Friday, April 20, 2007

there’s a limb in our boat. oh, that’s not good…

As I rolled out of the back of the canoe and into the frigid waters of the Willimantic, I thought to myself, “I can’t believe this is happening. This water is cold enough to kill me. How did this happen?”

Let me go back a few steps. Washboard and I had set off earlier in the day to commemorate the annual Willimantic River Race, which wasn’t being held this year due to the untimely and unexpected death of the race organizer. Held each year in mid-April, the race covers an 8-mile stretch of the Willimantic River in Connecticut. Why on Earth would you hold a canoe/kayak race in April in New England? Well, the only time you can run the Willimantic is during the spring melt (March and April). Otherwise, you will bang the holy hell out of your boat and spend half the day trying to navigate through 3 inches of water. So put on some gloves and a few extra layers of polypro, it’s time for a late winter paddle!

Last year, Washboard and I had our inaugural run in the Willimantic River Race. Washboard was still relatively new to the New England area and I had flown up from DC, so we were forced to rent a canoe. Not an easy thing to do before the official opening of the summer paddling season. We ended up with a rickety, fossil of a canoe that proceeded to spring a MAJOR leak about two miles into the run. We struggled through the race, dumping the boat every quarter mile and eventually limping across the finish line with a time of 197 minutes. Many of the other race participants found our time uproariously funny. In fact, a few asked, “How do you even GO that slow?” Well, I can tell you how…

Things looked much better for this year’s “Commemorative Run.” We put in at about 11 AM with clear, sunny skies and temps in the 40s. The river conditions were near perfect, with just enough water for a quick run and some nice riffles, but nothing so high that we would ever be in serious danger. Our goal for the day was to keep up a good pace and better our time from last year. We were running in Washboard’s brand-new Mad River, an incredibly seaworthy and fast canoe. Everything looked great for the run. We started the stopwatch, paddled into the current and took off downstream.

We were having an easy time navigating, catching the current through the turns, avoiding big rocks, slipping through strainers, gliding through the shallows. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty impressive. We were making great time, and only got momentarily caught up when we encountered a downed tree blocking the river. We lurched and bumped our way over it, no big deal. But actually, it’s an important point to bring up.

You see, when the organizers prepare for the race each year, they go through the course and make sure that no downed trees or other objects are blocking the river. If there is, they remove it so the paddlers don’t have to deal with it. Not to mention, these types of obstacles can be very dangerous. Since there was no race this year, we were running down a river that hadn’t been cleared in months. So, we were kind of Lewis-and-Clarkin’ it…

Which takes me back to my earlier question (see first paragraph). At mile 6, we came upon a downed tree crossing the river, which was only 10 feet wide at this point. The trunk hovered about four feet above the surface of the water with three thick limbs jutting down. We hesitated for a second and then decided that we could squeeze between two of the limbs. The limb to the right reached down into the water, but the limb on the left didn’t quite make it to the surface, ending about six inches above it. We only had a few seconds to position the boat between the four-inch-thick limbs. I steered us into place, but as we approached the tree, the water deepened and the current swung us around. Washboard was now headed directly toward the limb on the left. He managed to dodge it, but the current kept pushing us sideways and the limb was suddenly inside the boat. I quickly realized that the limb was going to smack into the boat’s left gunnel, and with the current still pushing us downstream, the boat was going to slide right out from under us. I reached behind me for the limb on the right, but it was too late. The boat lurched left, and I rolled backward over the side like a scuba diver. I caught a glance of blue sky as I hit the water, and I thought, “Damn, this is going to be cold…”

I surfaced and immediately tried to swim back toward the boat. Amazingly, the canoe was still upright, and Washboard was scrambling to figure out what to do. With two layers on my legs, three layers up top and a pair of thick skiing gloves, swimming wasn’t easy. In fact, it was damn near impossible. I realized that my paddle was floating away from me, so I turned downstream to grab it. Washboard called out, “You OK? What do you want me to do?” I tried to call back between gasps, but nothing much came out. So I turned back upstream to make my way towards the boat and the shore.

But when I turned around, the boat was completely capsized and Washboard was nowhere to be found. My first thought was, “How nice! Washboard tipped the canoe out of sympathy for me.” That wasn’t the case though. In trying to turn the boat to pick me up, he got tied up on a submerged log and was tossed out, just like me. Now we were both floating in near-freezing water. Luckily, the upside-down canoe steered itself into an eddy and Washboard and I made our way to the bank beside it.

We managed to pull the canoe on shore and, between fits of hysterical laughter, dumped the murky brown Willimantic out of it. Actually, Washboard did most of the work because the icy cold water had SERIOUSLY affected my bladder and I had to run behind a tree to drain the lizard. We stripped off our soaked gloves and layers, squeezing out our quick-dry stuff as much as we could. We each had a fleece in the dry bag, and with our shells over top, we warmed up quickly. Ten minutes after disaster struck, we were back on the water, a little shaken but very inspired to get home in a timely manner.

Fortunately for us, the elements were on our side. The sun was shining and the wind was at a minimum. After a quarter mile of paddling, my teeth had stopped chattering and my hands had feeling again. In fact, I felt pretty damn good. Yes, we had dumped in the river. Yes, we had made a silly decision not portaging around the strainer. But goddamn it, other than that, it had been a fantastic run. We had made good time, and I couldn’t help smile as we crossed Eagleville Lake towards the take-out point.

I am proud to say, we finished the run in 90 minutes, shaving nearly two hours off our previous time. And to celebrate, we feasted on whole wheat fig newtons and sunned ourselves on the rocks beside Eagleville Dam, like a proud pair of river lizards.


Blogger Phillippe said...

an all-time classic!

We Want Limbs! Canoeing Limbs! (hmm, doesn't quite work out)

2:29 PM  

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