Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Gnashings of St. Louis River

The street lines passed agonizingly slow as I devoured a sandwich took some necessary fuel for the adventure that lay in the destination of the road ahead. I pulled into the parking lot in Carlton to the site of a kayak topped truck. The river was a welcoming site and this was time to reconnect with the waters that put me in touch with beauty and power like none other.

I walked an viewed the scene of the river and from sight new that it was significant level (2000-1800 cfs to be exact!). After greeting with fellow kayak companions, we geared for battle, and set off. Already it was becoming clear to me that the season was still early and that I was still feeling a bit green and unseasoned. As we hiked up to view the new and daring put in to Lower St. Louis, I could tell that my ambition was modest. I thus decided to skip the first drop of the day, the "Tongue" drop... I was having some insecurities concerning amplitude of hole it created. After a quick hike, I slid into the river and propelled my boat on its way amongst turbulent flowings of the St. Louis.

The Hwy 210 drop at 4200 cfs

I slowly thawed my confidence with a few minor drops before reaching the "Octopus". In two glances at the condition of the river ahead, I knew that I had a portage ahead of me. The river was running voluminously making for features of rousing magnitude. After listening to the analysis of my companions and trying pick up a any parcels of insight on the drop before us, I abruptly walked back to get a head start on the portage ahead. From an eddy below, I watched them skillfully weave a sneak route around the meat of drops looking to have a tendency towards significant nastiness.

Knowing that the river was a touch more than I had bargained for, I prepared for the drops I knew were ahead. As we approached the Jay Cooke swinging bridge, whether I was ready or not the drops lay in the near foreground. As a paddler, when a you stare into the thralls of a noteworthy drop you achieve a state of primal existence and extreme focus. Only you and the river exist and the rest falls from your awareness. Intuition kicks in and you hope you have trained your instinctual memory well. I dropped down a 14 ft sliding falls and plowed into a hanging pool upright. Then threw some hard strokes over the lip of 10 footer entitle "Air Time" landing in the water below. The swinging bridge passed over my head as we paddled onwards. After assessing the river ahead and predicting the hair raising consequences of running Finn Falls, we got off the river and headed back for a second lap.

Having found a portion of my confidence again, I decided to run the previously portaged "Tongue Drop". Each of us pushed away from shore in succession and lined up for the descent ahead. I watched two companions fall from sight. Before me opened into view the tongue drop in a condition I had never paddled it. The tongue drop is aptly named for a long flat conveyer belt of water that flowed over a flat table (or 'tongue') of rock. From three sides the water then fell 2-3 feet off of the table creating a sweeping hole ahead The hole was churning pile of water that rose above the head of an oncoming paddler. It became rapidly clear to me that my line for the tongue drop was off. I was too far to river right and saw the line ahead was not ideal. I dually noted the presence of "fins" of rock that ran parallel to the flow of water throwing small rooster tails of water.

The "Tongue" Drop at 4200 cfs.
My line was river right (picture left) of center on the tongue of rock extending into the hole.

In this instant, I first contemplated paddling to my left, but there was no time. To attempt to paddle too far left would put me at risk of hitting the hole at an angle, putting me at further risk of being thrown sideways and caught in a side surf in the hole. Resigned to my fate, I laid some hard strokes for punching momentum. It became clear my boat was going to be thrown on edge by the sloping water. I threw out a brace to the right to keep my boat from over-turning and balancing the edge I was riding, I aimed for a point and collided with the wall of water. At that instant I felt a fin of rock graze my side and slam into my bracing right arm from my arm pit upward. It was as if my flexed bicep muscle had been put between an anvil and a hammer as I felt the rock collide with the bone of my arm and heard the crack of it then riocheteing off my elbow pad. I emerged for the blinding waters upright and in pain. I paddled through the 210 drop and eddied out. I told my fellow kayakers to go without me as I removed myself from my boat. I walked back to my car whispering obscenities under my breath as if it would somehow relieve the pain of my circumstance.

And so it was that the river would not let me miss my line without having its own justice. No paddler feels pride in an injury, it is no symbol of misconstrued machismo to be revelled at. In fact, any sense of pride I may have had was bruised, and in stripping my shirt and looking at the condition of my arm, that became literally true. I write about it now in no attempt to water down the reality of whitewater and its inherent dangers. It is a reminder that the elegance of paddling is coming from the choas and challenge effortlessly unscathed. My only solace was in the fact that I emerged from my predictament upright, having not been caught and sparring with The "Tongue" in an over turned kayak.

The damage... nothing to be happy about.

So I sit now with an arm showing the colors of the rainbow; finding myself humbled and yet anxious to learn from my folly.... ready to paddle the river again when my injuries have healed.


Anonymous said...

dang - you weren't kidding about the hit. nice rainbow!

one note - it was actually around 1800-2000 cfs. for some reason they must have given you the flow through scanlon instead of thompson dam discharge.


Erik Scharrer said...


I like the story and the echymotic arm. You bruise like a girl.