Kayaking: letter to an old gf

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sasha
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Kayaking: letter to an old gf

Post by sasha » June 21st, 2020, 2:38 pm

 
(About 20 years ago, I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman I'd first met online at a writers' collective. She was a bit sheltered, and terrified when I mentioned to her that my boss had invited me to go kayaking with him after work some Friday - she assumed we were headed into thunderous white-water rapids. This account was meant both to allay her fears, and to reassure her that I wasn't stupid. She has since passed on, but, sentimental old fool that I am, I've saved most of our letters...)



Date: Sat, 6 May 2000 11:47:13

Morning, Doll! You told me to check in with you today in the event of my survival, so here I am, none the worse for the adventure, apart from sore shoulders and a blister on my right thumb.

What a gorgeous time! I hadn't been in a kayak since I was a Boy Scout. (Yeah, I was one of those...) I fell in love with these low-slung watercraft that you wear, rather than ride. You glide right over water shallow enough to ground a canoe or rowboat; 6" is plenty deep enough.

ANYWAY... Before I recount the adventure, a bit of geography. Keene sits in a valley, a bowl that's actually a prehistoric lake bed. Parts of the city (to the north and east in particular) are still swampy, remnants of the original body of water. That lake was primarily fed by three smallish rivers: the Ashuelot, and the east & west branches of Otter Brook. (the Otter Brooks actually empty into the Ashuelot, itself a tributary of the Connecticut, the major watershed hereabouts.)

So because of all this prehistory, the land within the city is flat, unlike the hilly terrain all around; and the rivers become slow, quiet meanders, full of twists & turns and little oxbow ponds. And they're narrow enough that the crowns of trees on opposite banks sometimes meet overhead.

We put in at one of the city parks. It had been the first warm day of the year, and people were coming out of the woodwork to enjoy it. There were rollerbladers in Central Square, where a dj was playing Santana. There were families and seniors and college lovers strolling along the riverside walkway, and at least one other group of kayakers. Dragging our boats to the edge of the water, Al & I attracted the notice of a few little kids; but to everyone else we were just two more middle-aged guys digging the long-overdue arrival of spring.

At Al's recommendation, I changed out of my shoes into wetsuit booties. On my own initiative, I pocketed a bottle of insect repellent. He coached me on how to get into the boat, a problem for him because of his long legs. He envied my lack of same, because I found entry to be easy. I slipped into the cockpit, shoved the boat away from the shore with my paddle, and tentatively nosed out into the river while he struggled to wedge his lanky frame into his own craft. He looked as if he were trying to force a foot into a shoe maybe half a size too small. But he's done this before, and (after a little wiggling and shifting) he finally settled his butt down into the foam seat and joined me. We set out upstream. (That way, after we got tired, we'd get a free ride back.)

In case you're not familiar, kayak propulsion comes from a single two-bladed paddle that you dip first into one side, then the other. Because of this, and the boat's inherent maneuverability, it takes a little practice to keep from zigzagging forward. I also found, because I'm right-handed, that I consistently tended to pull to the left. Al had given me a broader-beamed boat to paddle, one he felt would be a little more stable than his own; but his narrower profile gave him more of an edge on speed, and he soon pulled about 50 feet ahead of me. He was chatting and joking with me all the while, but with his back to me I couldn't hear him very well. It was just as well, because I was more interested in re-learning how to control the boat while enjoying the ambience.

Ah, the ambience! A warm, slightly humid evening - sun low in hazy skies, a diffuse yellow glow near the western horizon. The smell of mud, the red water dark with tannin; the sound of traffic receding into the background, quiet splashing as I stroked forward. Songbirds heard for the first time in months. Well-heeled cultivated vegetation bordering the bicycle path along the riverbank giving way to wilder, unruly brush. Green-headed wood ducks muttering to themselves near shore as we slipped past. The river bottom just inches below me, here sandy and duned, there covered in grasses blown horizontal by the current. Al up ahead leading the way in his lean, green shell; me slogging behind in my fat-assed orange boat, struggling at first to keep up, but closing the gap as I got the hang of it.

In addition to a broader beam, my boat also had a wider cockpit, and water from my paddle blades was dripping in despite the splash cups. My legs were soon soaked. I was having a little trouble adjusting the footrests - the clamps had taken a set where Al had positioned them for his own legs, and tended to slip whenever I leaned against them a little too hard. I was stopping frequently to pull them forward again to accomodate my own stubby little legs. When I did, the mild current would swing my front end around so I'd be drifting downstream sideways, and it would take some effort to get underway again.

But none of this mattered. This was great! And so far there was no need to apply the greasy insect repellent.

I finally caught up with Al at a quiet spot where windfall had blocked all but a narrow passage near the right-hand bank. He squeezed through, then feathered his paddle and waited for me to follow. "You know," he said with a grin, "this is where we're supposed to break out a big fat doob."

"Or a sixpack," I agreed. I looked down at the loop around which the bungee cord secured my seat to the boat. "My seat's even got a cupholder!"

