The fingers of my right hand twitched around the fiberglass shaft of the kayak paddle as my Chacos crunched their way down the double-wide gravel path that leads to the put in. A small whitewater boat rested heavily on my left shoulder, and my heart pounded just a little harder with each step closer to the water. Leading the way, my companion, Stu, let out a whoop! He was trying to get himself amped up through his exhaustion. Stu had done about six laps on this particular stretch of river in the past two days, lending to his fatigue. I had done exactly zero.
The two-mile stretch of the Magalloway River just below Aziscohos Lake is a section of class 3 whitewater that has been beating me up for the past year and a half. Every time I got in this river, I would start in a boat and would end up swimming. After the first couple of times, I earned the title “Captain of the Magalloway Swim Team”. I would boast about it as loudly and sarcastically as I could. My most recent attempt on this river had been in a kayak for the first time and had yielded similar results.
The closer we got to the edge of the river, the more difficult it was to keep calm. The warning signs portraying stick figures caught in recirculating currents along the path didn’t help, and neither did my past experience. The deafening sound of the water crashing down the rocks plunged me back into memories of what happened the first and last time I tried this in a kayak…
I had been doing well. Well enough that I started to gain a tiny bit of confidence. Then I rounded a bend and saw it. The last rapid. Crap, I thought. I forgot about this one. My confidence evaporated. Before I dropped down into the diagonal wave, I had a clear view of it. For a moment everything was frozen and in front of me was this beast of a rapid, crashing onto itself and threatening to swallow me whole. Some insane kayaker was surfing it. For the next two weeks, that image would be etched into my retinas. Then time started again. I screamed, petrified, as the river pulled me in. The wave snatched my bow and threw me to the left. I slammed into the person who was surfing and flipped my kayak over.
Even though I had a nose plug on, my hand instinctively came off of my paddle to grip my nostrils. Rolling was the furthest thing from my brain as I immediately ripped the spray skirt off, shed the kayak, and swam for the surface. I came out of the river that day beaten black and blue, and couldn’t even take a redemption lap. My body responded to the incident with nausea so severe that I thought I was going to vomit. I made myself at home bent over in the tree line of the takeout parking lot for a solid 20 minutes. The beast had won.
Back at the put in, I mentally shook myself. “Knock it off,” I said. “You’re better than that now, you can do this.” My fragile attempt at confidence was slightly bolstered by my companion. Stu waited as I clumsily got into my boat, his kayak bobbing lazily in the current as he kept himself in place with ease. “The beginning is the toughest part!” he yelled over the din of the crashing waves. “Make sure you ferry out past this rock here and don’t get caught in that strainer!” I nodded, recognizing the features as he pointed them out. I clamped the nose plug down, gripped my paddle, exhaled sharply, and followed Stu down the rapids.
The first section was a mess of big holes that I either narrowly avoided, or accidentally punched straight into. I could feel my kayak stick to them, and I paddled hard to get out, only to plunge back into the next one. The little kayak would often end up completely underwater for a moment before popping back up. Waves smacked me in the face as if to say “take that!” If I wasn’t so nervous I would have been laughing; getting a wave to the face is one of my favorite things about whitewater. In short, it was chaos. It seemed so much bigger than last time. “Big eddy coming up on the left!” Stu shouted. I knew exactly which eddy he was talking about and after a few more waves I eagerly peeled into it. Soaked, shaking, and breathless I exhaled and let myself relax in the pool of slow-moving upstream current.
Stu peeled into the eddy after me with practiced grace and a huge grin on his face. Laughing, he said, “That’s probably the biggest shit you’ve ever paddled!” I responded by nodding wordlessly, and then asked, “what’s it running at?”
“1200,” he said, offhandedly.
I gawked. 1200?! The last time I was here it was only 900! I thought instantly of the beast rapid at the end, with an extra 300 cubic feet per second of water pumping through it. Stu must have read the look on my face, because he continued, “don’t think about the level, you’re already through the hard part.”
“Riiiight,” I said, with obvious trepidation. Stu played in the eddy line for a while, then we continued down. I could handle this middle part, I knew. I even had a little bit of fun with it, especially the wave trains that would send you up and down like a roller coaster. I loved the feeling of that rhythm. Occasionally, I would smash into a wave that was big enough to send another face full of water my way. I relished the thrill of these moments. I love the way the river nudges you on, downstream, and you have to think three steps in front of you. It’s a clarity of thought that I have tried and failed to cultivate in other sports but is thrust upon me in whitewater.
After what seemed like way less time than I remembered, we rounded a corner and saw my nemesis. I recognized it immediately. The cabin on the hill in front of us was a dead give away. After a mellow straight away we would be in the thick of it. “Stu!” I shouted, “how do I do this!” It was less of a question and more of a demand.
“Let’s pull off into that eddy.” I followed him to a small eddy on the left, right above the corner where the rapid churned below us. Once we were stopped, he explained, “you’re going to come out of this eddy, and stay as far river left as you can. There’s a small ledge, and then you’ll see this big diagonal wave on your right. Stay to the left of it. Got it?” I got it. I knew exactly which wave he was talking about.
I looked back over my shoulder at the corner, then nodded at Stu. “I’m ready,” I said. What I meant was, “I’m about to have a nervous breakdown, but I have to do this, or I’ll probably never kayak again.” Stu peeled out of the eddy, and I followed him down. I watched as he disappeared over the ledge, and I let the current pull my kayak to the same spot. My boat plopped harmlessly down on the other side of the ledge, and Stu shouted: “There’s that wave!” I followed his pointed finger out to the right to see the rapid that had destroyed me two weeks ago about 15 feet off to the side. I looked back at Stu. I was dumbfounded. That was it?
Of course, we had to paddle through another short section of holes and waves before we were truly out of the woods. I didn’t remember them because I swam them last time. In my kayak, I handled them with clumsy ease. I was no expert, but I was certainly becoming more familiar with what it felt like to run this river semi-correctly. We came out on the other side and Stu exclaimed, “that’s the end of the big stuff!”
I looked around, still not quite believing it. The monster wave that had been haunting my waking memories, was easily navigated around with the right expertise. I didn’t even have to go through it. I laughed a little, and let myself relax. Paddle balancing on my boat, I lay back and let my arms trail in the cool water. Gazing up at the cloudy sky, overarching tree branches slowly retreated behind me as the current pushed us towards the take out. The beast had been slain. I had paddled the Magalloway in a kayak, and I didn’t even swim.
For the remainder of the season, I’d stick to paddling the short class 2 Errol Rapids section of the Androscoggin that I’ve been learning on. I had been focusing on rolling in both flat water and current, but each time I flipped on accident I would panic and pull my skirt. On the last Wednesday of the season, I was out paddling with a few friends. I pushed myself and surfed things I’d never tried before. My confidence was building and I could feel how much I had improved as a kayaker from the beginning of the season. Then, I flipped while surfing a hole at the end of the section. It happened fast before I had time to register that I was underwater. I twisted around for a few seconds, disoriented and unsure of what to do. Then my brain said, “roll.” Muscle memory took over and before I could consciously process what was happening, I was back above the water. I’d just had my first successful combat roll, and it was the best feeling in the world. I know I’m not going to be dropping any waterfalls any time soon, but after two years of learning, I’m finally feeling like I almost know what I’m doing.
This post was edited by Brian Cornell.