The Kayak Chronicles

by Darren Caffery

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RUBBER DUCKING ON CHEAT RIVER, WV

Summer 1989

After a few days of raft paddling with a group  and working as a team, I looked forward to the solo craft experience of me, alone and navigating down this beautiful river in my rubber duckie.  The outfitter provided basic instruction and assured us river conditions would be appropriate for our level of experience (which we were asked to indicate on a form before the trip). Of course, for liability reasons, the guides always mention the potential for accidents, injuries and even death, which often makes me wonder (for a moment at least) why I even enjoy these trips. The plan was to enjoy paddling most of the river without great challenge but to get pumped up on some of the more challenging whitewater rapids such as Big Nasty.  We planned to stop and scout approaching rapids where we would then be given instruction on how to shoot through them properly and safely. It all sounded reasonable except for the recurring thoughts of injury and "potential for death" which seemed to overshadow my excitement and exhilaration at times.

The flow of the river at the launch site was so deceivingly slow, calm and tranquil that it got my mind off those negative thoughts.  It was a beautiful, warm,  sunny summer day. At this point, I didn't anticipate any problems going with the flow as I positioned myself in the rubber kayak, got comfortable and started paddling with the group. Each stroke of the paddle, the sight of the sun shining over the river valley and the fresh smell of the pine and evergreen trees reminded me it was Summer and also made me feel very alive. I gradually picked up the pace of my strokes and my heart began to race in the most healthy way as I developed a nice steady pace that propelled me down the Cheat River and made me feel like I was part of it.  After a short while, we pulled off to the bank and he gave us directions for the approaching rapid.

After returning to our duckies, he warned us the gradient of the river would soon change and that we should prepare ourselves as we were instructed.  As we quieted ourselves, we listened attentively to the unadulterated sound of the whitewater in the distance. All other sounds vanished and all I could hear was the roar of the rushing whitewater over the rocks.  It was initially faint,  but slowly got louder as I got closer to it. I could not see what lie ahead however my ears warned me of mother nature's beauty and treachery which awaited me. As the river gradient plummeted, my heart rate skyrocketed with the steadily increasing flow of the now swiftly moving water. Although manageable, it became more difficult to maneuver around large rocks and some fallen tree limbs. The paddlers ahead of me quickly disappeared and were whisked, one by one into the river's flow and through the rapid. My heart raced even faster and adrenaline pulsed through my cerebral arteries. Muscles in my arms and legs flexed as I braced and paddled, attempting to maneuver and keep my balance while I was propelled down Mother Nature's trail of rushing whitewater. Total focus was on my kayak and the flow of the river. At the height of awareness, I navigated through faster whitewater, moving even faster than my racing heart could beat. This frightened me. There was no time to doubt myself...no time to say "I can't", no time to play back the old tapes in my mind which reinforced years of self-doubt. In the most natural way, a unified focus allowed me to synchronize myself to the river which propelled me through the years of self-doubt, my racing heart and all the fears of drowning or becoming caught in the river's dangerous strainers. Although only a quarter mile, this short stretch of rapids illustrated the potential to overcome obstacles both mental and physical in a matter of minutes with proper conditions. It's ironic how one event which lasts only a few minutes has the capacity to change thought patterns which took so many years to develop.

This experience was a valuable lesson in the resiliency of the human body, mind and spirit. When I was finally through the stretch of whitewater, I immediately knew the river had transformed me and it was exhilarating.  As the river slowed, I relaxed, exhaled, loosened the grip on my paddle and again could smell the fresh scent of summer emanating from the banks of the river. Most of the group, like myself, had never paddled a solo craft on this level of challenging whitewater before. As a result, over dinner, we all shared similar stories of gaining new respect for nature, the river, the earth and for ourselves.

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