"I've used it for that once or twice," he slyly allowed, and we continued our journey.

The river opened up as we passed under a major roadway, and narrowed again as it meandered back into the woods. We plied our way through a little suburban neighborhood and waved back to kids playing in their backyards. We passed the hospital, and I looked up to the fifth floor, one of whose windows I had stared out to this very spot a few moments after Dad had died. Past my dentist's office, high atop a bank; I had beheld this spot five years earlier when he'd ground away one of my molars and capped it with gold. We slipped around snags and logs, passed over sandbars and mudbanks, and reveled in the quiet and the serenity.

Then the river narrowed further, and in proper accordance with the laws of fluid dynamics, the current picked up a bit. The surface up ahead was dimpled, and I could hear it.

"Okay," Al counseled me. "Keep your bow pointed straight into the current here, or it'll take you and spin you right around." Then he leaned into it and headed directly into the turbulence.

I followed suit. I could feel the boat becoming unstable, but I'd had enough practice by now to keep the nose pointed where I wanted it, and though it felt a little like driving on ice, I got through it just fine. We continued on into placid waters.

A little further on, we came upon another small rapids. Al sailed right through it; but here I had a little trouble. The water was so shallow I couldn't bite into it with my paddle, and I stalled. The current yanked me to the left, and I ended up facing downstream in a little eddy. I turned around and tried again. This time I kept my heading, but I couldn't make any headway: as hard as I paddled, I could just hold my position in the middle of the stream. I stopped and let the current take me where it wanted, and tried once more, in a slightly deeper part of the stream. Three was the magic number, and (with a little effort) managed to climb the little hill and rejoin Al.

"If you weren't such a girly man," he teased, "you would have done that on your first try."

I laughed. In addition to Spinal Tap's "going to eleven" riff, we're constantly invoking Saturday Night Live's "Hans und Franz" routine. "Actually," I retorted, "this is such a girly little boat, I was afraid my manliness might be too much for it, so I held back."

"Oh wow," he said in mock admiration. "I guess you're a manly man after all... "

It was about 6:30, and Al had told his wife he'd "try" to be home by 7:00; he clearly wasn't going to make it, but we decided to turn around here. This seemed like a good idea; my arms and shoulders were getting tired, and my hands were sore from gripping the paddle. Al offered to switch boats with me at this point; but I prefered to stay with mine. I wanted to see the difference between going upstream and downstream without "the confounding effect of changing two variables." Al rolled his eyes. "Always the experimenter," he said. "Next you'll be setting up a full factorial DOE and Analysis of Variance."

"Hey," I said, "when you go paddling with the boss, you've always got to be on the lookout for ways to impress him."

"Oh, I'm impressed, alright," he growled with a wink. "Let's shoot these rapids. Just follow me, you'll be fine."

I laughed again. "Lead the way, manly man." We scooted back down through the same little rough spot we'd just negotiated, this time with the current at our backs. I was happy to let the current give us a free ride; I was getting so tired, my paddling was getting sloppy, and I was losing the fine control over the boat I'd learned to exert on our uphill journey. I even ran into a submerged log, unable to steer around it in time. But the tough polypro shell rode over it fine, only the sound of the bump betraying my blunder.

We got back to the park around 7:30. I ran into the shore a little faster than I would have liked, and found egress a little harder than entry - I was stiff and cramped from sitting with my legs extended for so long. And my pants were so wet from the knees down that when it came time to lift the boats from the water, I just waded in to grab their waterward ends so Al wouldn't have to.

You know, I think I could really get used to this!
 
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"Falsehood flies, the Truth comes limping after it." - Jonathan Swift, ca. 1710

saw
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Joined: May 23rd, 2008, 7:32 am
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Re: Kayaking: letter to an old gf

Post by saw » May 17th, 2024, 8:58 am

a wonderful trip down the river
both metaphorical and literal
a geographical and sporty tutorial in a letter
skillful writing
If you do not change your direction
you may end up where you are heading

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sasha
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Re: Kayaking: letter to an old gf

Post by sasha » May 18th, 2024, 9:54 am

Thanks - long time ago! I still meet up with Al every now & then - most Fridays a rotating cast of my old lab mates gets together for what we call our weekly off-site staff meetings. Last week it was just me, one of the chemists, and an electrical engineer. Yesterday it was just me & the chemist. It's good keeping in touch, & it's nice being reminded that I used to be smart. But we're as apt to talk about current times as old - one of us is an enthusiastic DIYer, one's a docent at a local children's museum, another's a sailor, Al's a fisherman & traveler... We've even got a wannabe poet...
.
"Falsehood flies, the Truth comes limping after it." - Jonathan Swift, ca. 1710

saw
Posts: 8398
Joined: May 23rd, 2008, 7:32 am
Location: B'more, Maryland

Re: Kayaking: letter to an old gf

Post by saw » May 25th, 2024, 10:31 am

I have friends from childhood
also from my days in Key West ( 69-77 )
still in touch
along with Baltimore friends of 40 years
lucky guy
If you do not change your direction
you may end up where you are heading

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