do, don’t focus on the bow of the boat.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because the boat is never really going to travel in a straight line. The bow is acted on by the wind and the river flowing around it. I mean, nothing really travels a straight line. If you attempt to keep it straight by looking at the bow of the boat, you’ll just chase the nose all over the river and never get anywhere.

“It’s kind of like archery,” he said, leaning over to me as if confiding a secret. “I’m in to all these esoteric activities.

“The arrow moving through the air is acted upon by so many outside forces, and what you’re trying to do is get it to the destination by factoring in all these forces. From the moment you release the arrow, it’s literally out of our control. You have to see the path to the target before you release it, then you have to put it on course. Whatever happens once you release it, happens. It’s the same with the kayak.”

This should have been obvious to me. I have enough life experience to know that nature abhors straight lines the same way it abhors a vacuum - passive and resolute in her wanton disregard for them.

The Earth is just a spinning ball encircling the sun. Long-haul pilots know well that the best routes between two locations on opposite ends of the planet are actually great circles…arcs…parabolas - not straight lines. If you go in a straight line, you’ll miss your destination by tens of miles just due to the rotation of the Earth. Factor in the vagaries of the wind and you could be off by hundreds of miles.

Paddling a kayak through a river is no different. You have currents below you, wind above you, and all sorts of structures and creatures and encounters that alter the whole damn ebb and flow of the thing. Like everything else in life, getting there is all about balancing those the forces. Stay focused on what you’re trying to achieve and cut the best path possible.

I continued to focus on my paddling and was making good progress.

“How do I get the boat to turn when I want it to turn?” In my quest for forward progress, intentional turning, too, had eluded me, and I found myself digging in my paddle and practically stopping every few strokes to realign the nose of the boat before guiding it in the right direction.

“The best water for turning lies outside the wake of the boat,” he said. “If you look down at the water, you’ll see that your boat is leaving a bit of a wake behind it, that “V”. What you want to do is make a wide sweeping motion on the side, just outside of the wake.”

With a few easy strokes, he turned his kayak with great precision, first to the left, next to the right. “Give it a try,” he said.

I looked into the water to find the “V” and placed my paddle outside by making wide C-shaped cuts. I was gaining some control through better technique, but by no means was it perfect.

“Good job!” he said. “Now put it all together. Just paddle the boat as you know how while you focus on a fixed point ahead, and you’ll get there…At least you’ll get somewhere.” He chuckled. And with a few broad strokes, he paddled ahead to take the lead of the group.

I looked upriver and fixed my gaze on a few houses about a half mile up at a slight bend. I paddled the way that I had been instructed and achieved some immediate success. I still had trouble keeping the boat on a straight line. My turns weren’t crisp. The nose of the boat really wanted to weathervane into the wind, and total control was just out of my grasp. Every handful of strokes I still had to dig in my paddle to keep the boat from turning left, but that was better than it had been. My situation wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was improving.

We turned and paddled down a back-channel created by a long island. The island mitigated the effects of the wind, flattening the water, which had begun to glow red with the sunset. In the back-channel, we floated a little more and stroked a little less, buoyed by the fatigue what was slowly creeping in with the night. We joked about the experience, and before the conversation could get too intimate, we slipped into small talk about the usual stuff - kids, travel, parents, whatnot.

Coming out of the channel the river opened up and revealed the entirety of herself, spanning nearly half a mile of open water. Our back-channel wind shelter was gone and the surface of the water was frothy with a mild chop. The turbulence, combined with the flow of heavy traffic through the main channel, made the last half mile the most challenging of the trip.

I waited for a growling speedboat to pass and then began making my way across the open water. The kayak rocked and pitched beneath me, and the wind became breezy. Despite my inadequate technique, I managed to clear the channel, reach the opposite shore and tuck into the lee created by nearby high-rise condos.

We turned into the marina and one-by-one our guides held the kayaks in place while we extricated ourselves from the boats. We had made it this far without falling in, and they made sure that each of us safely climbed out and avoided actually using our life jackets.

Back on shore, I returned my life jacket and paddle and thanked the guides for their help. I ascended the long gangplank back to the restaurants and bars on the street above, where thirst got the best of us, and we imbibed in a celebratory ale or two, toasting a successful evening on the water.

As I raised my glass of tan, frothy liquid, I could still feel the rock of the boat in my legs, and the fatigue in my arms. Still I felt that I was at least heading in the right direction.