Friday, May 13, 2011

Our Chetco River Adventure - Part I

My husband is an incredibly sweet man. For example, when he got me Bella's backpack from the movie Twilight, he'd gone on-line and found out what kind of bag it was and the most reliable place to buy it. Mind you, I did not ask for Bella's backpack but he thought I would like it and to my surprise, I did. Or the time I tore out a picture of the boots Keira Knightley wore on a Vogue fashion shoot because I liked them, he secretly found out who made them and bought them for me. The man is incorrigible! Well, when we came to this little seaside town and I happened to say, "How fun would it be to spend the day on a lake?" Guess what he did? He researched and found a place in town that rents boats, well kayaks, so we could spend the day on the lake for my birthday.

After a great surprise visit from my Pops, he left for home. I was so touch that he made the trek all the way from Oakland to see me for my 40th. I gave my Papa Bear a big hug and a kiss and watched him zoom down the road, then Tony and I headed out to pick-up our very first kayak at Escape Hatch Sports.

As we loaded the sucker, I noticed it was a lot larger and heavier than I'd imagined, but it was a fun, bright yellow and it had two seats, which eased my mind since I thought we'd be in individual kayaks. Next stop - Lake Earl. Tony was told by his buddies at work that this was a very serene lake - perfect for beginners. When we got there however, the water level was so low that it looked more like a bog than a lake, and it smelled. After some discussion, we turned around and headed for our second choice - the Chetco River.

The Chetco is a pristine, scenic river that runs deep into the mountains and pours out into the Pacific Ocean. "Are you sure?" My husband asked me concernedly. "Kayaking on a lake is a lot different from kayaking down a river." Was he insinuating that I couldn't paddle down one little river? I was offended! "Sure I'm sure." I said confidently. "Besides, this river has a strong current that will help lead us down stream and right into the ocean, probably, without much effort on our part." I pretty much made all that up, but it made sense to me: river runs into ocean = strong current.

As we began driving up into the mountains I could see the mighty Chetco sparkle through the trees. "Keep going." I said excitedly, when he put on his blinker to pull over. "Alright." He said uneasily. After two more attempts to pull over and my egging him on, we finally found a place where you can pull your vehicle right onto the river's edge. On the rocky shore were sun worshipers and families sitting in beach chairs; some were drinking beer, others were sleepily fishing in their inter tubes, and kids were swimming and splashing in the beautiful green water like river otters. As we started to unload, everyone began watching us. The bright, banana yellow kayak seemed to clash hideously with our surroundings.

After a hasty inventory of what goes and what stays in the truck, I strapped on my puffy life vest and hopped into the kayak, which was much easier on the eyes once it was in the water. As I sat down, it bottomed out. I think I heard some of the river otters laugh. "Oh!" I said surprisedly, as the water started pouring into the holes at the bottom of the kayak. This is when I discovered the difference between a boat and a kayak.  In a boat we would have been dry. Kayaks are meant to roll, which I did not plan on doing since I'm not a very good swimmer. Of course, I can dog paddle like a champ, and even breaststroke pretty well, but I never mastered distance swimming or holding my breath under water. Oh well, who cares if our behinds are going to be wet, I thought, we're on a river and it's a beautiful day! After we walked our banana slug into deeper water, we got in with as little fuss as possible, which meant almost tipping over several times while I squealed with laughter, holding my backpack over my head. When we were finally in, I looked over my shoulder and could tell that our audience was a little sad we were off and running. Or glad.

Truth be told, Tony and I are straight City. We both grew up in the Bay Area and we've only gone camping once together, which was an adventurous nightmare to say the least (perhaps another story for another day). That's why we're so excited to be living in the county now, we've always wanted to get away from the smog and experience nature: fishing, hiking, kayaking. Sure, we're new to it all but we want to learn, and Kayaking down the Chetco River was our biggest and newest adventure since we moved from the East Bay two months prior. So here I was sitting in a giant, yellow river Cadillac, life vest secure (Tony refused to wear his), with a hideous sun hat on my head that I normally wouldn't be caught dead in (thanks mom), thrilled to be paddling down a river on my own steam. Life couldn't be better.

My husband thought it would be best if I sat up front - he being stronger, would act as our rudder. I was quite happy with the arrangement, this gave me an unobstructed view of the river; my job was to report what lay ahead.

