Kathy Baker revealed in the April 24 issue of The Portager (“Meditations on Peace, Flow and Patience”) that “to find inner peace one needs to become like a river.” That thought led her to explore the teachings of the Mighty Mississippi. It inspired me to ponder my decades-long relationship with a different kind of waterway: whitewater rivers of the Appalachians. Paddling such rivers is exciting and carries an element of danger, but few pursuits are so fulfilling.
One expedition years ago on western Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock Creek was particularly memorable. After days of rain, “The Slip” had reached four times its usual June level. Eight of us ran the challenging “Upper” and “Gorge” sections; we then were joined by several others on the somewhat tamer “Lower.”
At the put-in, two young men with rag-tag gear and no experience asked what we thought of them taking on the river. We tried to dissuade them, but they were determined. Luckily, they made it through alive; over-confident adventurers have sometimes drowned at that location.
For our group, the Upper section offered good excitement. At flood stage, many obstacles are hidden underwater, and precise maneuvering becomes unnecessary. But the waves are bigger, holes deeper, currents more powerful, and hydraulics far more dangerous. One paddler flipped early on, and it took three or four attempts to roll back up. I was on the scene, prepared to offer a bow rescue, but it proved unnecessary.
The Gorge was more intense. Our launch site was just upstream from a large boulder. I got around it but then broached on a pour-over and capsized. I hit my roll on the first try but flipped again on the next drop. Out of breath, I made a “wet exit,” pushed the boat onto a rock, and swam ashore. A fellow paddler quickly helped retrieve the kayak.
At the following drop, I was too close to another boat, got off line, and dumped in a large hole but immediately hit my roll. High water transformed the next rapid into a straight shot, and no one had a problem there despite the turbulence.
On “Triple Drop,” the longest rapid, it felt great to mount a six-foot wave and descend into the trough. But while slowing to avoid the boat ahead of me, the current pushed me onto a pour-over, followed by a large hole, and I capsized. I was headed toward a dangerous undercut, so I bailed out and swam the final drops. I grabbed the stern of a companion’s boat and made my way to shore while others rescued my kayak and paddle. The remaining rapids were intense, but we all ran them cleanly.
At the bottom of the Gorge, we picked up several other members of our team. The Lower Slip was easy and fun, with interesting waves, holes, and some good play spots. One included a four-foot stopper wave. It seemed to promise good surfing but was hard to catch and harder to hold. So most of us took advantage of the wave train just below, while practicing our river moves.
Over the final stretch, we had two close calls, but both ended well. In one, the current pushed my wife toward a fallen tree in almost the same spot where several people — including two would-be rescuers from a local fire department — had drowned the previous spring. But she caught an eddy, peeled out, and made it safely around the obstacle. In the other, a paddler flipped and, fatigued after a long day, missed several roll attempts. Luckily, another boater was right there and pulled her upright.
Halfway down the Lower section, five of us pulled into an eddy and launched a conversation about what makes river-running special. The element of risk and the adrenaline rush are clearly factors, but other sports involve as much objective danger. On whitewater, however, the action is constant, and one’s success depends on an uninterrupted chain of split-second decisions. There’s also the element of being close to nature and feeling at one with the river. In addition, whitewater relieves the stress of everyday life, making other problems disappear, at least for the time being.
Perhaps most importantly, paddling brings together exceptional people. We respect each other’s autonomy and tolerance for personal risk while still looking out for one another. Our lives depend on everyone’s attentiveness, judgment and teamwork. Whitewater unites people from all walks of life, with different levels of education, and often with diametrically opposed philosophical and political orientations. Yet, while we’re on the river we share a common pursuit — to revel in an untamed environment while ensuring that we all get safely to the takeout. In today’s divided world, that merger of individualism and collective responsibility is a distinctive treasure.
Rick Feinberg is professor emeritus of anthropology at Kent State University, president of the Kent State University Retirees’ Association, and a long-time member of the Keel Haulers Canoe Club.