Lessons from the River: Adaptive Kayaking Takes a Village

By | 2017-01-13T20:42:46+00:00 January 2nd, 2014|
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village2Some people say that it takes a village to raise a child. While I’m not a child, it also took a village to put me back into a kayak to run the south fork of the American River. Getting back into that whitewater river after my paralyzing bicycle accident did not surprise my friends. A community of kayakers does not quit on one of its own. Why was my returning to the river so important? This kayak community knew that river water flows through me — it has since my Yuba City childhood.

When I was 4 my family moved to a square clapboard Victorian house in Yuba City next to and separated from the Feather River by a levee. Before the levees were built, this river flooded our small northern California agrarian county each spring. This was our personal territory; we learned to swim in this river and its current. For the next decade my buddies and I spent almost every summer day, (and many other days), in or around the river.

In addition to being my playground, the Feather River also provided life challenges and lessons. It was a source of education about hydraulics, vortexes and survival. Not only did the web of interlocking spade-leafed willow trees provide great hiding places, the dense, black walnut tree limbs, with a few boards added, were tree forts. These dry fallen trees were also perfect for rafts. One day we discovered railroad ties conveniently stacked near an abandoned train station near Marysville across the Feather River railroad bridge about a mile away. We quickly realized that a raft made from these ties was a better way to travel the river.

Despite humid summer heat, annually we pushed several ties a half-mile on fry-pan hot railroad tracks toward home and where the bridge crossed the river, always avoiding the 4 p.m. train. Once there in Yuba City, we felt close to home and safety. We then aimed our pontoons at the water’s deepest hole and launched them. Watching our treasure drop 65 feet into the river was exciting. Then, after each one splashed, bobbed to the surface and started floating downstream, we also dropped into the dark waters below and captured our bounty. The 65-foot leap into the Feather seemed to last forever.

village1Using the current, we each pushed and floated our pontoon ashore. But railroad ties, to become a raft, needed a floor. In a moment of clarity and brilliance we discovered that a door was the perfect size and strength for a seaworthy floor.

Although annual raft construction frequently cost a hammer and numerous bent nails, our crafts, to us, were feats of master carpentry. These summer rafts floated great, although a bit tippy. The river taught us balance, communication and teamwork.

At the end of each summer, when school started, we knew that with fall came the rains and the river would rise. Each winter the Feather changed from its plodding summer flow — shallow enough to walk across — into a deep brown, freezing, swirling, unforgiving force. Inevitably, our rafts were destined to be swept downstream on the heartless winter currents. After getting washed downstream a few times, we stopped trying to outmuscle the river. The eddy next to the shore whispered, “We move slower and sometimes even upstream.” These secrets taught us to dance with the river instead of fight it.

A Tragic Lesson
Outside of Paradise, a town about 50 miles north of Yuba City, was the Bullard Bar rapid. I visited Paradise to impress a girl I met at a summer dance. We drove to this slot car rapid so that she could show me some local excitement. My previous experience with fast water was limited to moss-covered cement irrigation canals that crisscrossed Yuba City farm country. Frequently canal water flowed fast. We jumped into these cold canals below a weir and rode their slick bottoms like a speeding car and caught a grab rope hanging above the next weir. We knew that getting stuck in a weir meant drowning, but it never happened, so we ignored the risk.

Upon arrival at Bullard Bar, the river’s roar surprised and intrigued me. Even before I saw its flow, I was excited by the sound and apparent power. At first sight of this tumbling, rolling, frothy water smashing against and through open tunnels of smooth, gray-red granite rocks, I was scared. My ignorance of white water’s power when funneled from a wide river into narrow rock gaps was boundless. This water’s speed — exploding through worn paths of constricted rock slots — looked more exciting than the biggest roller coaster. For several moments I watched people propelled or thrown uncontrollably like marbles fired from a slingshot through and over slick rocks. Once I got past the fear, I was excited to join them.

village3Later that summer another river taught me an unforgettable lesson. One hot day I drove a group of friends to a spot on the Yuba River outside of Marysville. About a mile upstream from Highway 20, the Yuba’s flow was suddenly constricted and changed from a flat, moving current into a turbulent hydrant. The five of us, three guys and two girls, carried our picnic basket over the oval river rocks to where this funnel began. Previous floods ripped out any trees that grew in this rocky river bed. The Yuba, clear blue and snowmelt cold, quickly reduced from 65 to 75 feet wide to about 8 to 10 feet across. The river’s contracture created a turning, twisting, white water blast for about 100 yards. This rapid slid over ancient smooth, round river rocks and suddenly became wide and slow downstream toward the Feather River, not far from where I lived.

