Sunday, July 10, 2016

Paddling in Circles

I used to have a weekly escape when we lived near the mountains. Skiing. I will not even write "downhill skiing" because it is just skiing. Alone. Fast. Slow. Through the trees. Down icy faces. It didn't matter. For several years, in different cities, when ski season opened on the local hills, I was a Friday skiier. In fog. In sunshine. Sometimes even in the rain. Skiing was the one activity that consistently challenged me to do something physical and get outside, and it was the one thing that could erase a week's worth of crabby toddlers or frustrations at work or even grief in the family.

For the past ten years, I've tried to fill that hole in my life with many things and I admit, I even tried cross country skiing. That's what happens when you move to a place where the only ski hill is closed and you are sad because you didn't get to even say that you skied on the garbage dump turned ski slope while it was operating. I drive by it on my way south and I feel gypped every time. That's how desperately I missed skiing. I took the boys hiking there several times for the first few autumns we lived there. We'd hike up the chairlift line and run down the hills and to me, it was sort of a lame attempt to recapture the freedom I found on other hills. Alas, when you build a resort on a garbage dump, perhaps it's fitting that the freedom it offers is a bit junky in comparison to the real deal. 

I admit, I was very spoiled in our earlier years. I lived in close proximity to some of the most amazing ski hills and had season passes to some of the best. Big White in Kelowna remains a refuge in my mind, I could go up midweek on my day off and have hours of skiing barely seeing anyone else on the hill. In Reno, I skied at several former Olympic venues and small family hills alike and was never bored or restless with the terrain.  I took Aidan for his first ski trips when he was just 4 and he took to it like a bird to water. I loved those days. We would ski all day at Northstar, me following my little guy through the trees and over trails, on long wide runs where he'd hardly turn and I would hold my breath praying he wouldn't crash. We'd finish the day with hot chocolate by the outdoor fire and then Aidan would trade in his skis for his skates and take a few laps on the outdoor hockey rink in the plaza, while I gathered the energy for the ride home. Those were pretty sweet days indeed. 

It's taken me a long time to find something that feels remotely as satisfying but a couple of summers ago, my neighbour introduced me to stand up paddleboarding. I'm sure she wondered if she should pursue it with me after we arrived at the river for the first time and I quizzed her on how many ways I could die in the weir (about 2 kms away) and what the current body count was in the river at any given time. She gave me a stern lecture on safety and told me that there was nothing to be afraid of, there were no sucking vortex that was going to pull me under, no quicksand pits or riptides to sweep me where I didn't want to go. The worst that was going to happen was I might have to swim to shore and walk back to where I needed to be. Given that I had just spent several nights on the Kafue river in Zambia with crocs and hippos and several other meat eaters willing to devour me along the river banks if I wasn't careful, the South Saskatchewan seemed relatively tame. We paddled a few times together on short paddles and then began to take longer treks from up river. I loved it. It was one of the closest things I found to recreate the freedom of skiing since we'd arrived back in Canada. 

This summer, I bought a paddleboard and just last week, I venture out on my first solo paddle on the river. I went to a familiar launch spot and paddled up river to the south bridge and then floated back. It. Was. Spectacular.  I realized that now I had the means to go and paddle the river from a farther launch spot. One of my goals was to get Charlie, our lab, out on the board. Jason drove us and the board up to a local canoe launch a few km up river. We put the board in and gave Charlie a couple starts and it seemed like she was going to do it...so away we went. Jason waved us out of sight and promised to pick us up in the city when I called to let him know we were close. It should have been about a 4 hour paddle but given that Charlie and I were new at it, there were more than a couple good dunks and a few goose chases, but we made pretty good time at first.  It was midweek and there were only a few other kayaks on the river that I encountered so we were having a good time, just figuring out how to paddle as two on the board. Sometimes I would let Charlie off on a long sandbar where she would run and play as I floated past. I would wait for her at the far end of the sandbar, she'd get back on the board and we'd paddle on to the next. The river is low this time of year and the stops were frequent and fun. Over the trees, I was keeping my eye on a bank of dark clouds that were seeming to loom up out of nowhere, despite my having checked the weather on several sources. I watched with some alarm as it came in quickly and looked like we were going to intercept a few kms up the river, about halfway to where we needed to be to get picked up. I had a couple choices at this point. Charlie and I could wait it out on a sandbar and hope it blew right by us or I could paddle us back, upstream to where we had launched. Neither seemed like great options but I could not make a decision. Talk about paddling around in circles. I must have pulled into the sandbar at least four times, dismounted, settled in and then thought better of it, reloaded the board, the dog and began to fight the current and now the incoming wind, to try and paddle back. It only took me two attempts to realize that I was not going to out run the storm, so we paddled again, back to the sandbar and dismounted. I was just pulling my board up on the beach and beckoning Charlie out of the water when another kayak appeared around the bend, heading for our same spot. The two kayakers and their beagle, joined us up against a large bluff and we watched as the dogs played oblivously on the beach while the storm dropped in on us from overhead. The kayakers were less afraid than I was but sufficiently worried to affirm that I had made the right decision. We stayed there for about 40 mins while the lightning flashed and the thunder cracked almost simultaneously, sending the dogs back to us for comfort.  The tail end of the storm started to move over us and the lightning and thunder were moving away from us in what seemed like a single wall of activity. Once it passed, we gathered our things and got back on the river. I was glad that there were others out on the river to pass the storm with but I was even more thankful they hadn't witnessed my inability to make a decision when the storm threatened.  

I'm sure there's some parallel to why storms seem to unnerve us when we're caught out, without a solid plan. I feel like there's a lesson in there somewhere about having to choose whether to have to paddle hard and backtrack to what you know vs. sitting out the storm with no real option to move forward. Maybe it's about doing a little less scurrying and a lot more sitting in security. I'm not sure. If I was supposed to learn something that day, I hope it sinks in before I head out on the river again. I have no desire to revisit that one. 


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