Two weekends ago, I went on a really amazing trip down the Pine River. It was my first time paddling on really fast water; the Kalamazoo river’s pretty much a beer float unless it’s rained heavily the week before, and I’d been hearing for months about how great the Pine was, so I was really looking forward to it. Anyway, every autumn this big group of paddlers gets together at this campground near Wellston and paddles two or three of the nearby rivers. It was bucketing down rain on Friday, so we elected not to leave after work, but to get up early on Saturday morning and drive up for the 8am launch.
Only problem is, Wellston is three hours north. Which means me and paddling buddies J and R got up at 4am. To be on the road by 5am. Yeah, we’re a little stupid when it comes to paddling.
So we roll into the campground just as the 8am convoy was forming, and fortunately for us everyone was a little slow getting moving. We had just enough time to pitch our tents and get things set for our evening return. After some minor issues with staging we were on the river by about 9:45, and had an awesome 4 hour trip down to Dobson Bridge. The river was definitely faster water than I was used to, but I didn’t see anything that really made me feel I was at risk — until we got right in front of the bridge, where there were some really sweet Class II rapids. As soon as J and R and I shot through, we shouted “AGAIN!” like little kids, and tried to get our boats turned around so we could take them again. No luck; the river was fast enough that we’d get close to the top, but the instant we missed a stroke, we’d get turned around and sent back downstream. It was a bit like trying to swing at a big brother who’s got his hand on your forehead.
Most of the fifty-or-so paddlers pulled out at the campground, just a short trip away from Dobson bridge, but R was keen to keep going, so while I caught a quick nap in my tent, she organized with another couple paddlers for a shuttle, and then we were off for another 3 hour paddle down to Low Bridge.
That part of the river was AMAZING, and I was so glad that R talked me into giving it a shot, despite having slept like crap the night before and surviving a 4am wakeup call. Class I the whole way with lots of exciting Class II rapids, and the previous day’s rain kept our minds in the present moment — most of the river was so tricky that we couldn’t even hold a conversation for fear of getting dumped. Tall dunes fenced us in, topped with maples just beginning to turn orange, and though we hardly saw any wildlife other than the occasional pissy kingfisher, the gorgeous, unspoiled forest views totally made up for it.
It was pretty damp all day, and alternated between sun and medium-heavy rain. We got dumped on as we ate our lunch, and despite my usual aversion towards schmancy yuppie gear, I was really, really glad I’d spent the money on waterproof pants and a paddling jacket, though my old wool pendleton shirt did well for all but the worst of it.
At the end of the trip, my arms felt like noodles, and I was so glad to have set up the tent before leaving. Eight of us all piled into the shuttle, a minivan with four seats and a monster homemade roof-rack, on which we managed to pile two canoes and four kayaks — Getting out was a bit of a clown-car experience. Back at the campground we got changed and headed over to the potluck and bonfire, where we fell on the buffet like ravenous wolves and had a great time passing around J’s bottle of spiced rum. Loaded with booze and good humor, J became the instant hit of the weekend, and I’m pretty sure that R and I won’t be allowed back without bringing him along.
Unfortunately, this is where the day started to go south. I’m still pretty broke from this summer’s big vacation, so rather than buying my own sleeping bag and pad, I borrowed Paul’s, the same one he’s been using since he was in Boy Scouts. We’d unrolled it the week before to air it out, and it looked just fine, but as soon as I crawled inside, the zipper burst like a sausage. The temperature was dropping fast — it was already down around 40F — and since it was a mummy bag, I was hosed. There was no way to get the bag shut all the way, and no matter how I lay, I still had a good eight inches of exposed body. The pad didn’t help any because I’d paddled for about eight hours, my shoulders hurt too much to lie on them. After about two hours of misery, I finally gave up and tried to sleep in the backseat of my car. It being a VW Golf, this was only marginally better. My legs were cramped and aching all night, but at least I was warm. I may have dozed off for about fifteen minutes in there somewhere, but I doubt I got more sleep than that. I kept shifting around in the bag all night, and eventually tried propping my feet clumsily against the window. I was parked right near the bathrooms, and I can only imagine what people must’ve thought as they walked past in the middle of the night, the kayaks on my car swaying back and forth as I tossed and turned, bumping my feet against the window. It must’ve looked like the most clumsy, awkward backseat sex ever. Yeah, dignity. I remember that.
So dawn comes, and I drag my sorry ass out of the car and head over to build the fire and make breakfast. Everyone else popped up fresh as daisies, and here I was running on three hours of sleep in two days. Things were not looking good until the campers next door offered me coffee. It was kinda weak for my taste, but I dumped in some of the powdered starbucks stuff (shut up, it’s good) I brought with me and then it was extra good. I was about to head home and leave R and J to keep paddling, but aparrently I was making the dog face well enough that some other folks took more pity on me, and soon I had even more coffee. Three cups later and I felt human (and stupid) enough to sign up for one more day of paddling.
So off we go to put in at Dobson and do that amazing stretch of river again. This time the sun shone down on us and it was a beautiful blue-sky day. Soon we did away with our extra layers and had a grand old time of it. Doing the same section twice was a great idea; the second time through I was able to see what I’d done wrong and make corrections, thinking instead of just reacting. I feel like I really levelled up in both ruddering and edging that trip. Being such a clumsy, accident-prone person, it’s an amazing, gratifying experience to feel myself actually becoming physically competent at something. I’m the type that usually trips over cracks in the linoleum, the one that’s usually wearing evidence of everything I ate for lunch, who can’t make it through the day without acquiring a new bruise from whacking into a desk-edge — and here I managed thirty miles over fast water without falling in once. Does wonders for the confidence, it does.
I wish we could’ve done that stretch a third time, and if the weather and the day hadn’t both been turning on us, I think we might’ve. Alas, we loaded the boats on the car and headed for home, gassed up on rapids and sleep-deprivation and sunshine. I am so going back next year.