Friday, April 29, 2011

The Final Chapter of a Season: The Homeland

The water's were slowly tapering from the creeks in the furthest reaches of the North Shore. Meanwhile, a singular urbanite had driven northward and Joerg had left his corporate job aside for the day. He met with myself and Kiffy. Joerg is one of those legendary characters of the Midwest Creeking community: well versed in peer pressure tactics, known to take the tough lines for giggles, and eternally at the front of the crew on the river.... an all around fine gentleman! On this day Joerg's personality was particularly shining as he quickly made the sale for me and Kiffy to run the DT for the second consecutive day. Despite both of our lacking motivations, Joerg made the sale. I found myself speeding for the put in of the DT. Kiffy and Joerg represent some of the most experienced boaters in the Midwest having paddled together from their teenage years.... and then there was me: a mere 4 seasons under my belt.

 Myself atop "Triple Drop" of the Devil Track River
Photo credit of Andy McMurray

We put on the river and immediately it became clear this run was going to be spicy. Joerg made it plain that this run was going to be speedy. There would be no scouting, little eddying, but not without looking out for one another safety-wise. We barreled ahead, and as triple drop came upon us, I found myself in the rear of the crew. There was no looking back as we each dropped over the horizon lines. I remember the nasty cotton mouth of nerves as we dropped in. But in the morning sun light we each found our smiles on the river that day. I admittedly had a less than clean run, but stayed composed throughout and kept pace. I managed to get stuck in the hydraulic below portage down the middle and rolled up wasting no time. I knew it fed out on the river left. I placed 4 hard forward strokes while side surfing, and easily escaped it's grasp.

Joerg, Kiffy, and Myself Portage the Admiral amongst the majesty of the Devil Track Canyon
Photo credit of Andy McMurray

In a little over an hour and a half from putting on we found ourselves floating amongst the blue skies as they reflected in the calm waters of Lake Superior, the Devil Track behind us. 

In the coming days, the community rested as the yearly migration to the Presque Isle River in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was at hand. There we would take part in the annual downriver race in honor and remembrance of Jim Rada... a legend of paddling who had lost his life on the river in the last decade. Although I had run the Presque before, I looked forward to participating in the race for the first time.

The skies shone blue and the air was warmed in the sun's golden presence. We amassed the day prior to the race to run the full Presque Isle. The crew included Kiffy, Andy, Joerg, Decker, Holton and myself. And so amongst the Spring sunshine we would make the long trek to the put in. After an hour of shouldering our boats and walking less traveled roads, the sweat dripped from my brow as the river came into view. Thankfully, I slid into the chilled waters and let the river cool me. In succession we made our way downstream, and after three or so drops, it became clear that it was going to be an off day for me. I found myself less than upright tangling with the river's bottom all too often. With this detriment to my confidence, I portaged Triple Drop and Nokomis with a majority of the crew, making the heinous portage, and rejoined the other paddlers.

We continued onward as the sun fell in the afternoon, and came upon the final mile of the Presque Isle. There the river would drop in rapid succession over 4 drops of class VI+ and V character. The river was running higher than I had previously experienced and so I awaited the horizon lines ahead with focused attention.

Nadawadaha Falls
We busted down Nawadaha Falls one by one with enthusiasm growing as the drops increased in their difficulty. Downstream we eddied out above Manido Falls. There the watered cascaded over a multitude of rock stairs, forming repetitive pour-overs of 2-3 feet in height. The last time a ran Manido I recalled getting caught in the pour-overs, tried to side surf out, and eventually ran the remainder of the drop out of my boat and on my ass. Today was my day to redeem myself, as I carefully picked my line and held the landmarks in my mind.  The horizon roared as I slid over the first pour over and attempted to time my strokes, hoping to boof the next pourover. I kept the bow up as I blew through the next pour-over and comfortably bounced down the remainder of the drop.

The Final Streches of Manido Falls
Everyone eddied out, as ahead loomed one of the most pristine falls of the Midwest. Manabezo falls outstretched nearly 100 yards wide, and dropped 25 ft to the waters below. It's line was not easy, as the lip of the falls was irregular and fractured, as we sought a narrow tongue of water. Furthermore, the landing had a history of breakings legs due to it shallowness. I had descended Manabezo twice before and last fall experienced my first spine compression as a result of boofing the falls. I hoped to learn from that experience...

