One
bright cold morning early this last March, nine of us in canoes and
kayaks assembled in the pool below a bridge on Mountain Town Creek.
It was the first run of the year for a couple of us fair-weather
paddlers, and four months of hanging from the rafters in the garage
had made my lovely kayak ill-tempered, twitchy, and prone to veering
abruptly in unexpected directions. I paddled around trying to warm
up and listened as two of the open-boaters who had been down the
creek the previous weekend briefed the group. “The water is
much lower now… maneuvering through the rocks… fallen tree had to
be portaged.” Sounded straight-forward enough.

We
played follow-the-leader through mild rapids and surfed the modest
waves and holes. There were a couple of “whees” at the
drops and a lot of laughing. It was low key, early season fun and we
mingled and socialized like a waterborne cocktail party. My boat was
starting to respond predictably and I was beginning to remember why I
enjoyed the sensation of moving on flowing water so much. I promised
myself that next winter I’d pop for a dry suit.

Three
of us floated around a bend well ahead of the others and came upon
the fallen tree which blocked the creek. In the lead was a woman in
a canoe who had been paddling a number of years. Behind her was a
young man in a kayak who had picked up some advanced paddling skills
in a short time. The woman scouted the tree then aimed her canoe at
a three foot square opening in the snag framed by the trunk above and
two thick limbs pointing down into the water. The young man in the
kayak followed her in while I back-paddled and waited. It looked
easy.

The
woman had just passed under the trunk when her canoe struck a
submerged limb, broached, and wedged against some underwater
branches. The kayak had nowhere to go but into the tangle. The
current grabbed his dished-out stern and the kayak started to go down
backwards.

The
young man hooked a tree-limb with one arm and tried to keep his boat
from sinking further but the water overpowered him and pulled him
under. In his determination to hang on, a nub on the limb he had
clung to gouged a weepy furrow from armpit to elbow. And all of this
happened in an instant.

I
beached my boat and ran into the water to try to get the kayaker’s
head up. I recall seeing the canoeist flail clear so she was safe,
but I was afraid that the kayaker might be struggling underwater,
stuck in his boat. Before I could get to him, though, he bobbed up
and said he was O.K.

The
canoeist began trying to haul her canoe up, all the while apologizing
and berating herself for her error. We got her boat clear and bailed
while others in the group helped the kayaker recover his boat and
paddle. In wading back for my boat, it struck me as odd that the
current was so mild I could move upstream in the waist-deep water
without much difficulty.

We
had lunch shortly thereafter, sitting by general consensus on flat
ground well above our boats and the sparkling, dancing water. One of
the veterans who had warned us to portage the strainer led each of us
through a replay of events and summarized the all too obvious moral
of this story.

Underway
again: most of us still laughed and played the water some; I managed
to bump boats with an enchanting woman I hadn’t had occasion to talk
with earlier; and the young kayaker took it easy and nursed his arm.
But even in the apparent return to normalcy, the laughter seemed to
contain as much relief as happiness, and at the take-out everyone
seemed a little subdued.

by
Mark Talley
From The Eddy Line, June 1997