Some days I just don’t feel like a very good kayaker. This weekend was two of those days.
Anthony rang my phone at 7:26 AM. We both knew the local creek would still be iced over, but the next creek west, Chautauqua, was expected to break free and flow, according to the local paddlers in Erie PA. So we should head over there. I felt it was still a bit early but given the choice between sleeping in and paddling, I always know the answer. I don’t have to want it, I need it. I rolled out of bed, strapped the Nomad to the roof of the car, and hit the road. The Tim Hortons stop was not optional, and my XL triple milk really … well, it was almost enough to get me to wake up. I needed help from AWOLNATION and whatever other high-energy pop I could find in my phone.
Half an hour from Chautauqua, my phone rang and it was Anthony again. He’d beaten me out there, only to learn that the creek was still iced over. We needed another plan. Erie guys apparently were moving on to Walnut Creek, in their backyard. “They say it’s great and it never runs.” And it’s only another hour away. I needed more coffee.
We arrived at the takeout and beheld the creek. It was… well, a creek, I guess. In the strictest sense of the word. I was assured it would be epic once we were on it. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t. Now, that’s not to say that it isn’t a perfectly worth neighborhood run, but with the exception of one quality 3+ drop behind the Lowe’s, nothing about this run justified a three hour drive. Anthony and Laura agreed and one of us suggested, half jokingly, that we might as well just proceed on down to the Lower Yough since we were basically halfway there. We did the math and figured out that we could make it down in time for an evening Loop lap before sunset, so we did. We met at the put-in at 4:45 and were on the water shortly after 5. The level was 4.6 – not the highest I’ve done, but quite a bit higher than the usual level.
A few minutes in, at the entrance rapid, Laura took the first swim of the day. Everyone had been clean in Erie regardless of a few sticky holes and some congestion with a raft. Seeing Laura swim before we’d even hit the meat of Entrance made me feel a bit hesitant. These waves were tall and the holes substantial. I decided to take sneaky lines down the left, and minimized hole play. In fact I spent about half my time in the rapid eddied out waiting for Laura’s recovery. We held a meeting at the beach eddy to discuss a plan of attack for Cucumber.
Cucumber is one of my favorite “one drop” rapids anywhere. At low water, it becomes possible to eddy out at the edge of the drop and surf down through the whole thing. At medium levels, all lines are good lines if you’re balanced, but there are a few submerged rocks to trip you up if you’re inattentive. At high levels it becomes a cluster of massive holes with a wide boof line to the left, and the river right eddy flushes out. I can piece this all together now, to write, but in the upstream eddy I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the rapid was like above three feet. I bullshitted my way through a rapid explanation for Laura, before volunteering to just lead her down a safe, easy line, skipping the eddy-hop I’d been planning to do, if I could have made the eddy. Instead, my “easy” line led straight down a tongue into a massive peaking wave. My Nomad caught some air coming over that wave, but ultimately crashed through. Spinning upstream as I ferried left, I caught a glance of Laura running the boof line that neither of us realized was there. Woos were hooed all around. Anthony followed my clean line and showed me how easy it looks from downstream.
Next was… some other rapid. It’s the Loop, to me it’s Entrance, Cucumber, something or other, maybe Bottle of Wine or something, Eddy Turn, and Railroad. I don’t know the order or recognize most of them until I’m inside. They’re all usually pretty manageable, a few flat slot moves and a lot of hidden surf spots and boofs. Somewhere in the named rapids the names of which I forget, Anthony took a swim. It wasn’t long, none of those rapids lasts too long, but he swam at least to the next eddy. I joked that two out of three of us had swam so far, and quipped that it sounded like a bad omen for the third. On the one hand I tell myself that’s a silly joke; I’m a solid class-4 boater with a reliable roll in almost every river condition, I’m not swimming on the Lower Yough.
That held true, and we got to the bottom of Railroad uneventfully. Anthony ran the frog’s back slot move, which I don’t think is what that’s called, and I boofed a little left of that line, before somewhat accidentally taking the sneak line down to the bottom along river right. I was at the takeout, and there was still almost half an hour until sunset. I had to go back and surf for a while, or at least tire myself out with attainment drills. So I started my way upstream in the right eddy, then up a level, then over and turn back into the holes to surf across. I get across the first hole and slide into the second with a little too much angle. My upstream edge catches and I find my paddle on the wrong side, getting ripped down by the current. I can’t recover the brace and I’m upside down. Looking back, I look disoriented in the GoPro video, taking far too long to move to a setup position. I wasn’t sure if I’d flushed out of the hole. I carped up, saw that I was still in the hole, and panicked. I don’t know why I didn’t try again but a moment later I was watching my boat go over a rock without me. No big deal, of course, as I have to get out of my boat here anyway; it’s the takeout.
Then I saw Laura’s unattended canoe.
