Learning from Experience

Click here for the photos that go with this story.

Its funny how your understanding of something is based on your experience. When Nancy mentioned how she and Rick like to kayak, I had in mind my own experiences kayaking. My experiences included kayaking  the Tuscarawas River on two or three hour trips, with flat water and a few obstacles to avoid. We had also kayaked in Chincoteague, Virginia, in the intercoastal waters. My wife Laura had recently introduced us to kayaking on Lake Atwood, also flat water. Nancy and Rick's experiences could be different, but kayaking together would be a good way to compare.

We made plans for Friday (July 13, 2007). I would have to miss the internet planning meeting of the Ohio Employment Lawyers Association (OELA), but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. On Thursday, we got the time and place to meet. Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania, at 11:00. It would take us about an hour to drop one car there, drive together to Confluence, and then put into the water. Nancy estimated that we would be out by 4:00 pm, in plenty of time to get to Maggie's Mercantile vegetarian restaurant in Stahlstown before it closed at 6 pm.

We all arrived early. I found the first obvious parking place, and it was right next to the van from Portage County. The van had 4 kayaks on it. Rick and Nancy returned to their van quickly to meet us. We transferred some dry clothes to our car, and then took the van to Confluence.

On the way, Rick gave us some pointers about kayaking. Never stand up in moving water. Some stuff about paddling. When he was about done, I announced that I learn better from experience, especially the bad experiences. Rick chuckled (for the first and last time today).

In Confluence, we came to an intersection with lots of "no parking" signs. We stopped at the first house and asked for advice on where to park. A woman and a young girl came to the van. The woman said we could park on the other side of her house. We did. We changed. Rick was surprised that I wanted to take my digital camera on the water. I had a ziploc bag to protect it from splashes. Rick correctly pointed out that a ziploc is not watertight. I agreed, but correctly pointed out that getting the photos was more important.

My kayak was an older style sit in type. When we got the kayaks to the shore of the Youghiogheny River, I noticed that there was some rubber material in it. "Go ahead and pull your skirt up, Richard," Nancy said. I gave her a look. She immediately agreed that she should not report that remark on the OELA listserv.

The skirt had a small tubular opening in the middle for my waist. Then we had to stretch the rest of it around the cockpit of the kayak to make a water resistant seal for my hips, legs and everything else in the kayak (including my water bottle). The front tip of the skirt had a pull handle. It is like the rip cord of a parachute. To get out of the kayak, one must pull the cord to detach the skirt from the kayak. Nancy made sure I knew this in case I was ever upside down in the kayak. I wore my camera around my neck with the ziploc almost completely closed (except for the hole where the lanyard came through to go around my neck).

I can tell you that steering a kayak is not as easy as steering a unicycle. I think that my paddles had a defect that caused them to pull to the left, because that is how I started to travel in it. I would try the big grinding paddle strokes on the left side to push me toward center, but the kayak would soon be pointing up river. The nice thing about kayaking backwards down a river is that you don't have any of the stress of looking for rocks and steering around them.

Soon Rick taught me that steering in a kayak is more about the angle of your paddle stroke than it is about the strength of your paddling. I experimented with paddle strokes that pushed away from the bow, and that did help. Soon, I was able to travel far enough to exchange whole sentences before I spun around backwards. Nancy told me how she and Rick also like to ski. Kayaking, however, has two advantages. Kayakers are dedicated to helping one another, and their club newsletters have better stories.

Another advantage of kayaking backwards is that you can take pictures of the other kayakers behind you and capture their faces. Simultaneously, the rocks in the river can capture you. Rick advised that it is better to kayak forward. I practiced getting photos more quickly, rezipping the ziploc in time to turn around and face the rapids.

Did I mention the rapids? The Youghiogheny has quite a few. The river still looks flat, but it makes more noise. You can see some rocks sticking up, and you steer around those. You can also see some prominent standing waves. I tried to steer around those too. Sometimes there is a rock right next to the standing wave. These are called brakes. Sometimes I could not get around the standing waves. Of these times, I would sometimes sail right through, and sometimes I would get stuck on a rock. Rick and Nancy never got stuck on rocks. I never even heard a rock scrape the bottom of their kayaks. They are definitely better kayakers.

After about two hours, we agreed to stop for a rest. Rick led Nancy and Laura to an island. I used the opportunity to take a few photos. After a minute or two, I could see them on the island beach. I could also see that I was in a shallow rock garden. I had to use my paddle as a pole vault to get over each rock. It would have been easier if I had just followed Rick and gone around the rock garden.

On shore, I noticed that my legs had not moved in two hours. A few stretches were in order. I enjoyed being reunited with my water bottle. I used the facilities. making sure they were not made of poison ivy. I put my shoes in storage so my feet would have more room. I took the keys out of my pocket so they would not grind into my side. We are off again.

