Friday, October 28, 2016

The Dark Heart of the Arkansas

“But there was in it one river especially, a mighty river resembling an immense snake uncoiled.... The snake had charmed me.” Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Whitewater Kayaking essay
Just below the put-in for the Numbers
Fourteen years ago my paddling partner, Noah, and I dipped our kayaks into the turbid waters of the Arkansas River just downstream of the tiny hamlet of Granite, Colorado. The water level was a spicy 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), not high exactly but fast enough to push the river’s signature rapid, Pine Creek, into the realm of class V. The two of us navigated our boats through a playground of bouncy class III-IV warm-up water, arriving after a few miles at the familiar horizon line that marked the start of the infamous rapid.
We were arrogant teenagers, admittedly driven by ego and seduced by the notion of personal glory. Just a few weeks earlier at a slightly lower flow of 1,500 cfs we had negotiated Pine Creek without incident, but the extra 500 cfs proved just enough to tip the danger scale into the red. We scouted for nearly half an hour, neither daring to admit our skills might not be equal to the maelstrom below us. Finally it was me who cast aside hubris and surrendered to the reality that I simply wasn’t up for the challenge.
“It looks terrible,” I said to Noah nervously. “It will always be here tomorrow. We’ll come back.”
But that “tomorrow” never came. The next season, Noah badly dislocated his shoulder during high water in the Colorado River’s Glenwood Canyon. The resulting swim was so traumatic he hung up his paddle up for good. As for myself, my passions drifted away from the river and instead towards high peaks and vertical rock faces as a climber and mountaineer. Fourteen years ago I would have been disappointed with fifty river days in a summer. Now I am lucky to count ten.  
But every now and then, my mind returns to the dark heart of that serpentine river between Granite and Buena Vista. And I often want to go back and complete that run we started.
These days I am no longer a teenager but a married man in the early half of his 30s. I have had enough accidents, near misses and dearly departed friends to have molted completely the illusion of teenage invulnerability. Any risk I am willing to take these days is far more calculated.
In the last half decade, I formed a new paddling alliance with an old friend, Derek, whom I have known since those early, more-reckless years. After a particularly gratifying high-water run down our backyard Colorado River, the conversation turned to the Arkansas and its foreboding crux, Pine Creek and The Numbers. This stretch of river, once the quintessential proving ground for the advanced and expert kayaker, has taken on, in a sense, the role of the elder statesmen: a wise but aged representative of a state full of world-class talent. While no longer cutting edge, it is still considered a classic. And as it turned out, Derek had never paddled it.
So it was that the two of us ended up strapping on our life jackets, cinching down our helmets and edging our kayaks into the Arkansas. Derek was barely six months off open heart surgery, and I was struggling with a troublesome neck injury that put my ability to roll and maneuver with the same skill as fourteen years earlier somewhat into question. We were infallible teenagers no longer.
After a brief scout and an honest analysis of our rusty skillset, we decided to test our nerves on The Numbers before considering the class V testpiece Pine Creek. Though a full number grade softer, The Numbers still consisted of five miles of tumbling class IV whitewater dropping at a consistent clip of just over 70 feet per mile.
Whitewater paddling editorial
Dropping into Number 5
There are six amplifications to the otherwise consistent whitewater, each given non-creative but nevertheless effective numerical designations (hence “The Numbers”). Numbers Four and Five had a long-standing reputation as the most difficult, and after a quick car-scout, Number Five seemed to give us the most pause. This, it seemed, would be the crux of our day.
The rapid entailed a river-wide ledge followed by an airplane turn of chaotic waves and fang-like boulders. From shore it looked like the open jaws of a snake eager to engulf us into its twisted interior.
After our pre-run scout, we nervously slid our kayaks into the water and let the put-in fade behind us. We negotiated Number One without incident, followed by Two and Three in quick succession. I felt a measure of confidence returning. Every line was clean: no flips, no swims, no bumps or grinds. The air was blue and the nearby Collegiate Peaks watched over like surly security guards, arms folded over their chests.
Around a corner, the river narrowed and accelerated into Number Four. Fourteen years before, Noah and I had plunged through this difficult rapid an hour after our “failure” at Pine Creek. It was this dusty memory I relied on now to guide us to the bottom. Right, left, right past some formidable hydrology and we were through the heart of Number Four. We congratulated ourselves with reserved exuberance, but the worst was still ahead.
After a brief lunch we paddled under a bridge and carved into an eddy on river left at the top of Number Five. From our low vantage, not much could be seen, only scattered boulders and the frenetic leap of crashing whitewater. We glanced at each other nervously. Like Marlow in Heart of Darkness, we had navigated our river and now confronted Kurtz at last.
But the rapid proved less than our minds had made it. I tipped over event horizon, punched through the river-wide hydraulic and, a few paddle strokes later, landed in the safety of the eddy below. Derek and I felt as self-assured as adolescents, having conquered each rapid with cool confidence and nearly flawless execution.
“We should have done Pine Creek!” I exclaimed. With the worst behind us it was easy to be cocky.
Derek nodded. “We can come back tomorrow. It will always be there.”
Yes, I thought to myself as my kayak bobbed up and down in the eddy. It will be there tomorrow. And the day after that.


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