I’d somehow landed sitting on a rock, so upon seeing the empty canoe I actually reached down for my whistle and blew. Turning upstream, I saw the last thing I wanted to see – Anthony out of his boat. All three boaters in the water, swimming past the takeout at minutes to sunset. I watched helplessly as Laura eventually managed to catch and reenter her boat. I passed a few eddies but I wasn’t getting out without my gear, Laura, and Anthony. My hands were starting to freeze even in my pogies as I paddled downstream as fast as I could. I came around a corner and caught sight of Laura again, now swimming. I felt hypothermic signs coming on and decided I had to get out, equipment be damned. Laura was near her boat and one advantage open boaters have is the ability to get back in midstream, so she would be okay as long as I didn’t make myself a worse victim. As I warmed up on the rock, Anthony shouted something as he swam past, and I realized he was nowhere near his boat or paddle. I lost sight of them downstream and quickly surmised that there was no path to hike along land.
I hopped back in. A few hundred yards down I saw two boats and two boaters in an eddy. Success! But only two boats, we should have three. It’s an eddy, anyway, and it’s getting too dark to worry about equipment; if we could make it to the car we could just set watch at the take out and hope the boat drifts down, or look for it in the morning.
As we all climbed on to stable dry ground, Anthony explained that he’d stashed his boat on land at the takeout and actually swam down without it. Why he chose that over getting back in his boat to give chase is unclear, but chalk one up to the casualty mindset. That meant we had two boats for three bodies, on the railroad side of the river, as opposed to the conveniently accessible bike trail on the other side. But at this hour crossing the river seemed impractical, especially as one of us would have to swim. We elected instead to climb a hundred feet to the railroad tracks and hike along them. For this plan, being a boat short worked to our advantage as the canoe was an easier carry for two than one, taking turns with a rope. 50 feet shy of the top, I had the foresight to balance my boat on a rock and tie one end of my throw rope to the bow handle, and walk the rope up as I climbed. This last stretch was about as vertical as loose dirt can get, but if you’re willing to lay down in the mud it’s not impossible to scramble up. So we did. Drysuits aren’t meant to stay clean anyway. We all felt very clever for thinking to use our throw ropes.
Walking along the tracks was the easiest part of this whole adventure, except when the train came. I could see that Laura and Anthony were at the narrowest section of the trail then, and I’m not quite sure where they would have gone if the train hadn’t been on the other track. My GPS says that hike was only a bit over a mile, but it felt like forever by the time Laura signaled to me that we’d reached the fence by the cars. The hike from the loop takeout to the put-in never felt like such a relaxing walk, after shedding boat, paddle, PFD, and skirt; just walking through town with a muddy throw rope slung over my shoulder so that I could pack it and shake off the dirt on my way back.
The rest of the night was unremarkable. We hadn’t actually planned this trip, so after dinner at the pub we headed out of town to the nearest Walmart to grab some last-minute supplies, before camping in the pub’s parking lot. It rained all night, and in the morning the level read 5.7. More than a foot higher, nearly double the water volume, but not quite high enough to start washing things out to my knowledge. Too high for me to want to run without a local guide. I shared my view with Laura and Anthony, and I think we were all on the same iffy page; we decided to skip it. We scouted the waterslides of the Meadow, and saw that they were also frighteningly high. So we opted for the Stony, an hour northish.
At the chosen section of the Stony, we learned of an “extra” rapid at the put-in via a “hiking only” (Toyota optional) trail. So we headed up, scouted extensively, watched a local happen by, and then hopped on. We had been planning on the sneaky left line, dodging the meat of each of the big holes and safely keeping a wide berth of the hidden pillow rock behind that one massive wave. But the local started left, ferried upstream to river right, and snuck into the eddy right of the massive wave. I elected to replicate this line. I did not succeed. Fine on the first hole but pushed a little further right. I hit the second hole with that same bad angle that wiped me out in Railroad the day before, and to my astonishment backendered over in my Nomad. Set up, hip snap, orient, I’m facing upstream but moving downstream, and by the time I’ve turned around I’ve drifted into the left sneak, slightly less sneaky backwards. My left hand is throbbing again. I must have impacted something hard with my paddle, or maybe it was just too much pressure in my roll. In any event the pain was back. I wasn’t looking forward to five more miles. The local was waiting in the bottom eddy, and asked if he could tack on with us instead of continuing solo. That meant there would still be three without me, and a safer crew than mine since there was now an experienced local involved. So I opted to hike out, rather than further aggravate the hand injury when I’ve got a week of southeast creeking lined up.
As I reset shuttle and changed into street clothes, I started to feel a sense of remorse for walking off the river. What a weekend this turned out to be for me – one of the most embarrassing beaters of my career so far, followed by an aborted run on a casual “to do” river and an aggravated injury. And I still had to drive five hours home, get back to work, and prepare for the next trip.
Musing on the events afterward, I debated for a while about whether to even write this up. I feel a sense of shame about it. My pride wants to keep this story to myself rather than openly admit failure on what could have been a simple and rewarding adventure. But pride isn’t why I boat. I boat to push myself, to do things that are hard, and to achieve something that feels meaningful. And yeah, for the adrenaline, the adventure, and the comaraderie. But not for bragging rights. I can’t say that it’s been very long since my last swim, or since my last hike. And I’m okay with that.