by Leigh Crews
I learned an important lesson about the value of staying calm under pressure and the implacable power of rushing water after Jeff and I decided, on the spur of the moment, to join the Coosa River Basin Initiative (CRBI) and participate in Saturday’s paddle down Armuchee Creek to begin our “kayak season”.
During the pre-launch safety briefing, our leader mentioned that water levels were up and we needed to be on the lookout for “strainers”. Strainers are submerged obstacles such as fallen trees and debris that water can pass through but large solid objects like kayaks and people cannot. Recent rains had the creek running high and the current was fast in many spots. That makes getting yourself stuck in a strainer particularly hazardous. In our leader’s own words, “You could wind up in a world of hurt.”
As we entered the last half mile of an eight mile run, we were doing pretty good. Molly, our miniature labradoodle, loves to go out on the water. She sits in my lap or lounges on the “fore deck” and that’s where she was when I realized the current was dragging us toward the right bank and directly into a strainer. Paddling as hard as I could made no difference as the force of the water pushed me headlong until, there we were, tightly wedged against a tree’s submerged branches and sitting in a tangle of the remaining ones above the water line. The unrelenting current was pushing hard against us but, fortunately we were still upright and afloat. I tried to back up but my paddle was tangled in the debris of the strainer. I wanted to jerk it out but feared I would knock Molly into the water or tip us. I had already nearly capsized trying to use a branch to pull us upstream out of the mess. Molly, being the smart girl she is, had already moved to lower and safer ground in my lap. That was better for her, but, in the cockpit of a kayak, even a small doodle in the lap makes maneuvering difficult.
Jeff, my knight in shinning armor, was quick to the rescue. He doubled back upstream and maneuvered into position to help. Except, he got caught in the strainer too, with poorer luck. The flow turned him sideways and the upstream side of his boat was pushed down by the fast moving water, flooding the cockpit and flipping him upside down, pinned against the strainer. As he went “keel up”, I realized I’d better find a way out and fast. I got my paddle unstuck and was able to paddle backwards against the current so that, by the time Jeff had extracted himself from his boat and came up for air (making noises that people practicing flips at kayak class in the pool generally don’t), I was already nearly free . Now, it was Jeff’s turn to be stuck , still jammed against the submerged logs by the rushing water, his capsized “yak” in one hand and his paddle in the other. Using a little help from our friends, he freed himself by climbing over the strainer and then swam downstream to calmer water, where he could dump water from his kayak, flip it and climb back in.
Through it all, we both stayed clear headed, or at least didn’t panic, and that made all the difference between a dunk in the creek and disaster. There wasn’t time to wait for a rescue so we focused on the problem at hand and worked it, step by step. We each knew we could not help the other if we did not help ourselves first. When all was said and done, Molly was able to get back to sunning on the fore deck and we were able to enjoy the last half mile of our creek run. We paddled away with a renewed appreciation of life and the only casualties were our favorite “all the bells & whistles” prescription glasses. Jeff’s had been snatched off his face by the current when he was under water. I think one of the branches in the strainer took mine when my attention was directed elsewhere. Croakies next time, I know! At least Jeff managed to hang onto his favorite hat
As Lao Tzu said, “Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.” Amen to that!