Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Last Paddle


I wrote this two years ago after my last kayak outing of the year.  I'm sharing it in response to the OBN outdoor writing prompt "My Outdoor Scary".  My outdoor scary is drowning....



3 o’clock, December 2, and I’m out cleaning up my yard before the snow arrives tomorrow.  My beloved kayak, a Wilderness Systems Tsunami 125 is sitting in my yard- it needs to be dried out and put away for the season.  I realize then and there that it’s the perfect afternoon for one last paddle.  It’s perfectly calm and relatively warm for December in Northern Michigan. 
I change my clothes, dig out my pfd and slide off into my canal to the river, cutting through the skim of ice leftover from the night before.  I push out into the river and head downstream.

There’s a surprising amount of mallards on the river today, but they all spook as soon as they see me.  They’ve been shot at for two months now so I guess I don’t blame them.  I paddle down to the area called Hay Lake, just downstream from my house and intend to paddle in and check out the beaver pond and find some of the deer trails, but the area is currently occupied by three mute swans, an adult and two juveniles, and I know better than to press my luck- they can be very aggressive, even to the boats that race up and down this river in the summer.

Cranes coming in to roost on the river

 But there are no boats anymore, and I’ll have the river to myself.  December in Michigan becomes a kind of perpetual twilight, and I sit under the gray skies watching my swans for a minute and ponder this years kayak trips.  That first spring paddle on the first warmish day in April on the Bear River, happy to be out paddling again, the river extremely high but slow.  There’s the overnight trip in May on the Pigeon river, a small, fast, class II local trout stream.  Fighting cold rain and hypothermia, a paddle that stretched on for nine arduous hours over exhilarating rapids, and miles of trees that have been toppled by beavers, which had to be portaged.  Two party members rolled that day, and we spent fifteen frantic minutes trying to free my kayak from a blow-down, my bow wedged under the trunk and myself with it, my whitewater skirt the only thing between me and disaster.  Eventually my friends drag me over with the bow still wedged under the tree, to where they can wade in and drag the whole mess up on shore.

Let’s see, two other high water spring trips on the Carp River through rapids approaching class III, me trying to keep my 12’ boat straight in the current, waves slapping me in the chest and face.  I went and paddled in the waves on Lake Michigan one windy afternoon, trying to surf just a little, but the waves weren’t quite big enough, so I paddled over to the break wall and photographed the kids jumping off into the water.

summer fun in Northern Michigan

Then there are the two trips I took to the Les Cheneaux Islands; one solo afternoon trip in which I circumnavigate Government Island, dodging the boaters who don’t even bother to slow down for you, and on the far side of the island having to drag my boat over the three hundred yards of canal made dry by dropping lake levels.  With fewer boaters being around, the overnight trip in September was a more enjoyable paddle, but the camping was marred by the obvious over-use of the campsites and the amount of human waste in the bushes.

Regrets- I missed my opportunities to do some real kayak surfing on days that the waves were up on Lake Michigan.  Courtesy of the economy, we canceled plans for our annual extended trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  It was a very cold and wet summer, which definitely cut down days on the water.  I never did spend any time just practicing my basic skills and rolls.  Next year.

I push on downstream intending to go the full four miles to Burt Lake from my house.  You can hear a lot of highway noise on the open marsh in the Hay Lake area, but as soon as I get into the cedars all is dead quiet, not even any bird sounds.  This kind of quiet is so profound and unusual in this area, that I pause to drink it in.  Nothing moves, nothing stirs, no ripples on the water, and it feels as if all of the outdoors is holding it’s breath, waiting for the coming snow.  I paddle on past the little huts of the deer hunters in the woods.  The deer have been shot at for two months now, so I won’t be seeing any of those today.  Their trails through the muddy river bottom are quite obvious, though.  People don’t realize that deer are more of a wetland creature than forest creature.  They’ll cross and re-cross this river all winter long, hardly seeming to notice the frigid water.

I didn’t bring the camera today, and now I’m kicking myself for it.  Photography is an activity of itself, and I wanted today’s trip to be about kayaking.  The reflections of the birches in the water would make a nice shot.  The only movement on the waters surface is the occasional dimpling of minnows, locally called “blues”, that run up the river from the lake this time of year.  

I’m sure the walleye and perch are here as well, following their food.  I’m surprised at how clear the water is now- I can see the bottom throughout most of the river, something you don’t see in summer.  In summer, Crooked River has the plankton bloom of a warm slow river, coupled with the turbidity of heavy boat traffic, much of it at full speed in a river that is only five feet at its deepest.  There’s been some debate over the years of making the entire river no wake, something that would certainly cut bank erosion and slow down the silting process in my canal.  It would make conditions safer for paddlers.  It would also greatly increase the trip time for locals heading down to the lake to fish or recreate, and so the idea has lots of local opposition, which I understand to some degree.

A little further down I find fresh activity- birches down in the river, bright wood chips littering the banks, and a large raft of saplings yarded up next to shore, the winter larder of a family of beavers.  I find this interesting, as I haven’t seen this kind of activity in this spot before.