Feet first, my tennies pointed downstream, I started my first heart-thumping, body-flipping run through this water gauntlet. It was fast and surprisingly powerful. After several hours of joyfully and mercilessly getting thrown, spun and twisted through this hydrant, it was time to go home. As the better swimmer, I carried the ice chest past the rapid to push it across to the other side and my car. While I was walking past the rapid, before I crossed the river, my four companions floated past me on a commandeered log — like riding a luxury yacht. They were laughing. When I exited the river a quarter of a mile above my car, the hot uneven rocks radiated through my shoes. The ice chest and aluminum chairs felt heavier. A stale hot breeze smelled of tragedy. Something was wrong.

Below where my car was parked, the river slammed against a 12-foot high steep rock face and bent sharply right. The water pressed against this wall, making a pillow that splashed and bounced back onto the current. The river bubbled up and curled under, pulling everything toward its floor, creating an undertow. Some undertows can pull a person under and hold them until released. Three of my four companions exited the log and swam to shore a hundred yards above the rock face. Apparently, one girl refused; she couldn’t swim. The log struck the wall and she slowly rolled off into this undertow. Without a sound, she was sucked under. I was later told that her head popped up once, looking wide-eyed toward the shore for help. Then she disappeared.

Reuniting With the River
My son, David, was 7 when I learned to kayak on the lower American River. Infused with my newfound kayaking thrill, I taught David how to paddle. He was a natural. For the next 30 years, kayaking most northern California rivers, the Rogue River in Oregon, several in Costa Rica, the Salmon in Idaho and the Colorado River, I became their dance partners and other boaters became my community, my village, our village. For the better part of three decades, David and I ran many rivers together. As he matured, so too did his kayaking skills; they far exceeded mine. We became an important part of the local river family.

Rivers require that we trust each other. Before kayaking a river, we discuss and agree on hand signals, who will lead and who will follow. Most importantly, we agree that each boater will watch each other’s back. Friendships built on the river, for me, are long-lasting and can be quickly renewed despite long absences. These friendship lessons were apparent when our local river village came together to put me back into a kayak to run part of the American River south fork.

In August 2011, for no apparent reason, I flipped over my bicycle handlebars and broke my neck, becoming an instant quadriplegic. For the next two years, however, rivers continued to course through my veins. Dreams of past river trips invaded my sleep, and I felt my boat moving through waves, across currents as if we were dancing. Then I would wake up and my legs were still frozen. At age 66 I felt that my river running chapter was closed. My son, fortunately, knew I hadn’t quit doing the things I loved. One Friday in August, 2013, he made my dream became a reality.

Before David called to ask me to join him on a trip down the American River, I was arranging to have my paddle fitted by Patrick Pincart of Quantum Gloves, an expert with Velcro grips. I can no longer trust my handgrip. Velcro adhesion was necessary to keep my hands attached to the paddle shaft. David contacted Dan Crandall of Current Adventures in Lotus, Calif., a master kayaker, and arranged to borrow an inflatable kayak and obtain some assistance getting me from my chair into and out of the boat. In addition, he asked them to arrange for safety boaters to help me run the South Fork safely. Dan was immediately enthusiastic about the idea. Carol, my wife, however, was skeptical.

village4I was later informed that Dan was barraged by other family members with questions regarding my safety during the trip. Because of his experience, Dan previously assisted other quadriplegic boaters on river trips. Arrangements were made to keep disabled people safe. So Dan calmed all the worried minds in my family. In addition, Kim Sprague, another master boater, was enlisted to partner with Dan in their inflatable to further ensure my safety. Dick Bass also joined our group as a “safety kayaker.” For Carol’s peace of mind, and to give her physical support where needed, our friend Rob Scott joined the entourage. Within a few phone calls and with very little actual notice, our river village appeared and welcomed me back onto the water.

No one knew if I would float in a rapid. Kim agreed to navigate their boat and Dan would sit up front. Dan intended to dive into the river if I needed rescuing. Dan and Kim also planned to lead us down the river. In addition, Dick Blair, in a hard shell kayak, volunteered to provide a rear grab loop and paddle power to help Dan and me exit the water. While preparing our kayak equipment at the River Store, we discussed each arrangement and tried to anticipate each problem. Dan modified my boat’s seat back support to accommodate this weakened body.

