Monday, May 16, 2011

Kayaking the Chena River

I didn't tip over, get lost, pee my pants, or get arrested.

Here's a tip for those of you interested in paddling a river. When the fire department says, while rescuing a teenager stranded on an ice floe, that they can't go upstream because the current is too strong for their boat, that probably doesn't mean that you should try paddling upstream on your own power. Yet, that is precisely what I did. 
I was determined to go paddling at least once before leaving Fairbanks. The weather had finally warmed up so I decided Sunday was the day. At the kayak rental shop, the owner asked if I wanted to do what most people do: paddle downstream to the Pump House restaurant, have lunch, and then get picked up by the shuttle. Shuttle? I don't need no stinkin' shuttle. I'm a kay-ak-er. This little river? Puh-leeze, I can take it. I've been in 5ft open-ocean swell! I'll paddle upstream, eat my cheese sticks, and float back, I announced. (Plus the shuttle was an extra $20 and I didn't want to pay that for a 5 mile ride.)

The current is strong, he said. Do you have paddling experience?

That's when I got all sassy pants with my "tell it to the hand" attitude, letting him know that not only did I have my own boat back home, thank you very much, but I've paddled the likes of San Francisco Bay, Monterrey Bay, Sea of Cortez... Lake Superior... shall I go on? I had even brought my *own* PFD. Oh, snap!

I almost capsized three feet from shore.

As soon as I was beyond the protection of the cove the current just about ripped the boat out from underneath me, twisting me downstream. With a couple of hard sweep strokes I was soon headed in the right direction. I paddled like a mother to get beyond the sight of the people on shore. If I was going over I didn't need an audience!

Despite being much wider than my boat at home this boat was squirrelly! I was not used to the shorter length. Longer, narrow boats track well but don't turn easily. Short boats turn easily, but don't track well. In general, the wider the boat, the more stable it is. When giving me a boat, the rental shop owner pointed out the boat he usually puts novices because of its stability. I pointed to a narrower boat, "This one here will do." He assured me that most people find it a bit tippy but since I was an experienced paddler I'd probably be fine. I nodded my head in agreement. Yes, let's leave these wider boats for the novices, shall we?

The current was deceptively strong. I couldn't control the boat at all. I zig-zagged from one side of the river to the other. When I was finally able to hold a steady position I felt like I wasn't moving. I used trees, and rusted out sinks stuck in the mud, along shore to mark my progress. As long as I was inching past them and not standing still, or going backwards, I figured I was okay. 

Oh and did I mention the walking/bike path that runs along the river? Yes, the entire time I was struggling to paddle four feet upstream, people were breezing up and down the path. Kids waved at me. I didn't dare wave back because if I lifted my paddle out of the water for even one second, I would've been done for. I didn't want to be the "teachable moment" over dinner that night. "Now kids remember what you saw today -- you have to respect the water." 

After 45 minutes of hard paddling and measuring progress from tree stump to tree stump, I gave up. The mallard ducks were swimming faster than I was paddling. I lifted my paddle out of the water and let the current spin me around and carry me downstream. As I drifted with the current and was soon floating past the bikers on shore I realized how fast the current actually was.

I pulled out along the shore for a break.
From here it looks so calm.
After my break, when I hopped back in the boat, the current grabbed the stern and twisted me so that I started to head downstream backwards. Perfect. That was all I needed -- to be floating downstream, backwards. Oh yeah, I'm an experienced paddler. Can't you tell from my tricky backwards paddling? A hard rudder stroke coupled with a few more sweep strokes and I turned myself around.

There was power boat traffic on the river too. To their credit they were all polite and slowed down once they saw me, but still the wake from their boats was not what I needed in my precarious position.

What had taken me 45 minutes to paddle up, I floated down in 15. As I approached the beach at the rental shop and was formulating my landing plan (i.e., DON'T TIP OVER), my stomach dropped. There was a crowd. A big crowd. Other kayakers even. And from the looks of their gear, kayakers who knew what they were doing. Crap. I wanted to float right past them down to the Pump House and beg for a shuttle ride.

Don't tip over, don't tip over, don't tip over, was my chant as I started my landing and paddled hard so my boat would slide up the beach as far as possible. I popped out of the boat quickly with no falls, splashes, or whole-body rock exfoliations. My dignity was somewhat salvaged when I carried my boat back to the shop by myself. Without falling.

Lessons learned: 1) find non-populated areas for launching and landing, and 2) pay the twenty bucks for the shuttle. Just do it.

1 comment:

  1. Great story! I have tipped my kayak in the Chena and done the walk of shame to the car. Glad you made it.