Impatience And a Paddle

By Mark E. Lacy
(Excerpted from Messing Around In Boats)
(click here for more information about MAIB)

Stones girdled with ice, muddy banks dappled with snow like spots on the flanks of an Appaloosa. Cold water seeping into my clothes. No one to help me free my swamped boat. What am I doing here? Have I lost my mind?

I'm standing on the banks of a small stream that threads its way for several miles along low ridges in upstate New York until at last it flows into the Chenango River. During much of the year you can almost walk across Canasawacta Creek without getting your feet wet. As spring approaches, however, and our snow and ice begin to melt, the creek rises and hurries to drain itself into the Chenango.

It is snow melt that now has me wet and a little worried, if not afraid. And it is liquid ice that has my boat trapped downstream.

In upstate New York winter always starts sooner than you expect and finishes long after the rest of the country is enjoying spring. Of course, Canasawacta Creek was frozen over and paddling was out of the question, but in late February I noted that the creek was clear of ice and flowing with run off from South Plymouth down to Norwich, but I decided I needed warmer water before trying it.

The urge to get back on the water and paddle grows over the next few weeks until it consumes me. As winter is winding down, the stress of my life is winding up. In June I will marry again and we will relocate to the Midwest. I am trying to sell my house and buy a new one in Cincinnati. I am tired of preparing for the wedding and the move. My impatience is growing. More than anything, I want to feel the flow of a river carrying me along, not the current of events that now hold me in their grasp, bouncing me through rocky rapids of decisions.

It is an overcast afternoon when I take to the water, armed with impatience and a paddle. The late winter thaw has produced enough runoff to give Canasawacta Creek some current. The ice has cleared and the weather has warmed up to the low 40s. I decide to go for it. I call Barb from work and arrange for her to pick me up at my take out point at the one lane bridge at Red Mill Hill. I run home and dress for paddling before strapping the boat on top of the car.

Minutes later I park my station wagon and give the water a cursory inspection. The creek looks swift and cold, but deep enough to run. Some patchy ice still clings stubbornly to the banks. I'm wearing a wetsuit, neoprene gloves and boots, wool sweater, anorak, and cap. I don't anticipate getting wet, but I don't want to risk hypothermia.

I fall out and desperately reach for the boat, but
the kayak fills with ice water and is sucked under...

I bring the boat down to the stream and brace my paddle against the bank and across the kayak to keep my balance as I climb in. As I push away from the bank with the paddle, the current quickly catches me. Whoa! Where are the brakes on this thing! A few moments of panic flow gurgling beneath the boat before I relax and begin to guide the kayak through the deepest water. Soon the car and the highway have disappeared behind me.

I am alone, no one is watching me but the giant sycamores that line the creek. My yellow kayak and blue jacket are the only splashes of color against a gray creek, under a gray sky.

I believe I had more patience when I was young. I had not yet seen enough of the world and the lmitless possibilities of life. My own mortality was not yet a barrier that I understood in a visceral sense. When I left home on my own, I learned prolonged deferral of gratification at the feet of my professors in graduate school. I set attainable goals that might lake years to achieve, and I was patient because as long as I could see progress, I knew I would eventually get there. I met with obstacles in education, marriage, and career, and found ways to get around them.

But as time went on and the world opened up before me, I grew anxious. I learned that the world, and my life do, in fact, have limits, and I realized I could never finish exploring either one.

Ten minutes downstream, as I steer through a tight elbow turn, I see trouble ahead. Broken branches at head level, jutting out over the water, stand ready to skewer me as the current sweeps me along. With no time to maneuver, I lean as far over as I can to avoid being speared. Water pours into the kayak and swamps it. Surprised, aggravated, and annoyed, I climb onto the rocky shore at the inside of the bend and empty the boat out. I'm a little concerned now that I'm wet from falling in, but I'm already forgiving myself as I put back in past the bend.

