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Rite of spring – dashed! (the ending)

In to the Wind

May 24, 2011
Toledo Chronicle, Tama News-Herald

To those of you who only casually know me, you have to understand a lot of my character depends on abject romanticism. Even though I have never been a kayaker, in my mind I am a kayaker and proceeded accordingly. The tale continues.

It’s hard to make preparations when the only practical experience one has regarding a certain skill is merely in one’s mind. All the research and all the book learning in the world can not replace even one hour of practical experience.

From experience, a person is able to watch the stream of cars on the Interstate and time their entrance so they merge properly with the flow of traffic without being hit from behind, or climbing up the rear bumper of a leading car. It is an acquired skill.

Last week I left you dangling regarding my merging a brand new -- recently rigged for fishing -- kayak into the swollen current of the Iowa River at Manatt’s Landing.

I have been canoeing many times in my life. In order to go upstream you steer the bow (that’s the front) of the canoe into the current and take a stroke with the paddle first on one side, and then the other. The paddling motion, as you pull back against the resistance of the water propels the craft forward in a cause and effect sort of way Newton would have described as “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

I’ve even used two canoe paddles joined together along their shafts like a kayak paddle before. This arrangement allows you to stroke one side and then the other without having to swing a dripping paddle across the boat and dampen your spirit in the process. I sing the praises of that forward thinking Inuit who first determined this was an efficient means of propelling a sleek watercraft forward.

Maybe I was upset I was no longer allowed my annual rite of spring fishing at the quarry. Maybe I saw the swollen, bank full Iowa River raging past me, but didn’t comprehend the force. Maybe it was the seductive call of the Sirens, and like the lovelorn sailors of yore paid no attention to the real danger as I pointed my craft across the current and shoved off.

Even the best preparations in life, at times, ill prepare us for the harsh realities we might face. How could a small child, coddled and comforted by loving parents have any idea that reaching for the pretty light under the pot of boiling water on the stove would burn their finger? In many cases the human experience IS to experience, AND learn.

I was on the south side of the river. The current was flowing from left to right. I had the kayak angled slightly upstream, to port (that’s the left), but mostly across the current, so I could shove off while seated in the kayak.

The first wounds to the bottom of the kayak came from the slight scraping of the hull on the rippled concrete which is the launch ramp into the Iowa River at Manatt’s Landing. I shoved off.

The bow of the craft (that’s the front) swung wildly to starboard (that’s the right), downstream, as the scraping stopped and the kayak was now unsupported by the shore and fully waterborne. The kayak oscillated side-to-side in a rocking fashion as I started my attempt at first steadying the craft, and secondly turning the bow (that’s the front) back upstream.

My goal was to paddle out into the current and work my way upstream to the cut where the old mine pit flows into the river. I had never seen the actual cut, but was operating on visualization based on what I was told by Jeff, the Manatt’s Operations manager. I estimated the distance to be a couple hundred yards at best.

I imagine to drivers on the Iowa River bridge several yards downstream, the fool in the kayak looked like some cartoon character running in place, legs furiously working towards forward motion but going no place instead. Or like Michael Jackson performing his moon walk where from all outward appearances he is putting his energy into moving forward but instead glides eloquently backwards.

The current on the river that day was so intense, strong strokes on the paddle merely kept me suspended in the current or going slowly downstream, like a dragon fly, wings furiously beating yet slowly flying backwards to catch the gnat it just missed. However, my motions I’m sure were not nearly as graceful!

It took only a few seconds on the water to determine I was going nowhere in a hurry, and this wasn’t going to be a leisurely paddle. I dug into the water with all the intestinal fortitude a child musters while attempting that first ride on a bicycle, or while taking that first swing at a ball with a bat.

I’m not talking about casual stokes in the water with an angled paddle either. Survival mode kicked in and each stroke required a nearly vertical orientation of the paddle in order to dig deep and hard to transfer energy into forward motion against that current.

I dug deep first with the paddle on the port (that’s the left) side, and then on the starboard (that’s the right) side. Each new stroke caused the gunwale (that’s the topmost part of the side) of the craft to dip closer and closer to the water.

In my mind I admitted defeat and aborted the mission before I got into deeper water and into more trouble. It was all I could do to make it back to that landing without capsizing. For the longest time it seemed like I was suspended in the water, going no place in a hurry! I was never as glad to get off the water as I was when I heard that scraping sound again and was able to step out of the kayak and back onto firm ground.

Pointing a paddle powered craft upstream into a rain swollen river is indeed a fool’s mission. Maybe the entire episode is a fitting reflection on my life in general. The faster I paddle, the further behind I get.

Until next time--

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In to the Wind and this column are copyright 2011 Mike Gilchrist. Readers, feel free to contact me at via email, or write to me at P.O. Box 255, Toledo, IA 52342

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