December 26, 2012

Braving the Broad River

It was Sunday morning, and I was definitely feeling butterflies in my stomach. I couldn't stop my inner voice repeating that maybe I was lying to myself about being the outdoor type. Maybe my fear of swimming and water activities, part of my whole life, was the right kind of basic and obvious survivor precaution that allowed me to reach almost half of a century alive. Don't get me wrong, I was delighted with the idea of finally having the opportunity to enjoy our Sunday canoeing on the Broad River that I had heard so much about. 

For several months, Mark was brave enough to put me in the first canoe of my life, in his farm pond. I learned the right way to step on the middle line to avoid flipping over and a few basic strokes. Of course, as a disaster management professional, he also taught me how to get back into a flipped canoe or rescue someone else. So, now I was finally going canoeing on a real river with two experienced guys. Mark and his friend, Chris, another disaster responder, had done this river many times and a lot of white water, sea kayaking and extended canoe trips all their lives. That should give me some confidence. Of course, also the fact that Chris was taking his seven-year-old son, Davis, with us. I had to be as brave as he was!

Well, after debating what to wear, changing shoes a couple of times and putting in and out things from the dry bag (sorry, even on these situations my X chromosomes are still there), we strapped the canoe and kayak to the car and drove for only 45 minutes to the river near Danielsville. This is one of the wonderful things about Athens, you can find these great places close enough to make them part of your Sunday activities and still get home for dinner. 

Slackpole-BroadRiverKids.jpgAfter hooking our dry bags and coolers into the boat, we headed downstream. I was sitting in the front of the big blue canoe, ready for paddling, following Mark’s instructions to get us through the rocks and white water. I was hardly talking, afraid that everybody else would notice my emotions, and trying to focus on breathing in and out, and taking some deep breaths. 

Have you ever taken this canoe trip? You should try it! Nothing could ever prepared me for the most wonderful experience of my life. The sound of the water mixed with the diverse bird sounds we heard everywhere, the sun as it started warming the turtle basking places, the water so clear you could see the fish and the natural landscaping on both sides of the river made for a exceptional experience. 

I cannot say we had no challenges through the day. Imagine this scene: You’re sitting of the front part of the canoe, so you can see the big rocks and rapids before the driver in back can do anything about them and you're not even sure what to do yourself. Well, maybe the rocks and rapids were not that big, but for me, my first time canoeing, they looked huge. Then, for some strange reason it feels like the canoe starts moving faster and faster every second while you can listen to him saying something like, “Back paddle fast on the left side.” Have you ever tried to follow paddling instructions quickly in a different language from your native one? Well, let me tell you what happened in my mind every time Mark said something like that: "Back paddle..." My mind changed to the Spanish setting, trying to find the meaning for that, then... Ah!!! It means going hacia atrás (backwards), but, of course, then I realize I already forgot the rest of the sentence. Did he say right or left??? And to be able to ask him, I have to change again to my English setting brain. By the time I was able to figure out the meaning of the instructions that would let us avoid the rock, or the tree, or any other obstacle, it was too late. Lucky for me, I guess he was prepared for paddling with an inexperienced person and was able to save us every time. Until, of course, we turned over. 

At the first small drop off, where you have to go all the way to the left side of the river and then sharply turn about 180 degrees to the right, I saw what, for me, were big rocks and a waterfall that we had to go over. After double checking the technical details with my memories, I found out it was only about a one-foot drop off. My worst nightmare was happening: We got to a point where the canoe got trapped between the rocks. Chris and his son were already out of their kayak, waiting for us to eat lunch; so they had the first-row seats for the “show.”

Slackpole-BroadRiverSwimmers.jpgWhen the front of the canoe started sinking, it just stayed under water. It started getting inside in the most slow way you can imagine; everything seemed to slowly float out and away. I had enough time to start thinking that maybe this time we were in trouble, changing to maybe we were getting too much water inside the canoe, all the way to even considering that maybe we were going to flip over and go under the water. Honestly, I must say that I’m glad it happened in a slow-motion way, because I had enough time to prepare myself, and then I discovered that I could just stand up and walk. I was fine. It was shallow enough to reach out and recover some of our things that were floating on the water. The first scary moment was over.

After a while, we arrived at a beautiful place, with a deeper spot, where we were able to sit on the rocks, enjoy the water and even swim around a little. On those rocks we found about a dozen people, but the rest of the time, there were just a few places where we found a few other paddlers, lovers of the river, just having fun on a warm spring day. The trip took us around six hours, with all our many stops and pauses.

So, at the end of the day, while we were strapping the canoes back on the top of the car, with my clothes wet, my shoes full with sand and tired, I could not stop smiling and thinking this was one of the most wonderful days of my life. I still feel that I am unable to find the right words to express in English how thankful I am that Mark was brave enough to get me into his canoe and paddle down the Broad River with me. I’m sure having his good friend Chris with him helped a little to make it easier for him. After this day, still with all my fears and butterflies in my stomach, I can hardly wait for the next canoeing day. And you know what? After enjoying it so much, maybe I really can be the outdoor type.