My river initiation began with some good luck. I was past 3 major rapids and had survived the carnage surrounding me. I had emerged unscathed from the virgin rapids – still a swimming virgin. A peek of optimism had started to peer over what had been a dark horizon. Maybe (just maybe) I was going to emerge from this only maimed and half dead rather than in a body bag. 1km down, 9km to go. 10% there, a lifetime to go.
The next set of instructions we received was around walls. Walls? As in, the things that hold your house up? What were houses doing on a river? I thought past safety talks had been through ”a long way to walk out, noone to help” etc. I shook my head as if waking from a bad dream and tried to focus. According to out ever patient instructor we had a ”wall” coming up. And it wasn’t the house kind. Something he said about right angles made me feel decidedly uneasy but it was too late to worry about it now. As we were setting off towards certain collision the last words I took stock of were something about leaning in. Our other instructor helpfully added ”kiss the rock” from the rear of the group. Ok, sounds a bit weird but whatever floats your boat (literally).
Like the little rats, we followed our piper. Again, I had commandeered the coveted (only by me) secret sweet spot of third in the line of proceedings so I felt a little bit more confident with this weapon in my arsenal. We negotiated some sweet flat water before I heard the stomach churning, rapidly becoming all to familiar sound of angry water waiting to suck me from my safe carbon kevlar haven. I started to notice the feeling of being pulled so steeled myself to follow the number one rule of paddling for survival. Which was all well and good, until the water started pulling me a bit harder. I started to think that things were looking a bit grim, more so as I noticed there seemed to be nowhere to go. I mean, there was a sheer grand canyon like wall of rock in front of me and there was no way the water was going to take me near that, right? Wrong!!
One minute I was minding my own business, doing all I could to move with the current but suddenly the current wasn’t moving anywhere but into the massive rock bluff that was in front of me!! Instructor veered off to the left and came out the other end. Paddler 1 followed more or less successfully. Things were looking good for paddler 3, until for some reason unknown to anyone (least of all him, he confessed later) we had a boy vs. rock competition. Rock won. Boy tipped into the wall. He panicked, tried to push himself away from it and fell out to the outside side.
But what was happening to me during all this? I was following, of course! And a bit too closely. A current that catches you crossways can pin you down. Between you and I, I wasn’t too keen on that idea so began to painc a bit. There is a dude, upside down in front of me and a current pulling me into the whole mess. With absolutely nowhere to go something intervened and I managed to rudder and paddle hard enough to narrowly avoid a t-bone situation. I am a team player at the best of times but in a life or death situation there is a certain amount of stepping over people to survive. I am not sure if I am proud or ashamed that as rock boy was swimming I used his boat as a lever to lean on and pushed myself out of the flow. Yay! Another rapid survived!!
Somehow, I found myself transfixed by what was going to happen behind me. By now I was getting the idea that there were a couple of people in the group who may be in a bit more of a bother than me. I moved over to the bank but just like when wrecked cars are moved safely out of the traffic lane, the glut of stopped cars does not start flowing freely again. And neither did the few of us who had come out the other side of the canyon experience. Part of my on the spot self-psychoanalysis was horrified by my rubbernecking. Who was going to fall out? The other part applauded my enquiring scientific mind working to break down what each person did wrong, why and how I could avoid it in future. Of the 6 remaining paddlers we had 3 swimmers. The wall had a success/failure rate of 40/60%. Not bad!! Sheer luck got me through once but what about all the other times I was going to have to face walls? I had to figure out this kissing the rock thing (not the blarney stone).