Kayaking II: another letter

Prose, including snippets (mini-memoirs).
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sasha
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Kayaking II: another letter

Post by sasha » June 24th, 2020, 3:25 pm


Date: Wed, 5 Jul 2000 08:25:32

...I went out solo again yesterday, down to the Millers River in Royalston, MA. It was a bit of a bust, but not without interest. The first place I put in was a little feeder named Priest Brook. The map shows it meandering through several miles of flat marshland, and since the water was exceptionally high after all the rain we've had, it looked promising. It was a mild, gray humid day. I was only wearing shorts & a t-shirt, but I broke a sweat just getting the boat off the car and into the water. I lathered myself with DEET, slid into the cockpit, and pushed off with the paddle.

It was silent - the water was dead quiet, and reeked of that swamp-smell, a smell that reminds me of both cooked lentils and old tires. A whitish layer of pollen lay undisturbed on the surface. The only sound was the quiet splash of my paddle (my technique is getting much better - I'm not banging against the shell of the boat any more; and I've learned that quick little dips propel you much faster than deep strokes).

It was like the bayou - if I didn't know better, I'd have expected to see 'gators.

I flushed a couple of flycatchers from their sanctuary, and they scolded me from atop a dead tree. ("Christ, Helen, it's getting so you can't build a nest anywhere without one of these damned boats showing up"). Another bird that might have been a grackle was checking me out from deep within the bush - it seemed to be following me around to keep me in sight, clucking nervously.

The water was so high it spilled over the banks & into the spaces between the scrub. It was like a maze in there, and I was a little concerned about getting lost - I'd already taken a couple of wrong turns and dead-ends. But I could see the sun (barely), and with that reference point, I headed north, looking for the main channel.

But I never found it! Every waterway I checked out was a cul-de-sac. It was a beautiful place but hard as hell to maneuver - in places the brush pressed in so close I couldn't paddle. Someimes there was only enough room to pole my way along; and sometimes not even that. Then I'd just put the paddle by my feet and pull/push myself along with my hands. I hunted for about half an hour, but never got more than a few hundred yards from my starting point.

So I pulled the boat across the road and (against my better judgement) set out downstream. Here it was more open, and I thought this might be the beginning of an adventure. And sure enough, about a tenth of a mile out, I was again set upon by a flycatcher - but this time she dive-bombed me!

And there, right at eye level near the shore, was the reason: a nest. I paddled in close and saw at least three of the ugliest critters I've ever seen resting their homely little chins on the edge of the nest. Their bulging pink eyes were shut, as were the yellow beaks - but not mamma's. She made it clear in no uncertain terms just how put out with me she was, so with a laugh I apologized for the intrusion and went on my way.

Until I hit another dead end - a beaver dam. I considered making a portage, but it seemed too much like work; so I bagged it & turned around. Time for plan B.

I passed as quickly as I could by the nest and in a few minutes was struggling the boat back onto the car. I drove about a half mile to another landing, this one on the Millers River itself.

Right away I wasn't sure I liked it; the boat ramp was immediately downstream of an obstruction that was funneling the entire river into a narrows. It was shallow - not even knee-deep - but running kind of fast. Just beyond that was a bridge, on which to my chagrin about 1200 kids had assembled. "Hey, look, a kayak!" someone shouted. Great, i thought. Now I'd have to perform for them. And unlike our daughters, I hate having an audience.

What the hell - you won't learn if you won't try - so I put the boat in and approached the narrows, trying to ignore the spectators. I put my back in it and managed to pull myself up through the "rapids" without much trouble. I gave the kids a brief grin and a wave before passing underneath them, now against a much more modest current. When I got to the other side I silently thanked them for holding their spit for the few seconds I was within range, and went on my way.

It's a lovely river, full of twists and turns, and just enough current to make it interesting. But it's also a wildlife preserve, so the shores aren't groomed, making for a lot of windfall. I met my first snag after a few switchbacks, and it gave me a little trouble.

The only way through it was to hug the right shore, so I had no elbow room on that side. I was trying to paddle quickly, but the blade got caught in the brush and I missed a stroke and the current yanked the bow around, and once you've lost control all you can do is ride it out; so I rode it out into the middle of the river, swung around and tried again. I did better, but I stalled halfway into it, so gave up, let it spit me out, and I tried again. It was quite an effort, but I got through it this time, and the river beyond was quieter.

For one bend, anyway; then there was another snag. This time, the best place through was right in the middle, & I made it through on the first try.

I was beginning to fancy myself quite the river jock...

But there was no way through the 3rd snag. I looked to see if there were any footing on the snag itself - if there were, I could land, get out & pull the boat over the debris, and try again. But the water here was 3 or 4 feet deep, too deep to easily get in & out of the boat. I pulled off into a swampy area and got out there, thinking I might portage - and sank up past my ankles in warm, stinky swamp mud. I didn't want to think what might be living in it and getting into my booties, so I gave it up here and turned back.

Going back through the snags with the current was a blast - the only challenge is to keep the boat straight, and that's only for show. If you go sideways it's no big deal, it's just cooler to keep it pointing downstream. And I'm learning the moves...

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I'm not an outlier. I just haven't found my distribution yet.

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