I approach the first homes of the Devils Elbow area, about a mile of vacation homes for boaters.  A few are full time residents, and the smell of wood smoke drifts on the air.  A pair of mallards hiding in a boat basin lift off, the hen quacking reproachfully.  Just a little ways further, near where a small creek enters, and blues are dimpling the surface, a large walleye surfaces like a trout- first his upper jaw breaks the surface, then the opalescent eye, then his back and tail fin.  Just as quickly he disappears.  Good, I hope he got his meal. 

I push on through the tight bends of the Elbow.  Almost all the boats are gone now, the cottages dark, shut for the winter, waiting for the snows.  I move past the golden Buddha statue, the toilet someone has mounted on their dock (in protest of something having to do with a septic permit), the plastic alligators and the signs saying “paddle boat parking only”.  I push past the few year round residents who sit at their windows but don’t wave.  If it was summer they might have come out to talk.  I paddle past the seawalls, the empty boat houses and abandoned docks.  The air vibrates to the sound of a myriad gurgling springs.  Virtually every home in this stretch has its own artesian well, some of the best tasting water in the country.  I know- I have my own flowing well at home.



Eventually I make my way out of the homes and back into state forest.  It’s only another mile to the lake.  I paddle past the last hairpin turn towards the lake when I notice a break in the reeds.  I’ve seen this before, but have never checked it out, so I paddle in to explore.  It turns out to be an oxbow, the old riverbed, and it loops in a long arc back to where I came from.  Like my canal, it is crusted with ice, and I enjoy the crunching sound of my hull cutting through.  I power through the thin veil of reeds back into the main river and head back upstream.

Then I notice a little water sloshing in the cockpit, which seems a tad unusual and reach for my sponge. I realize with horror that the water is roiling in- I must have cracked my hull somehow.  As it floods the cockpit I’m struck by the shock of the forty degree water rushing in, taking my breath away.  I haven’t told anyone what I’m doing or where I’m going, haven’t even packed a dry bag with a towel and dry clothes.  I dig for shore, but with the cockpit flooding and my rising center of gravity, it’s all I can do to remain upright.  In one sudden motion the kayak is over, spilling me into the frigid water.  Holding my breath, and fighting panic, I grab the cockpit coaming and pull my head above water, gasping raggedly.  I can hardly take a breath, and my head and chest hurt.  I reach for my pfd stowed in the rigging on the back of my boat.  Managing to free it, I fumble with it, trying to get an arm in.  I can’t do it without letting go of the kayak so I do, I let go.   I manage to get one arm in, but my rubber boots have filled with water and my clothing is rapidly water-logging.  As I thrash with the vest my head repeatedly goes under.  The kayak has drifted several feet away.  The cold and struggle are rapidly sapping my strength, and after one last effort my head slips under the water not to emerge again.  As the pain in my chest builds, I wait to draw in those first painful breaths of water.

My cell phone rings, breaking this reverie.  Why did I bring that thing anyways?  Thinking such thoughts can’t be good.  I have less than an hour before it gets dark, and so I dig in earnest for home.  I work on the stroke, concentrating on using my abdominal muscles, on making a full reach, and on transferring the energy of the stroke into the boat through my feet.  I power on past the vacation homes, the beaver homes, the deer hunters huts, the minnows, the Buddha, the springs and creeks.  It is just getting dark when I emerge back out into the open marsh of Hay Lake.  I can hear ducks talking in the hidden pools, roosted for the night.  As I approach my canal, movement over the water catches my eye and a mute swan emerges from the gloom, flying just off the water, passing directly overhead.  I can hear the beat of his wings and the hoarse whistling of his breathing.  It’s amazing to see such a large bird in the air, more like an aircraft than a bird.  I watch as he continues downstream, makes two turns, and then hear the splash of his landing, out in the gloom.

10 comments:

  1. Wonderful story. I was gasping for breath...something I hope I never have to experience.

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    1. Thanks Howard, I hope I never experience it either, though I have to say I thought of this while I was out on the water. Ugghh.

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  2. There is nothing that scares me more than the thought of drowning. Great story!

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    1. I almost drowned as a kid and it has terrified me ever since.

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  3. In a word, exceptional. I'm cold just from reading it. I concur with Howard and Sanders-drowning would be one of several bad ways to go. So would choking on a piece of steak at home, alone. I've never done either, knock on wood.

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  4. Kirk- thank you. I fear the drowning, but the steak scenario is probably much more likely.

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  5. Drowning. Cold water. Blah, blah, blah. And I once got a muskrat lodged in my craw. Luckily I could still breath, because I have gills. You humans...

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    1. Be nice Roderick. The only thing worse than drowning is being held out of the water by your jaw to have your picture taken with some ugly fisherman.

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  6. Ha! RHB really likes his picture taken...truth be told. Now about those paddling adventures...I'm thinking that a kayak is not in my future, as fun as it sounds! I have enough thrills in the water as it is...heehee. A great read though!

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    1. Kayaking is for the most part safe and nothing like the whitewater footage you see. They are also more stable than you would think.

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