The first couple of hours I was as happy as a clam, taking pictures of the incredible scenery, videoing my husband paddle while we sang songs that glorified the Chetco. When we hit a stretch of river that was especially calm, Tony asked me to help paddle. "I've been paddling." I said jokingly. Then I resealed my birthday camera in the Ziploc bag my husband made me promise to use, and threw it into the backpack. As we paddled together we developed a good rhythm and I felt like we were a real team. That's when I spotted my first white water. "Um, honey, I see rapids ahead." I reported calmly. "Alright, just sit tight and let the water take us!" He yelled, as if we were about to go straight over a waterfall. I nodded, laughing at the volume in his voice. As we approached the rapidly running water, I failed to mention the rather large tree trunk that hung low, directly over the rapid. As I ducked my head to let the tree pass, my sweet husband tried blocking it with his arm, and fell overboard.

After somehow stopping the kayak and apologizing my head off, he got back in and almost tipped us over. Lucky for us, I have cat-like reflexes and shifted my body weight just right. "Well, at least you're cooler now." I said, looking on the bright side. He was a champ about it. And it was only three feet deep in the rapids.

For the next two hours, the current seemed to move at a snail's pace, but I didn't mind one bit. It was so refreshing and beautiful on the river. As I alternated taking pictures with paddling - mind you every time I wanted to use the camera it meant going into the backpack, taking it out of it's protective plastic bag, then reversing the process when I finished getting that magical shot - I could see that Tony was beginning to fatigue. "Let's pull over and eat." I offered. "Great idea." He said. I could tell he needed a stogie. When we spied a nice spot to pull over, we paddled hard toward the shore and the nose of our kayak slid up perfectly. "Ahoy!" We had landed.

As I pulled our lunch out of the backpack, I realized how meager it was. Then I remembered - we had planned on spending a couple of hours on "Lake Placid," not four hours and counting, paddling, then walking our kayak downstream. Yes, walking. Our kayak was so big and heavy that we had to get out quite often and walk it through the shallows. All this in and out and constant paddling was a real workout, but we became quite good at it - no more nearly tipping over.

After inhaling our PB&Js, chips and downing our one Hansen's soda (how can food taste this good?!), we noticed that it was starting to get late. Neither of us had the time - who brings a watch on a nature quest? But the sun wasn't as warm as when we first began our adventure, and the breeze, which started out balmy and warm was chilly now and blowing in our faces. "How much farther before we make it to the bridge?" I asked rolling down my sleeves. "Well, you see that mountain range up ahead?" My husband said, pointing West. The mountains were all around us, and they stretched and curved as far as the eye could see. "Uh, yeah?" I said doubtfully. "We need to make it all the way through those, then it's about half a mile to the bridge. This is where the ocean water meets the river, then it's another half-mile to the pier." Wow, that's far I thought, so I put my camera away for good and started to pull my own weight.

We were really sailing for almost an hour, and I loved the way it felt when we synchronized our paddling, our kayak slicing through the sparkling, green water. As we steadily moved along, I noticed the shoreline was changing and the river was getting wider. When we first began, the river was calm, the water was warm and crystal clear with beautiful multi-colored rocks at the bottom, which were covered with a blanket of green moss. Salmon and steelhead, mallards, egrets and a multitude of birds whose names went beyond my knowledge, surrounded us.

Now, the current was pushing us back, the water was colder, darker, and much deeper, and the only birds I noticed were carrion, and the occasional seagull. Even when my arms began to shake I didn't stop paddling. Once, Tony took a break, but I kept on going and I realized how difficult it was to paddle by myself. Then I felt bad. Most of the time I was laying back in the sun, like a modern day Lady of Shallot, while my husband slaved away without complaint. Or, I was taking pictures of the ducks and birds on the water, the salmon that passed us by, the dog that chased us away from his shore, and the whole time Tony was paddling non-stop. "Badly done Emma," I thought to myself, and felt the sting of my selfishness.

"Honey, I'm sorry!" I said to the outstretched river in front of me, still paddling as hard as I could. "I shouldn't have said 'keep going' when we were driving up river. I should have trusted you!" I could hear him laughing behind me, which made me smile. When I turned around, I saw that his face was badly sun burnt, and although he smiled back at me, his eyes showed how exhausted he really was. As did his body, which was slumped over the paddle in his lap. "Honey!" I yelled worriedly. "It's alright darlin' just keep paddling. We're almost through the mountains." He said, sounding drunk with fatigue. As the wind started to blow harder and harder in my face, my paddling wasn't even noticeable anymore. Up ahead, I could see the mountain curve and the river widen maddeningly before my eyes....


  1. Cool Coty thinks your stories are fabulous ;-O)

  2. **Uh!** (slightly jealous and terribly tasteless gasp) someone else is commenting?
    I beat back the green eyed monster and agree with Cool Coty. They are very fabulous!

    "Sure I'm sure." I said confidently. "Besides, this river has a strong current that will help lead us down stream and right into the ocean, probably, without much effort on our part." I pretty much made all that up, but it made sense to me: river runs into ocean = strong current."
    Lol - that's perfect :-) and something I would say!!!