Soon, we are approaching another rapid. I heard someone call to move left. I was approaching a rock. I tried to get to its left side. In a moment, my kayak was pressed against this rock, and the water was pushing the left side of the kayak down. I used may paddle to reach out and hold me up. My leg started to cramp. I decided to rest for a minute here. I saw that my camera and its ziploc were in the water, with the water getting dangerously close to the opening for the lanyard. After a minute, Rick pulled up. He was on the downstream side of this same rock. I handed him my camera. He picked it up with his paddle. Now, I visualized how easy it would be to get out. All I had to do was push myself past this rock. What I should have visualized was passing my glasses to Rick, but giving up my glasses was nowhere close to my thoughts at that moment. It would also have been a tremendous foresight to pull my skirt cord up.

In the next moment, the water succeeded in pushing the left side of the kayak down stream, with the right side of the kayak just a little less down stream. In this position, the kayaker is under the water.

It is curious what you think about when you are underwater with a kayak over you, and rocks are beneath you and on both sides. I was thinking about what my airline pilot client had told me on Monday. If a cabin loses pressure at high altitude, you have about three seconds of useful consciousness. How, this has been a lot longer than three seconds. I did not think at all about the water temperature. I normally do not like to swim unless the water is about bathtub warm. But the following events occurred in water that was 15 degrees Celsius, without me caring at all about freezing. The other thing I was not thinking about: the OELA internet planning committee meeting. I now think those are safer than kayaking.

I noticed my glasses getting scraped off my face, and I could feel them with my hands. After they slipped through my fingers, I decided that, in terms of seeing my family again, air would be even better than my eyeglasses. I could hear Nancy and Rick yelling something to me repeatedly, and I decided I should get up to hear what they were saying. I tried to roll the kayak up on one side. No luck. I tried the other side. Same result. I reached for the skirt cord. It was hard to pull off. I decided I should pull as if my life depended on it. It came free. In the next moment, I was breathing again.

Okay. I am breathing. I am still in the middle of the rapids with no paddle (did I mention that I lost my paddle, too). I reached over my kayak, but it wanted to move faster than I did. Rick yelled that Nancy had my kayak, and I should hold onto his kayak. This sounded reasonable to me. I held on. I put my bare feet in front of me to meet the oncoming rocks while Rick kayaked toward shore. Next time, I might think to put my feet behind me and help with a swimming kick. Now I notice that my bike helmet was off of my head, but the strap was still around my neck. It had been too loose to be of any use. I found the latch and took it off. I found a big rock near shore, climbed up, and understood why turtles like to lay on big rocks.

While I caught my breath, Rick went to look for my paddle. Other boaters said they saw it and called out some directions, but Rick did not find it. When Rick got back, he put my camera in the dry bag. It was not offered to me again until we got back to the car. I thanked Rick for saving my life. He said I had saved my own life. Laura later said that she would like to take a water safety class before she goes kayaking with me again.

Richard recovers on a rock.

Before starting again, I tightened my bike helmet. I stretched my legs. Nancy got out the SPARE PADDLE which had been stowed in my kayak. As we continued kayaking, I asked Rick if he would let me buy him a new paddle. Nancy said she never liked that paddle anyway.

I am legally blind without my glasses -- somewhere between 400 and 700/20. Luckily, I had all that experience kayaking backward. Kayaking blind is practically the same. Rick led the way. I followed Rick. Nancy followed me. I was sensing that I was the subject of a new safety plan, and appreciating it.

We pulled out at Ohiopyle. Nancy explained that the take out was in a new location from the last time they kayaked here -- 15 years ago! Laura had paddled Nancy's old sit-on-top kayak the whole way.  She handled all the rapids well, didn't get stuck anywhere, and didn't come out of her boat.  It was our longest kayaking trip ever (about 12 miles) and at low water levels.

Since I was no good as a driver, Rick and Laura went to get the van. Nancy and I stayed in Ohiopyle. A few raindrops pushed us to the nearest porch. There, Nancy got a map of the route we had just taken. It was the "Middle Youghiogheny." It is a "Class II." river. Nancy said that since the water was low, she would have rated it Class I. For tomorrow, Rick and Nancy have plans for the next stretch -- the Class III "loop" of the Lower Yough. I downloaded my photos to the laptop. We looked them over and definitely found a few shots that were worth the adventure.

When Rick and Laura returned, we collected the kayaks. Other boaters asked if two helmets belonged to us. They did not. I joked that what we lost was a paddle. "What color?" she asked. It was Nancy's paddle. The guy with an orange hat saw it sticking out of the rocks in "Victoria Falls." He was concerned that it might slice a raft, so he walked out to retrieve it. All it takes, though, to get in trouble is one river and one rock.

Laura and I left about 7:30 pm, appreciating that we could once again go home together.

Group shot: Richard, Laura, Nancy & Rick

See other photos from this trip.
Send me an email.