Because the day was hot and heat affects me badly since my accident, they wanted me in the shade while getting arranged in the boat. Eager to start as quickly as possible after donning my life vest and helmet, I grabbed my paddle and slid off my chair into the comfortable kayak seat. Once our kayak was in the water, David sat behind me and further supported my back with his feet. I felt secure and safe.

As David and I practiced two-man paddling techniques in calmer water under bridge arches, I heard my friends remarking, “He can paddle, and he has power in his upper body.” The pride that came with being self-sufficient again and being part of the river swelled in me. Despite being told by doctors that I was limited because of my injury, I refused to quit trying. Since my accident I had been in the dream state (and denial) regarding the possibility of paddling a river again. This July Friday I was awake, alive and again paddling the river with my son.

David and I practiced for about 15 minutes and were ready to proceed downstream. To be sure that I could continue down the river, we arranged to meet Carol and Rob at four places along our route. Carol and Rob and the two vans followed our progress. Once they left for the first rendezvous, Dan led the way down stream and we followed. At the first drop, with the current approaching a tree overhang — the flow to our left and rocks sticking out in the river’s middle — I felt nervous and wary. The river, however, was as I remember it: moving fast and singing harmonic songs.

With a Little Help From the Village
After paddling 20 minutes, fatigue swept into me. The Velcro grips felt strange to my touch. David was vigilant regarding my safety, yet I felt his pride for getting me on the river. He was eager to paddle harder and faster but paid attention to my abilities and encouraged me to rest as needed. Time passed quickly. Only minutes passed before seeing Carol and Rob at our first rendezvous spot about a mile downstream. The river began pumping and dancing within me. After that first rendezvous, the river was again part of my hands and heartbeat. I was energized by the environment. As we left our first stop, Dan warned us about the blade-like rock protruding from the river middle in the next rapid.

Because that Friday was hot, David helped keep me cool by dampening my neck cloth and pouring water over my head. But the river coursed through me, the heat dissipated — as the river was cold, so was I. The next rapid was around a left bend. Upon seeing the white, frothy water splashing against the blade rock, I remembered my first trip down this rapid 27 years earlier. I remembered my fear seeing that rock. Today I laughed. We entered its mouth, felt the speed increase, angled towards river left and slid passed the rock hazard like professionals.

After paddling comfortably through 75 feet of volatile churning water and into the pool below, we laughed and relaxed. David and I slid in and out of eddies, finding waves to splash over or through. We searched for ways to dance with the river, and it was a joyous dance. Moving along the river past rapids like “Barking Dog,” I showed David where, in years past, I pulled my sister, Sue, from a hole or rock where she inadvertently flipped her kayak and swam. She always laughed. They were memories of a more innocent time. Then, as if magically appearing, I saw the last wave train above the Greenwood Creek exit. I knew our trip was ending, and  I wasn’t ready to stop.

At this last rapid, Dan and Kim expertly spun their boat into an eddy left of the wave train to photograph us. At that instant, David yelled, “let’s hit it!” We slammed these waves stacked like bundles of wheat in a field. We smashed into them with a whoop and holler of glee. Our boat dove into their V-shaped trough and bent up the next face, folding the inflatable in half. Then, within seconds, we glided to a stop in the pond at the take-out. In my heart I did not want to quit, and I was pushed to my body’s limit. Jokingly, I suggested that we continue down the river — the 7-and-a half-mile class 3+ gorge run. Realistically, however, after more than three hours of pushing my paddle, bending and twisting my core, I was tired and my hands were weakening.

This take-out was named for Greenwood Creek, which flows under Highway 49 and into the American River. It is also the put-in for the gorge run. For years, running the gorge, we parked along Highway 49. But as this spot became increasingly popular among kayakers, a parking lot was built. Along the sandy edge of our exit, about 10 kayakers in helmets, life vests and skirts were slipping into their hard shell boats to run the gorge to Salmon Falls Bridge. I felt a little jealous and happy for them.

Rob and Carol, as promised, appeared with my wheelchair atop the short, steep, gold-brown hill above the river. Our run finished, David dove over the side to cool off. Carol was smiling, beaming happily at my safe return. I sat alone grinning from ear to ear, legs paralyzed and feeling no fear. Dan and Kim slid their boat next to mine. I felt content and enjoyed the activity surrounding me. Although apprehensive about being carried, I knew somehow my village would get me back into my chair.