Swept downstream, I come to a greater hazard only minutes later. As the current slings me around a blind turn, I'm propelled directly at a tree trunk completely spanning the creek. Only a few inches separate the tree trunk from the surface of the water. I feel like an eighteen wheeler barreling toward an impossibly low overpass. I try frantically to paddle to shore, but the current has me in its grip. I don't want to ram the tree with my bow and risk breaking the boat, so I turn parallel to the trunk. As I hit the trunk broadside, I tense my arms and absorb the impact with the end of my paddle.

First (first?) mistake. The current presses down on my upstream side and starts to tip the kayak. Before I remember to lean hard downstream to stay level, my upstream blade dips into the water. I have now handed the
creek an even better advantage, a lever. The current pushes against the blade and flips me. I fall out and desperately reach for the boat, but the kayak fills with ice water and is sucked under the trunk. Wet from the chest down, I grab the trunk with one hand, holding my paddle with the other. Fighting the pull of the current as it tries to suck me under with the boat, I force my way to shore.

I try to climb up the muddy banks but my feet sink
deep into the muck, far above my boot tops...

Now I'm more wet and more worried. I think of Barb and how worried she would he if she could see me standing, dripping wet, on the banks of this icy stream.

If I had jumped ship before the impact, I would have been pulled under the trunk just as the boat was. If the tree had snagged me or I had hit my head and been knocked out, there would be no wedding in June.

My boat, my ticket to civilization, does not abandon me. The flooded kayak comes to a stop, caught on a rock. Now only the impassable current separates me from the boat. In order to get to the kayak, I straddle the log that dumped me and scoot across it an inch at a time, my legs dangling in the tugging current, hoping I won't snag and rip my wetsuit. Once across, I wade over to the kayak, but it is so heavy with water I can't pull it through the current and in to shore. I push it free and let it float away, hoping it will come to rest in an eddy where I can empty it. It slowly floats a little further before being pinned broadside against a small shrub poking out of the water.

As I make my way through the shallows to the boat, I try to climb up the muddy banks but my feet sink deep into the muck, far above my boot tops. I'm not only burning calories to stay warm and free my boat, now I'm burning calories to free my feet from the grip of the mud.

I look at my watch, I have to show up in an hour at Red Mill Hill. Now that I'm wet, every minute I stay out in the cold serves to lower my body temperature. There is no place to empty the water out of my boat. The banks of Canasawacta Creek are too muddy, too steep, and too choked with underbrush to give me a place to muscle the boat over onto its belly.

Tying a rope to the grab loop on the bow, I try to pull the boat free. It won't move. Since the bow is closest to shore, I hit upon the idea of turning the bow upstream and letting the current push the stern and take the boat downstream. I can pay out the rope and maybe guide the kayak into still water where I can empty it and continue on my way. As the current begins to take the boat, I let go of the rope. The end of the rope snags on a branch in the water. The boat swings around to a place I can reach, but I still can't empty it.

Maybe I should give up, I think. Just leave the boat and hike to the highway to hitch a ride. As I stand on the muddy banks to see how far away the highway is, I decide I don't want to give up. I'm determined to free my boat and get home.

I get the crazy idea (read, hypothermia induced poor judgment) of getting into the water filled kayak, jerking the rope loose, and riding or paddling the boat to an easier spot. Mistake number two. I quickly learn that the kayak is totally unstable with water in it. And the rope will not come loose.

At last I stumble on a solution. Towing the boat to a nearby half submerged log, I muscle one end of the kayak up, using the log for leverage, and tip it, dumping the water out. I follow my rope to where it is hung and free it. I find an easier way to get back into the current and soon I'm on my way again.

Back home under a hot shower I acknowledge my fear, appreciating that I didn't get hurt. I have temporarily rid myself of paddling fever and gained some important experience. I feel chagrin at my foolhardiness. Barb accepted that I was wet but unharmed, and she didn't cancel the wedding, even if she did question my propensity to jump (or fall?) into things.

It's hard for me, sometimes, to let events take their natural course. Canasawacta Creek took its natural course and didn't care that maybe I couldn't get under, over, or around
the same obstacles that it could.

Somehow, through both of my dunkings, I never lost my paddle. Without stopping to think, I had clung to my paddle at all times. But I did let go of my impatience. By now it was rather furiously joining the Chenango River, destined for the Susquehanna.