The Bumbling Boater

The Bumbling Boater

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Drew Pogge

My first time whitewater kayaking was a lot like my first kiss: sloppy, wet, desperate, and over way too soon. Both terrified me, both thrilled me, and in both cases I ended up treading water in dangerous territory.

I’ve always envied the smooth agility and playfulness of ‘yakers. A few years ago, a friend, Alex, finally convinced me to jump in a boat. “It’ll be fun, and you’ll be fine,” she said. She always was a liar.

I borrowed a boat and skirt from my roommate, an orange monstrosity that was top of the line… in 1992. He also lent me a life jacket, paddle, and what I would soon learn was a leaky drytop. I was set for adventure.

My first lesson took place at the East Gallatin Recreation pond, and my first “roll” was more of a “drown.” Alex gave me the standard spiel: “Snap your hips, follow with your shoulder, head out of the water last.” Then she gently tipped me over in waist deep water and patiently waited as my paddle helplessly slapped the water and my hips failed to right the boat. I can only imagine what it looked like from shore. The kayak was rocking, pivoting, splashing—pretty much everything a kayak can do but roll over. Meanwhile, I was hard at work under the surface, aware of the headlines should I fail. “Local man dies in pleasant, waist-deep water. Cause of death: pathetic hip snap.” I ended up pulling the skirt on that attempt, sputtering to the surface to the applause of some middle-aged fishermen swilling PBR. But after a few more tries, my right side roll was looking solid. Alex deemed me “good to go,” and that was that; I was river-ready.

The next time I crammed my six-foot frame into the orange torpedo was on the bank of the Gallatin River at Greek Creek. I was wearing a ski helmet. The plan was to get the hang of eddying, run a couple small wavetrains, and get out before the “real” whitewater began. Eddying went poorly, but it was the first time that I’d really examined the bottom of the Gallatin at close range. It’s a beautiful river-bottom, to be completely honest. The small wavetrains we encountered also challenged my pond-centric technique. Alex failed to mention the concept of bracing, so I continued my streambed investigation each time the going got rough. This is where the leaky drytop became a factor.

After several dunkings, somehow the sealed neck and wrists of my top actually began trapping water inside. Each paddle stroke caused a tidal swell across my chest. But I was kayaking! Then we hit the last stretch of waves before our take-out at 35 mph Bridge. I was pumped, and my “paddle-like-hell-and-close-your-eyes” technique was working pretty well.

The first few waves were pure fun, and then I saw... The Hole. A big, honkin’ bottomless hole of death. My kayak suddenly began to resemble an orange, injection-molded coffin. I forged ahead—my paddle actually hitting water about every other stroke—and let out a battle scream as I plunged down. From the highway, I’m sure it looked a bit different than I remember (a strangely swollen-looking guy in a ski helmet, paddling like a fiend and shrieking like a little girl as he approached a wave the size of a toaster). Well, I survived the “hole” but the next wave caught me off guard and I took the final plunge of the day. I bobbed to the surface, still moving fairly rapidly, just in time to see Alex bent over the bow of her ‘yak, laughing hysterically.

At the take-out, I crawled from the river, dragging my water-filled orange anchor behind. My bloated drytop gyrated with each step like an overtaxed water balloon, and I blew a surprising amount of river out of my nose.

More experienced boaters were gearing up nearby to play in the “real” whitewater of the Mad Mile. They just nodded knowingly and smiled. “Great day to be out on the river, isn’t it?” I couldn’t answer, as my head was firmly wedged in the fragrant armpit of my drytop (those things are hard to escape from, I don’t care who you are), but it sure was. A great day to be on the river.

So that’s my first kayaking experience. If you can believe it, my first kissing experience was even worse. And sadly, I haven’t gotten much better, even after a lot of practice. I still just try really hard, close my eyes, and hope for the best. And that goes for kayaking too.

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