The sun was falling low on the horizon, and I was feeling fired up and confident. I jumped my boat and decided I'd be the first of the crew to descend. Hugging the river left bank the scene accelerated and the familiar tunneling of vision occurred as my focus narrowed on my line.

 Manabezo Falls of the Presque Isle River in the UP of Michigan

It's moments as these that the mind slows time and the dualism of reactive/instinctual paddling comes to battle with that of intentioned/conscious paddling. Reactive paddling deals with the immediate reality of the whitewater before us and our reaction to it. Meanwhile conscious paddling focuses on the river ahead, and is planning intentional strokes before they are even placed. Each have their place, and so we struggle as kayakers to balance the two amidst utter chaos.

The horizon opened up before me and my stroke hit the lip of the falls. My bow rose to meet the horizon as I took to flight in a wicked boof. My conscious mind took over, I remembered all that I had been told about techniques to avoid spinal compression. I threw my torso forward against the deck of my boat and kept my back hunched. I landed with a audible and violent "BOOF". In the impact my paddle slammed hard against my boat and my thumb in between. I celebrated the control I had maintained; I had hit my line, place a nice boof, and protected my spine. But I was acutely aware of a warmth and throbbing in my right thumb. I had learned a new to clear your paddle on impact. On inspection, the thumb had begun to swell already. I kept the pain to myself, in denial of the injury, as the rest of the crew took joyful flight.

 Joerg Steinbach boofs Manabezo

We each paddled away from Manabezo with the knowledge that ahead loomed "Zoom Flume".  Zoom Flume can be described as series of  entangled wave holes of formidable size created by the constriction of the river rocketing through a narrow walled-in channel. It provides for the "sporty" grand finale of the run before emptying into Lake Superior. By the time I had punched a moderate sized entry hole to Zoom Flume, I knew my thumb was in poor condition, as I felt tendons snapping and pain warmly course through it. It was too late to turn back. The roar was obvious and ahead the gnashing of the Flume lay apparent. All thought of my discomfort was lost to the required focus. Deep strokes were laid as I ploughed into the melee of a chaotic wave hole sized over my head. My bow went skyward and I fought to stay upright. But a secondary reactionary upturned my boat. I went for a quick roll attempt and missed it. I waited for my paddle to reach the surface but I had no such luck. I threw for my next roll and focused my hip snap. I narrowly came to the air upright and sighted before me another large curler nearly on top of  me. I pounded through and was relieved as the onslaught had ended.

"Zoom Flume" of the Presque Isle River 

Drifting into the expanse of the lake, the crew celebrated the run and the adrenaline happily danced in our veins. But my enthusiasm was killed by the pain coursing through my thumb. Cussing repetitively, I tore it my glove off and placed the thumb in the numbing waters of  Lake Superior. In pulling it back for inspection, there was visible bruising and it was floridly swollen... I knew I had broke something. Bruising that early was tell-tale. Coming to shore, the crew noted my state and carried my boat back to the camp for me, while I sulked back.

My pulverized thumb
The Jim Rada race took place that year without me amongst its ranks. I took to filming the event and attempting to keep a good attitude. And amongst the community, I lost myself amongst the rising flames of the campfire and soaked in the glowing twilight.

Soaking in the Sunset on the Shores of Lake Superior

I was uplifted by the laughter and the fellowship in spite of an underlying disappointment.

Laughter amongst the rain
In parting the Upper Peninsula,  I drove in the morning light numb and thoughtless...  I was aware that my season had come to a close.  I grieved for the loss of it for several weeks as a x-ray confirmed what I had already known... inside my thumb I had avulsed a ligament that took a piece of bone with it. I avoided hearing anything about the rivers as the rains rolled across the North Country. I packed my belongings as I would soon move to my new home of Billings, MT for the next three years.

Midwest paddling! Thank you to the Red Dangler Community!
Photo credit of Andy McMurray

As my depression soon faded, I looked back on the season with thanks, as I had been deeply gifted. It was a season of profound change in my paddling, of countless unforgettable memories, and friendships both formed and deepened. As I drove from the North Shore and Duluth, I nodded thankfully to Lake Superior in gratitude and farewell. I drove into the Westward horizon with the freshness of the new life ahead of me, meanwhile behind me lay the setting of countless golden memories, shaped by my lifelong tenure in the North Country. The Northland would remain pridefully........ my homeland!

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