KAYAK: Part I
The Natchez Trace Parkway ran behind the neighborhood where I grew up, following the route of old Indian trails from the Cumberland River around Nashville, Tennessee to the Mississippi River at Natchez. In the 1500’s Spanish conquistadors traveled the trail looking for gold and found the Mississippi River. In the early 1800’s river boat men with the reputation of being fearless used the trace to return to their homes in Kentucky and Ohio after floating barges down to New Orleans. Mississippi was wilderness then: Indians, highwaymen, wolves, bears, and panthers haunted the boat men’s journey.
The parkway is scenic–rolling hills punctuated by farmland and cutover timber, no houses or businesses. It is closed to commercial vehicles and has a fifty mile per hour speed limit. Frequent pull-offs allow travelers to read historical markers without leaving their cars.
At fourteen a friend named John and I backpacked seventy miles down the Trace. We filled our canteens at the house of a man who kenneled his hounds in junk cars. Our only trouble came when a carload of teen-agers decided to harass us at a rest area. It didn’t occur to me to be scared–that’s something that comes with age. We ran off into the woods, and those teenagers didn’t get out of the car. A year later we rode our bicycles two hundred miles down the Trace, to Jackson, where we camped in some woods behind a grocery store, and then two hundred miles back. But it didn’t seem to be enough. I’ve always wanted to live someplace wild, liked to take chances.
Another friend, Mark, and I hunted, rode motorcycles, chased raccoons with his hound through the woods at night, and learned to canoe white water on a chilly river in North Carolina. The white water stuck. In the children’s book The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame wrote, “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,” something Mark and I agreed upon then, and I’m sure he still believes now.
We liked the challenge of the river, man against nature stuff. Mark and I tried to impress girls with our adventure stories. We drifted the halls of our high school quoting Burt Reynolds from Deliverance, whispering: “You don’t beat this river,” or “Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you can find anything.” Once at the Nantahala Outdoor Center we’d found a poster of a fog-bound river with the caption, “The River is life; it’s energy symbolizes every challenge afforded by nature.” Mark and I were known for randomly inserting that philosophy into conversations with people who had no idea what we were talking about.
Cliché or not, there is something about rivers, messing around in boats. Maybe it’s being outside, the way water falls over and around rocks–the sound of it, the isolation, the tired feeling after a good day on the water.
Mark moved to Arizona for college and stayed there, but we kept in touch. He wrote me letters about western rivers and I told him about new rivers in Arkansas and Tennessee and North Carolina.
In 1987, in between jobs, I visited him in Phoenix. We were both paddling outdated fiberglass kayaks at the time (ironically, manufactured by a company called Phoenix). On that trip we headed up to New Mexico and, foolishly, paddled a section of the Rio Grande above Taos at near flood stage. The water was fresh snowmelt and after a long swim, Mark nearly died of hypothermia. I remember being overwhelmed by a wave train that I couldn’t see over, and my fear of swimming is the only thing that kept me alive that day. It was a crash course in “Big Water,” something I’d never experienced in the dam controlled southern rivers, the Nantahala in North Carolina and the Ocoee in Tennessee. Southern whitewater rivers flow through tight valleys and often are controlled by hydroelectric dams. Rainfall is plentiful and the rivers are runnable year around as water is released to produce electricity. The typical southern rapid is drop/pool, usually not more than a hundred or two hundred yards long, ending with waterfalls followed by quiet pools. Precise maneuvering is required to set up for the waterfalls. Since the water flow is controlled, the rivers are smaller than out West, dependably constant.
On later trips out West, Mark had upgraded to a plastic boat, a Dancer by Perception, and he arranged for me to paddle a borrowed Dancer. These were state of the art whitewater playboats, practically the only boat I would see on the Ocoee. The way the boat responded in moving water, the way my body became an extension of the boat was as close to a true dance as I’ve ever come.
Western rivers are messy. When the snow melts the rivers fill up with muddy brown water and the rapids can run anywhere from a quarter to two or three miles long. The paddling season lasts as long as the snow melt. Water levels can change dramatically depending on the weather in the mountains fifty miles away from where you’re paddling. When the rivers cut through canyons, “big water” occurs. The water can’t spread out, so it stacks up. Maneuverability is no longer a problem; rather, it’s trying to remain upright while plowing through six to ten foot standing waves.
I have always had a problem with what are called “eskimo rolls,” the ability to sweep the kayak upright after turning over. My roll had never been dependable. It would come and go. Even though the mechanics of the roll are simple, there is a mental element that I couldn’t master. As in baseball, sometimes a batter will do everything right and still go into a hitting slump. I sometime came close to panic when I turn upside down. The kayak is a tight fit; wet suits, life preservers and paddling jackets add to the claustrophobic feeling. Underwater, it’s dark, cold, and water goes up my nose. You have to tuck your head and body tight to the deck to keep from bouncing your helmet off submerged rocks. Imagine sitting with your legs spread before you, bent at the waist so that you’re trying to kiss your knees, and extending your arms and paddle below your bottom, above the surface, and then initiating a sweeping motion while snapping your hips and rolling upright, so that ideally, your head should be the last thing to emerge from the water. Or even worse, having to bail out of your boat, upside down, while flowing down a rapid, and swimming through the rapid to the shore while holding on to a paddle and a boat. Swimming is embarrassing as well as dangerous. I imagine my companions saying, “There goes Engel again,” whenever they have to rescue me.
Southern rivers are easier for me, the water clearer, waves smaller, not so intimidating as muddy Western rivers. Kayakers talk about confidence, about knowing that you are going to roll up, and that it just happens. You’re not supposed to think, is the idea. They say you have to like being underwater. My fear of not rolling makes the problem worse and sometimes I think it would be easier to never kayak again.
**This essay originally appeared in Product, 1993.