Open Boat, Open Mind
April 5, 2015
DID the adventure begin when I’d realized, an hour into the trip, that I’d left all my CDs on the kitchen table back home? Or had the adventure begun months earlier, on a rainy winter day, when I’d first decided to travel to the Blackfoot River and meet up with old friends at the Open Boat National Slalom Championships? Or earlier still? Has it always just been one long exercise in adventuring?
When my truck gave up and rolled to a stop on the shoulder of I-90 in Spokane, how did that fit into the undertaking? An unplanned event seems key to the idea of adventure. So was it more adventuresome because the payphone I hiked to kept swallowing my quarters and not working?
While waiting for the tow truck, I stepped through a row of shrubs and into a little field to pee. As I stood there, a passenger plane dropped in right above me for a landing, and I was suddenly caught out in the open. Does adventure begin then, near dusk, when I’m dead in my tracks, taking a piss and watching an airliner cut across the sky, asking myself if anyone up there is looking down on me? Lord, are you watching me, and why did you let my truck die on the way to a river?
How about when the wrecker dropped me off at the downtown Howard Johnson? Is free continental breakfast ever adventurous?
EVEN though I’m a kayaker, I’d wanted to go to Open Boat Nationals for years. I’d heard plenty of stories. A group of my friends from Northern Wisconsin went every summer. Some of them competed at a serious level. At the same time, none of them seemed to take themselves too seriously. From what I gathered, winning a medal was great, but it wasn’t the main thing. I hadn’t seen these friends in years, and I was looking forward to it.
From the lobby, I called the repair shop again. The same guy I’d been speaking to all morning said the mechanic was just about to get to my truck, but he couldn’t promise it. As it turned out, I was back on the road by the end of the day, but it had cost me $500.
The sky was turning grapefruit pink and finally cooling when I turned off I-90 in Bonner and started driving up the Blackfoot. The only directions I had were in an e-mail from a Wisconsin friend: “It’s upstream of the Highway 200 bridge, about 30 miles outside Missoula.” That e-mail had also stated, “These plans are not at all etched in stone, you know how the group can change things in progress.” On the map I had, I could hardly make out the blue line of the river.
From its headwaters at Roger’s Pass in western Montana, the Blackfoot River runs due west until it joins the Clark Fork just outside of Missoula. Norman Maclean wrote this of the Blackfoot in his novel A River Runs Through It, “It is no place for small fish or small fisherman.” As I drove up canyon, I strained to get a look at its waters. The valley is narrow and walled steeply, and I saw only glimpses.
When I reached the campground, there were about 10 Cheeseheads who had driven out from Wisconsin. Then there were others, like me, who were from Wisconsin, but now lived in various western states. My friends were the kind who didn’t make a big deal out of goodbyes, which gave our hellos a certain easy air. We shook hands. Someone opened a beer for me, then one for himself, for whoever else asked for one. It felt as if I’d not been away at all, as if a day hadn’t passed without doing the very thing we were doing—enjoying ourselves with a river in the background.
After the sun dropped behind the ridgeline, the temperature fell quickly. It was July, and even with all the clothes I’d brought, I wished I’d had a stocking cap. When it was too dark to see without a light, many in the camp wandered off to bed. The racer’s meeting was at 8 a.m. A few of us built a fire and tried to warm up.
I was the only kayaker around. There was a noticeable difference between the conversations here and those at a rodeo, but I never felt out of place or unwelcomed. Not once did anyone bring up a helix, a donkey flip, or cartwheel. Instead they talked of wave-blocking and trying to keep water out of their boats. They argued about Gates 20 and 21, the crux of the course, two upstream moves separated by a tough river-wide ferry.
I stood next to Eli Helbert, a tall and lanky canoeist from Harrisonburg, Virginia. At 26, Eli had already paddled in 10 countries and won the World Freestyle Championships twice. He spoke with easy-on-the-ears twang. We were all just talking about the same thing—playing on rivers—but the difference in the vocabulary had brought some questions to mind.
I wanted to know why open-boaters never got featured in paddling videos, so I asked Eli. “Not so much now,” he said. “But they have been. Southern-Fried Creeking has some impressive drops.”
“That’s pretty old,” I said. “We’d laugh at the kayaks in those videos. None of the new stuff is showing you guys.”
“I don’t know,” Eli said. “Have you ever tried the boater wave? Try waving at every car you see with a kayak on top of it. See how many people wave back.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the videos simply aren’t interested in including canoeists, or if he wasn’t really very interested in being in those videos. I was the only one there who didn’t know everyone else by first name. It seemed likely that none of them would ever pass on the road without some mutual acknowledgment.
“How will the sport grow?” I asked.
“It’s tough,” Eli admitted. “People don’t want to watch an open boat go into a hole and get big air and fill up anymore than they want to watch kayakers doing the same tricks for hours and hours in a rodeo. The thing has to go somewhere, but I’m not sure where. There has to be more focus on rock spins and new stuff along those lines with open boats.”
As if to reinforce his point, during a run the next day Eli pulled one hell of a sweet rock spin. Without missing a stroke, Eli paddled his Pyranha onto a rock just above Gate 17 and then rotated and spun his boat once around, spraying water in a big arch. Then he cleaned the gate, making a very eloquent statement.
MOST of the spectators stayed on river-right, but I hiked across the bridge and parked myself by Gate 21. Blue-grey water lapped in the eddy, and the air still had an early morning smell, though it was almost noon.
The move from 20 to 21 looked tough, even for someone who didn’t have to worry about taking on water and growing heavy. If the racers didn’t get themselves into the trough of the wave for the ferry, the current quickly peeled them out. Even if they then got their angles back, it was a hard fight to get their boats on line.
