Monday, August 25, 2008

Flathead River: Thrillkat

Be here now. I kept thinking that yesterday, the sound of the rapids bending through the canyon reaching me before I saw them. Jake, my guide, gave me a quick set of instructions and then his raft went down through the chute of rushing water, 9 people paddling on his boat and I was left on my own. I followed the line, my small Thrillkat bouncing into the rapids, water surging over the front past my shoulders and over my face. I dug deep with the oars, unable to see for a second, drenched, paddle paddle paddle... My boat bounced back up the other side of the wave and I followed the line out, water spraying and my oars windmilling into the river. The water smoothed out and then... I floated.

The sun was shining. The trains roared by. The river moved clear and turquoise and cold. A few clouds skipped through the sky. I was back on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, at the very south side of Glacier National Park. I had rafted the same stretch 10 days previous, and while it was extremely fun, I was looking for a little more adventure. I found it in a Thrillkat. After seeing the river, my plan was to get a little closer to the action, to run it on my own-- well, sort of.

My vessel of choice was called a Thrillkat. Approximately eight feet long, it was a skinny inflated pontoon, the bright yellow floats like two big bananas surrounding the red cockpit. Like a small stretcher suspended between the floats, I sat on a small seat with a backrest, my feet stretched out in front of me, braced against a padded block, the whole thing barely two feet wide. I had a double-sided oar, as if on a kayak. Because of the short length of the craft, and the twin floats, there was stunning suspension, throwing me up and crunching me with the waves as they came. The craft was surprisingly manueverable, despite my lack of experience. By the end of the day, I could spin that baby on a dime.

I learned to use the oars as rudders, shifting direction slowly when I was drifting. I would switch up the paddling if the wind pushed me one way or the other, doubling strokes on my left or right to straighten myself. I could spin around and paddle backwards when I wanted to watch my counterparts hit the same rapids I had just run. The oar could be pushed in the water to arrest the boat and slow it down when I needed to wait for my guide. By the end of the day, on the slower parts of the river, I could paddle down and race back, the small current between the rapids almost negligible. My vessel glided by the rocks on the side of the river, in and out of the small pools and eddies where I watched people jump from the cliffs and fish.

Three of the rafts pulled over towards the end of the day and I joined them for a swim off the rocks. The water temperature barely fazed me for a change. I was already soaked and had been covered in spray and occasional deluges the past couple of hours. 55 degree water seemed normal by then, like a badge of honor I was wearing. We ran the last three sets of rapids, the bigger ones already behind us. Jake said I could go ahead and run them on my own without instructions. I thought of something my rafting guide, Nick, had said the previous week. “There’s a reason why we have the phrase go with the flow. Don’t fight the water. Go where it takes you and watch out for rocks.” That seemed the best advice I could ask for. I went with the flow.

I followed the river, and when it was all over, despite the pain in my shoulder from paddling, I wanted to do it all over again. Be here now. That’s what survival writer Lawrence Gonzales says is the key to making it through any situation-- being present. It’s also the only way to have fun.

I was in those waves yesterday. And rather than running the rapids, I feel I ran with them, my small boat part of the whole mechanism of the river’s movement. I got my adventure, that’s for sure. But rather than being unnerved by it, I loved each moment. The deeper the better. I liked it fast and found some great pleasure in dodging rocks and navigating turns in the middle of water rushing at me. There’s a difference between riding above the water on a raft and feeling like you are in the water experiencing everything as it happens, not just watching-- but part of the movement itself. That's how I felt, part of the river.

When I beached my Thrillkat at the end, I felt like I had just done something. After a beer and a burger (much deserved), I headed away from Glacier and back up the mountain to my place. As I drove, I looked at Big Mountain, and my first thought was I climbed that. And then I thought of the river, and realized I paddled that. Alone. It’s not about conquering the landscape, but I have to say that there is a lot to be said for being a part of it, for feeling it, and for navigating it under your own power.

I’m happy I had a guide on the river, but I am even happier I paddled it alone. Now I just need a kayak, and some good whitewater in the Midwest.

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