Sunday, June 6, 2010

Westward Waters: Day 3 - Arkansas at 4600 cfs

 "Number Five" of the Numbers Section of the Arkansas

The sun rose to illuminate the Collegiate Peaks as seen on the golden horizon. I opened my eyes and gradually drifted into wakefulness. With breakfast eaten we drove into Buena Vista destined for the local kayak shop to ascertain the river levels. When we arrived, it appeared that nothing had dropped and that even the friendly Arkansas River had achieved angry river levels. Local paddlers seem to offer varied advice on the actual river levels because frankly nobody we met had experienced them this high. Our options appeared to be few based on the current river levels and so we set about the task of fixing John's dry suit gasket while awaiting any possible paddlers to join up with.

 Drysuit repair with a traffic cone

I approached one the few groups paddlers who looked to be tackling the river and with some questioning they reluctantly allowed us to join their group. We drove Northward following their truck as we were going to run the "Number's" section of the Arkansas down to the city of Buena Vista. In paddling, their is a well known assessment that all paddlers inflict on each other. Our new found paddling companions' reluctancy was warranted. As paddler's we all assess each other's abilities, because we rely solely on each other for safety. The truth be know a swim on the river at these level was not only personally life threatening, but risked the safety of the other boaters that are attempted to assist the a swimmer.

In hindsight, I had no clue as to the type of whitewater I would be paddling or the intensity to come... it was probably better that way. As we all geared up and brought our boats to the river, still was rather oblivious in looking at the river as to what the afternoon had in store for me. The group consisted of John and myself as well as four local veterans of Colorado whitewater each having paddled for over 20-30 years. They were some of fittest 50 somethings I had yet encountered. We put on the river at is peak level of 4600 cfs, two-fold higher than the guide books indication of 2000 cfs being high water.
Putting on the character of the river became plainly obvious. The water swirled and boiled hugely as lateral waves surged from the shoreline. Giant holes emerged throughout the river as we carefully weaved through them. The river gradually escalated it’s intensity as waves of 2-3 feet in height became common place. As we approached “Number One” I found myself gripped at the sheer size and power of the whitewater before me. I maintain composure as I followed my paddling companions smashing through waves and carefully battling to stay on line.

When we peeled into the eddy following Number One I had a silly grin amongst heavy breaths. Big water whitewater was proving its strenuousness and we paddled onward. Their was little rest to be had and with every eddy I carefully took my time to fully recover before pushing on. Rapids numbered 2 and 3 came and went. A little later I found myself on shore viewing “Number Four”. The river constricted forming a on left side of the river a massive 4-5 ft tall hole. Along side it enveloping the left side of the river was a massive wave train of nearly 8-10 ft in height. It was going to be a tight line to dissect and I plotted my landmarks and line through it.

I paddled away from shore and found my line of water and followed it into the chaos. Powering through oncoming laterals the impending wave train and hole appear before me. The seemed to grow in size and I paddled hard fighting to slip through them. I found my strength was not going to be enough to sneak between features and so I turned to face the wave train head on. It was the roller coaster ride of a life time finding myself thrown skyward by multiple sets of gnashing waves. Atop the waves the scene spilled before me showing the begin to spread and dissipate. I peeled into the nearest eddy and let a guttural “whoop” out.
I was seriously winded as we peeled out and down river I found my technique was becoming lax with fatigue. I fought with eddy lines and found myself flipped. I rolled up and continued on. We eddied out downstream just above a bridge crossing the river and saw one of our paddling companions flipped and rolled up. Without knowing I paddled out into what was the entrance of “Number Five”. Ahead of me lay a river wide hole with massive dimensions and was breaking like a wave. I fought hard to hug the river right of the river but found myself being hopelessly pulled towards the hole. I turned to joust with the wave head on knowing that I was off line and the consequences were to be grim.  I paddle hard accelerating for impact.

 The aforementioned hole leading out "Number Five"

I heard my fellow paddlers whistles blowing as I fought to keep my head above water. I looked behind me and had the sense to grab my paddle and armed myself for what lie ahead. I saw an ominous smooth horizon line and knew I was helpless being propelled into a giant hole. My instincts kicked in and my feet braced for the rock previewing and creating the hole. When my feet hit I jumped with all my strength super-man-ing outward in a desperate attempted to catch the backwash of the hole.

 The hole amongst "Number Five" that I super-manned

I was successful and found myself pushed deep. I swam upward for what seemed an eternity before finding air. At this point I knew I was getting dangerously tired and questioned how much more I could take. I knew that I could no longer helpless await what lay downstream, no longer was the fight only to keep my head above water, I began to swim for the nearest shoreline. The river was merciful and as I neared the shore it loosened its grip and I emerged from the waters.

After checking with my fellow boaters I found myself run haggardly along the frontage road with my thumb outstretched. It was a depressing moment hitch hiking back to Buena Vista and knowing that my boat would likely never be seen again. After an hour with a thumb raised a vehicle approached with a smiling family inside and asked about my situation. They informed me they saw a green boat pull ashore about two miles down stream. I was overjoyed and they gave me a ride in the back of their SUV. I sat int he back telling them my story and the parents used it as a warning to their small children the power of the river. Silly enough the fact that I was a medical student seem comforting to them... as if somehow I wasn’t completely insane.
I arrived at the river and sat on a park bench being scorched in the summer sun awaiting for my fellow paddlers. I sat and talked with fellow paddlers who were kind enough to offer me a beer. I fell asleep and awoke to a sunburn and my companions emerging from the river. We drove upstream and I with elation I retrieved my resurrected creek boat.

Bonding amongst water levels of historic proportion we had found ourselves new paddling friends. We pot-lucked a mighty dinner to commemorate the occasion. I took the night to rebuild my confidence for the days ahead. We laughed amongst the firelight and fell asleep to the river’s distant roar

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