A handful of competitors made the combination look deceptively easy. Their paddles never seemed to leave the water, even on crossover strokes. These racers never came into the gates an inch below where they needed to be. Everything about their style looked purposeful and effortless. They crossed the finish line with barely a cup of water in the bottom of their boats.
At some point midstream, the racers seemed to know whether they’d made it or not, and many of them took the decision to bale and head for Gate 22. Some just peeled out of 20 and lined up for 22 directly, as if 21 didn’t exist.
Others scrapped for 21 all the way, even when they had no chance. Some tried attaining back up to Gate 21 from two eddies down, but by the time they’d clawed upstream, they’d exhausted themselves. At that point, the race was no longer about minutes and seconds and tenths of seconds, but determination. The fastest way was sometimes the least adventurous. The risk for these paddlers was not life or death, but falling short against their own personal determination. It was a silly and arbitrary enterprise in some ways—fit a canoe between two poles 47 inches apart over the length of rapid. But it was the one these canoeists had chosen and it meant something to them, which was the important part.
Gate 21’s eddy terminated in a giant boulder, which many racers crashed into. One tandem team, a man and woman who I guessed to be in their 70s, slammed amidships into that boulder. The woman paddled bow, and she looked small and frail in such a big boat, though it became obvious she wasn’t. She had reached out and caught a piece of the eddy, and she strained to hold her paddle’s purchase while the stern of the canoe listed out in the main flow.
Because of the rock, the man couldn’t stroke on the side he needed to. He tried prying and pushing against the boulder, but was failing. The canoe began slipping downstream. “Pull me in, Baby!” he started yelling. “Come on, Baby! Pull me in!”
“Up! Up! Up!” the crowd shouted, encouraging them on like cowbells at a ski race.
Then she did it. She pulled that beast of a canoe into the eddy. They made the gate. They bumped it on the way out, but who cared?
ELI’S last Volvo had 300,000 miles on it before it threw a rod on the way to a friend’s wedding. Another guest at the wedding then sold Eli his current Volvo, which had only 200,000 miles, but now it wasn’t running either. Its hood was up, the timing belt was off, and bolts and wrenches were scattered beside the car and a grease-smudged repair manual.
Because I know nothing about engines, watching someone work on one is both fascinating and strangely relaxing. The sun was low in the sky, and the heat of the day had past. Evening had turned the air damp and knocked the dust down. Near the water, clouds of bugs swirled around themselves, bringing fish to the surface.
Each time Eli turned the engine over, the new timing belt wanted to slide off. Everyone under the hood spoke with a southern accent, and the boys kept pushing the belt back on. Eli worked on his car with no success well into the night. After he’d finally given up and joined us at the bonfire, I asked him if he felt comfortable working on engines.
“When I was little,” he said, “my dad always made me hold the tools. I know enough that I can try. Mostly what my dad taught me was that I can stare at it and be like ‘this is gonna suck,’ but until I get my hands dirty, nothing gets done.”
“ONE CANOE! Two canoes! Three canoes!” we shouted in unison. Almost everyone in the campground was gathered at the bonfire. “Four canoes! Five canoes!” we continued, rather than saying the more prosaic “Four, one thousand! Five, one thousand!” We were timing Eli while he did a handstand on top of the keg. Two guys held his legs. Another operated the tap.
“Six canoes! Seven…”
Eli let go with one hand and held it out to his side. His body was stretched out gracefully, and he looked to be flying, but flying straight toward the ground. He held the one-armed pose all the way to 10.
Afterward, some guys from Missoula carried on with the canoes. One had donated an old futon to the fire, and the dry wood burned well. Earlier in the day, I had watched one of them break the t-grip on his paddle mid-run. He stuck the T-grip in his mouth and continued with whatever handhold he could get. He even made Gate 21 in that fashion. It was that kind of enthusiasm that was applied to the task of finishing off the keg.
There was one more day of competition, but after the races on Sunday, most everyone would drive away and head in their separate directions. The weekend wasn’t even finished, but they were already planning for next year. It was off to the Deerfield. “You’re going, right?” was how they put it to each other. Of course they’d be there. They were family, a misfit and vagabond family connected by canoes and whitewater.
IF you ask when the adventure begins, then it’s only natural to ask when it ends. When I returned home from Montana, I blew off all my unpacking, grabbed my CDs off the kitchen table, got right back in my truck, and drove up the McKenzie River to a wave called Redsides.
Though the surrounding hills were drenched in sunlight, the river was shaded. The peaks were nearly bare of snow. Two young local boys were also at the river, daring each other to dip in below the waist.
I’d watched a lot of amazing boating over the weekend, but I’d hardly paddled myself. After so much driving it felt impossible to sit still any longer. The water was clear and cold, and it washed all the road off me.
To adventure is to go head-to-head against fortune and chance, and that afternoon at Redsides both were generous with me. When I’d wash off the wave, I’d race back on it through imaginary gates, always without a penalty. If it was the end of the adventure, it was a fun-as-hell ending, even though I had to return to work the next day.
Each time I took a break, I glanced at the kids to see if they were as impressed with me as I was. They hadn’t even been watching. They still hadn’t gone in past their nuts. There was no crowd cheering us on.
By the time I was leaving, one of the kids had made it all the way out to a large slanted rock in the eddy. He crawled up on the rock and shook off like a dog. Then he dared the other kid to swim over.
The other one was standing waist deep in the river. He looked nervous, and like he was about to start shivering. His clasped his arms around his chest. “Come back in,” he said. “Come out here,” his buddy replied.
“Get out here!”
I watched the boy contemplate the risk, the uncertainty. I could see it on his face, but I can’t say what he was thinking exactly, or how he weighed his chances of making it. Finally, he went for it. He plunged in, which is just what you have to do.
-Originally published in Whitewater Paddler