Friday, August 6, 2010

Whitewater Progression

Longer post; I'm still working on the family one.

I’ve been thinking a lot about whitewater, mostly about why I like it so much. I’ve had serious interests before, but nothing quite as addicting as boating. One of the big reasons I like whitewater is because you can so easily track your progression.

I was practically born in a canoe. As early as I can remember, I was in the bow of my father’s Curtis Companion, paddling up and down the twisty Bantam River, pulling errant golf balls out that fell in from nearby Litchfield Country Club. And I learned how to solo a boat on Saranac Lake during a summer vacation, paddling that same Companion along the shore to fish for perch. I soloed a boat on a trip for the first time two years ago, still paddling that same Companion. And I was content, I thought, to continue paddling on flat water, seeing beautiful places that required a little hard work in a unique craft to see.

Then I discovered whitewater. I took a class with my brother in June of last year. We learned how to paddle tandem on the Lehigh River. The first day on the river, I had literally never paddled a rapid before in my life. I had floated down a swift in the nearby Delaware River a few times, and waded a boulder garden once in Algonquin. I had seen rapids before, bigger ones than the Lehigh could ever produce. But the first time I sat in the stern of the boat, watching the river drop away, watching my brother literally go downhill, that was it. I was hooked.

I paddled a half dozen more times in that tandem, learning the lines and the basic maneuvers. I learned how much respect one had to give the river, because the river is stronger than you will ever be, and the river never gets tired. But I also learned how fun the river can be, how beautiful it can be, and how rewarding it can be.

In July of last year, I drove up to Albany one day and bought a solo whitewater canoe, a Mohawk Probe 11. It was old, only a few years younger than I was. But it was a great boat, strong and forgiving. That August, I paddled it down the Lehigh for the first time. The level was nearly twice what I was used to, but I managed to get down the river with a strong brace and no swims. It was at that point that I promised myself that I would canoe as much as I possibly could.

This year, I stayed true to that promise. I paddled the Lehigh so much that I have the rapids memorized, and could talk someone down the river over the phone. But by July, I felt like I needed a bit more of a challenge. It wasn’t that the Lehigh wasn’t a difficult river. It always presented a different problem to solve, and I have swum more than my fair share of times. But I needed to prove to myself that I could begin to do something different, more difficult.

I went to the Deerfield River in July. While most of the river is innocuous Class I, the Fife Brook section ends in the difficult Zoar Gap, a III+ rapid, the biggest I had paddled to that point.

I stood in the shoulder of the road overlooking the gap. I watched the river constrict and then drop into a chute, with two mammoth holes, nearly the width of the river, providing the bulk of the difficulty. Rec boats tried to pass through, but were constantly stopped and thrashed by the holes. But as I watched, I saw a line on the left. Punch over a pourover, keep the boat on the left, sneak between the hole and the river bank on the left. I decided that the line could be run, then I decided that I could run the line. Then I did.

After two more Gap runs, one successful, the other, well, see the video, I realized that it was the progression that I liked. I thought I was a solid Class III boater, so I paddled a III+ rapid. A few weeks later, I decided that I needed a river with multiple Class III rapids, so I went to the Lower Yough. I paddled that twice as well, with only two dumb swims.

I’m not listing these to rattle off a bunch of achievements like a jackass. I’m only pointing out that whitewater gives me a measuring stick that I really like. You know how good of a boater you are based on what level rapid you can paddle, and how well you paddle that rapid. For me, after a few clean runs on a river, I feel ready to push onwards, and when I ready, upwards.

With a few tweaks to my outfitting, a roll, and a bomber forward stroke, I feel like I will be ready to tackle some Class IV next year. I’ll be spending my time this off season working on those three things, so that I can continue to progress. I’m sure at some point, I will hit a wall, unable to paddle anything bigger without taking unnecessarily dangerous risks. But I don’t know where that level is. So for now, I can only paddle to that limit.

--Post Note: After having posted this, I proceeded to swim on the first rapid of the Lehigh, at its lowest level ever. Just goes to show the river demands a little humility.--

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