Saturday, April 18, 2009

Paddling Rekindled- The Stewart River

The the winds blew cold as a new front of wintry air set down upon northern shore of Lake Superior. Still wet and geared up from a run on the Silver Creek, I shivered getting my boat from the truck top. Our same crew of seven paddlers slid from the banks of the Stewart River and began our journey among its currents. This being my third run on the Stewart river, and having walked it's entirety to recover a throw bag last year, I was acutely familiar with the river. With that awareness, I took the lead as we paddled the first stretches of its flowings.

The river was flowing at level higher than I had ever run it, and was nearly 6-12 inches higher than my experience. After multiple bends in the river we came to the first drop and exited our boats to scout. Ahead lay was a two tiered slide buried under a flood of water. Seeing the left line, I resumed my position and ferried out. I paddle into my line pushing through the minor clashings of water leading into the first tier. Cold water leaped up with it's watery grip attempting to push my about as I collide with the first wave hole and laid a hard stroke propelling me beyond it's grasp. Seconds later I was on to the second tier blasting into the slide ahead bouncing off a few rocks. I avoided a final and solitary hole and eddied out content with my lines.

The crew paddled on and as the river took a left bend we eddied out above Plumber's Crack. Exiting our boats, "Plumber's Crack" lay ahead as the water plunged over the 12 ft vertical falls. Everyone grabbed there boats and eagerly went to view it's beauty. Last year I had run the falls at a decently meaty level and plugged it and made it out okay (click here to see picture of plumber's crack from last year). However this at the river current level Plumber's Crack was impressive and intimidating.The falls was creating a big hydraulic and on the typical left line had a current pulling back behind the curtain of the falls. Secretly I was hoping someone else would run it, so that I could follow in wake of their gumption... know that someone else had ran the drop okay. But there were no takers, and fought with myself to run it in my mind and verbally. After getting a bit of encouragement from some of the crew and assurances that safety could be properly set up I went about sizing up my line.

Adrenaline was already kicking in as I carried my boat up to upstream eddy. As I pushed off from shore I breathed deeply hoping to exhale some nerves. I eddied out in a small eddy right above the lip. The crew of seven let out whoops and hollers of encouragement as I planted deep powerful strokes towards the lip. My focus narrowed and only the water and I existed as horizon line opened to the scene ahead. I hugged the left shore and rode stream of water throwing my last strokes before bursting into the air. I leaned forward looking at the boiling landing below me. I landed just as I had planned boofing (landing flat) into the pool below. The crew on shore cheered in congratulations and relief... I pumped my fist let out a whoop and went to work keeping myself from being pulled into the curtain. I paddle away with a smile.

Riding the waves of adrenaline still in my blood, we paddled on and forded the next portage and arrived shortly there after at the head of another horizon line. Ahead lay a rapid I had not yet run, but had my eye on it for the last year. Looking down from the cliff above I could see the "Pillow drop". The river raged 19-20 ft down a sliding falls and collided into a boulder. A 5 ft deluge of water exploded off the rock and buried it in a deep surging heaving of water. I had seen it run before, but at this high level the drop looked heinous. We all grabbed our boats and I shoulder mine to portage it, but meanwhile wrestled with myself to run it. A paddling companion likely sick of hearing me verbally wrestle with myself gave me the bit of encouragement I needed. I knew that the run was only safer at higher water levels. I again slid into the water and blew some good breaths as I heard the paddler on shore shouting in encouragement. I hugged the left shoreline tight and planted deep vertical strokes. I avoided a hole and saw the chaos ahead. I felt my boat falling into the vertical gap that would send me head-long into the boulder's exploded pillow. I leaned forward and braced for impact. The water blindingly hit my body as being tackled by a lineman, but I held strong. I had all along expected the giant boiling pillow to over turn my boat and I fully expected to have to roll up. Yet I emerged from the hit in a burst of water and speed upright. I peeled into a swirling eddy and made a tricky ferry across the river. The guys on shore congratulated me with a few whoops as I sat in an eddy waiting speechlessly content. There weren't words for the elation inside of me.

The rest of the river poured beautifully through earthen and rock walls. I felt good as I smoothly nailed my line on the last fun drop. We paddled on into the great expanse of Lake Superior. As always the joyful sense of awe poured over me. Only a paddler can describe the feeling of paddling a river from it's beginnings, passing through it's obstacles and challenges only to arrive at the vastness of it's ending and becoming into Lake Superior. Much a metaphor for the lives we live. I went went to bed that night, with my spirit whole and my body joyfully tired.

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