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November 23, 2006

Drowning Lessons

story and photos by BENNETT BARTHELEMY


It's easy to yearn for action when you find yourself continually in the role of documenter. So last Saturday was to be my day. I made it to Ben's at 9 a.m. I was counting on getting some one-on-one tutelage from him while boating the Pigeon Point stretch of the Trinity River. Having done the section dozens of times, Ben was very reassuring that it would be a good first run for me as I was a complete newbie to the sport. Still, I was slightly nervous.

On Friday, straightaway I had been banned from borrowing a kayak from my work when they found out my ambition. I couldn't lie to all the questions they hit me with: Do you know your roll? A T-rescue? Will you portage every rapid? Have you been on a river before?!? One co-worker offered: "Might be a little bony out there -- most people don't run it in the fall." They mentioned names of rapids, and Hell Hole in particular conjured up rather unfriendly images. Hmm, maybe it's for the best, I reasoned, but upon arriving home I found Ben had left a phone message promising he had everything I would need. So I was committed.

It turned out that Colin, a school acquaintance, would be joining us too. Then, while organizing gear, Ben's girlfriend Tamina decided that she wanted in on the fun. Both of them were as experienced as I was. This necessitated a last-minute scrounge for helmets, boats, paddles and sprayskirts. It wasn't until after noon that we actually made it to the river, and with only three boats. As Colin was getting suited up he casually asked, "Is this a bicycle helmet?"

I was to do the first half in the car and Tamina would take over for me midway, when I would get my chance on the water. From above with the telephoto lens it all looked so serene and idyllic. Gentle rapids I imagined I could walk through if I had to. Shallow and tame.

From the crumbling hillside below the highway I could see Colin opting to portage the first real set of rapids (he had already swum three times) and Tamina in her hot-rod red boat picking her line and weaving through the rocks like a seasoned pro. I was impressed that she didn't bounce off the boulders and flip, and quickly reasoned that: a). It really was mellow, b). She was guided by dumb luck, c). Her wider beginner's boat was very stable and forgiving. Whatever it was, I was ready to prove myself. I had to live up to all the tough talk I had thrown down on the drive up as we passed the elephantine rapids. I later asked Tamina what was going through her head on the rapid. "I felt like I was in a video game where all the rocks were out to get me and missing them meant extra points!" Her scariest moment of the day was walking back to the car at the mid-point switch with little more than my camera covering her. She was worried that the car-full of young men screaming and honking at her wanted to steal the camera.

It all went bad from the first toe freezing moment I stepped into the water. I watched with consternation as Colin was given Tamina's red boat, which meant I was to take the yellow torpedo he was using. I sensed a conspiracy. I lasted about a mile, and a good portion of that was under the water. Eddies routinely spun me, then sucked the tail (stern?) down, activating panic mode in the icy water as I attempted to wet exit while my head bounced off cobbles. The other portion was spent hiking barefoot over sharp, slick rocks while portaging around Z Drop (said to be the most tame class II rapid on the river).

Ben, looking a bit worried, politely pointed out, "We can't portage every rapid." I happily waved Ben and Colin on and headed up the embankment to the highway, thankful I had swapped boats with Ben below Z-drop for the very light rubber ducky play-boat that amounted to little more than a heavy-duty kazoo, and not much bigger. I collapsed on a two-foot wide margin of dirt before the asphalt, taking advantage of the little warmth the dropping sun afforded and shivered for an hour before Tamina arrived with the car.

Ben, an extremely confident class V boater, would later confide in me that he had some misgivings about the day. In fact, the whole way down he was apparently having doubts about his casual attitude toward the river. In regards to having to deal with me ... it's only water, man, get over it. At every rapid he found himself saying, I hope no one swims in this one. And when Colin swam through the last big rapid? I hope he doesn't die.

At the takeout Ben's toe was gashed and bleeding and likely broken (Ben jammed it into his foot-adjusting peg, which sheared it off while dropping into Hell Hole onto a rock) and the bottom of Colin's foot was all bloody from what he didn't know -- but they seemed too blissed out to notice really or feel any pain. On the drive home Ben conceded that to do the run at this water level was "not recommended."

Since our adventure, Colin has already thrown down several hundred for a used boat of his own. Ben just paid half a grand for a used Mamba play-boat that he swears is incredibly stable, and is trying to lure me out again. Tamina is ready to step it up on some bigger rapids. Me? I must be getting old. I am anxious to engage drier pursuits on warm vertical stone, and leave the rivers alone for a while.

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Email Bennett Barthelemy at bennettbarthelem@hotmail.com,
or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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