The river widened to sixty feet and we paddled along the center line. There was no time to move toward the riverbank to contemplate options. We had to pass beneath the wire and avoid getting hung up.
Mark went first, extending his paddle and using it like a big spatula, flipping the wire over his head as he lay back in his boat. He made it. I heard him hoot in triumph.
“Is the electricity on?” I yelled.
Mark never heard me as the rushing water drowned out most everything.
I noticed that the wire hung lower to my left and I wanted to pass in the center where Mark had been successful. But as I kept my eyes focused to the left – focusing on what I did not want – I found my boat being pulled in that direction as if I was caught in a tractor beam.
(For the rest of the trip, whenever I saw something I did not want to hit – a riverbank, log, or a rock – I made a point of picking out the exact path I wanted the kayak to go and locking my focus there. I found myself remembering a passage from a book that described some of the nuances of auto racing. The advice given was to remember that your car will go where your eyes go. So if you ever find yourself getting out of control, focus your eyes and attention on where you want to go. It seemed to work on the river.)
As I drew closer, I could see that the wire would meet me just below my chest. Having the top half of my body coming to a halt while the lower half continued at the speed of the river would not be good. Another capsize would be the least of my concerns.
From my seated position, I leaned all the way back in my boat. Using my hand to raise the wire, there was just enough clearance to allow my upturned nose to limbo under with a few inches to spare. On the other side, I exhaled and expressed my thanks that the electricity was not flowing.
The adrenaline pumped through my veins. As crazy as this little venture was turning out to be, I felt alive.
A few minutes later, another wire spanning the width of the river came into view. Three orange ribbons tied to the wire made it visible from a distance. A hundred yards further we could see sharp bend; we had no way of knowing what lay around the corner.
As we approached the second wire, the river grew louder and more intense. Thoughts popped into my head.
Were these wires were meant as a warning? A barrier to keep us from passing? Clearly, no one else ever kayaks the Mettowee River. There must be a reason for this…
Is there a waterfall around the bend?
The image of the young woman who died pinned in a waterfall emerged.
Strung higher than the first, we passed under the second wire with little difficulty. I caught up to Mark and pointed towards the riverbank. With the image of a waterfall in my brain, taking a moment to go ashore and scope out the situation seemed prudent.
As I jumped out of my boat and pulled it up the riverbank, I watched Mark behind me. Hesitating for an instant upon his exit, his battle was over. The river pushed his kayak sideways and Mark fell up to his chest in the frigid water. His words expressed the shock to his system and he fought to drag his boat ashore.
Seeing Mark get soaked added to my sense of urgency. We would need to keep moving to stay warm. Glancing upward, I guessed we had about 40 minutes of daylight left. I also knew we were at least ninety minutes from the warmth of Mark’s truck.
I started running toward the bend to get a view of what lay ahead, but quickly discovered that the blooming brush made passage impossible. I returned to Mark, emptying his boat from the flood.
I could feel my body temperature dropping and I asked Mark (blessed with a full head of hair) if I could wear his baseball cap to trap some heat. Of course, he said. While his hat was too big for my head, my fingers were too numb to do any adjusting.
We needed to get back on the water. Mark joked about how high he would blast the heater in his truck. Thinking warm thoughts, we pushed on. Around the bend, there were some rapids and a few drops, but no waterfall.
We did not stop paddling for the next hour. Coming to a sharp bend, I failed to negotiate the turn and quickly found myself dog-paddling in the river once again. The water was very deep and fast. I had to float my boat downstream, walking until I found an inlet where I could get my boat ashore and drain it.
I noticed the inlet led back to a farm. The fact that each step was taking me knee-deep in quicksand-like muck combined with the sulfuric smell led me to believe I’d stumbled upon the discharge for the farm’s septic system. Too exhausted to be disgusted, I jumped back in the boat and headed downstream.
The sun dipped behind the mountain and the air cooled. We paddled in the shadows and then we paddled in the darkness. But we would make it. We had no other option.
It was past 8:30 PM when we came up to Mark’s truck. We shared a quick laugh at our sorry selves, but we were not home yet. Our take out spot was extremely poor – the current ran very strong and the riverbank was at least 10 feet high and very steep.
To ensure that I had the proper respect for her, the Mettowee took me under one last time. Capsizing, I fought to free my lower body from the kayak, hold onto the boat, and keep my head above water. In the blur of self-preservation, I’d released my trusty blue paddle from my grip, never to be seen again.
Mark fired up his truck, and we shivered like wet rats while loading the boats in the darkness. As much as I wanted to rush inside the vehicle, I forced myself to slow down and make sure all the attachments were secure.
The thermometer informed us that it was 40 degrees outside. The water could not have been much warmer.
The bruises would appear tomorrow, but in this moment, we were a smashing success.
And what was our reward?
A cold beer and a story we will tell for the rest of our lives.
* * *
[Drew’s note: If you got this far, thanks for reading this!
I wrote this out for a couple reasons. First, I wanted to remember the experience and getting it on paper helps. And I like to write.
Why do I share it?
I do not consider myself a thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie (I drive pretty slow!) or an extreme adventure person. They are plenty of folks much more hard-core than me. I do not believe that taking risks or cavorting in icy water somehow makes you a better person.
I suppose my inspiration for sharing this story is that despite the discomfort and mishap, Mark and I had fun.
We pushed ourselves physically and mentally. In a few hours, we went felt through a wide range of emotions — from fear to exhilaration.
We immersed ourselves in fantastic natural beauty. In short, we made the space in our lives to ride the river of adventure.
Whether or not you ever choose to get in a kayak, I think embracing life as an adventure, full of highs and lows is a helpful approach.
Sure, you’ll get knocked around every now and again. But everything turns out just fine in the end if you just keep heading downstream…
P.S. If you find a blue paddle, please send it along…
P.P.S. My digital camera pulled through. A couple nights in front of a dehumidifier. For the record, I have completely submerged two Canon Elphs now. Both survived and thrived. Recommend those cameras!