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  • July 19th, 2018


By Joel M. Vance

In 1922 John Flaherty documented the life of an Inuit family in Alaska on film. He called the documentary Nanook of the North. In one memorable scene (Flaherty cheated—he faked the scene for dramatic emphasis) Nanook and four of his family and a sled dog all exit a kayak. About 60 years later kayak mania seized me like a virulent disease and I bought a kayak.

My sensible family of five children and any of our several dogs absolutely refused to share the kayak with me, with good reason as it turned out since I spent much of the time in the inverted position, also known as “in danger of drowning”. I did, however, become an expert at what we veteran kayakers call “wet exiting”.

While Nanook almost certainly did not share his kayak, a flimsy vehicle at best, with his family or even the dog, he probably did learn to do what is called “an Eskimo roll” this is a tricky maneuver by which the capsized kayak can be brought back upright. Considering that an upset in Alaskan waters which, at the best of times, is not like boating in a hot tub, the Eskimo roll is a good trick to know.

Nanook was no fool and, in real life, rather than in a documentary made for theater audiences who didn’t know any better, he probably used something closer to a regular boat to transfer his family from place to place, saving the kayak as a one-man vehicle for him alone. Still, even today, the sight in grainy black and white of Nanook, the four family members, and the dog popping out of the flimsy kayak makes good theater— something like seeing a long extinct Tyrannosaurus lolloping through the jungle in one of the many Jurassic Park variations. You know that logically it can’t happen but it sure is fun to see as long as you don’t have to participate.

Boating enthusiasts with half a brain have seen kayaks in action –in the Olympics, for example, when there is competition on turbulent whitewater or in documentaries about intrepid explorers challenging river rapids never before successfully run. Those enthusiasts then quickly run to their nearest Bass Pro dealer and plop down many thousands of dollars for a bass boat equipped with an 80 horsepower engine and forget they ever saw a kayak, not to mention someone rolling the craft upright after upsetting in it. You don’t upset in a bass boat unless you try to cross the Atlantic in it during a category five hurricane.

But some few of us, deranged by reading too much adventure fiction and crippled by an inability to utilize common sense, succumb to the lure of a white water craft. Two friends and I eased into the world of raging river running by building our first boat, a whitewater canoe. Since none of us had any idea what the finished product should look like our approach could best be appreciated by watching any given episode of the Three Stooges.

I don’t recall many of the details of the shaping and finish of the canoe since much of the time we were working in a small enclosed building amid the billowing fumes of fiberglass resin. I have a feeling that brain damage is the byproduct of long-term exposure to such an atmosphere.

The resulting watercraft looked like something that had been put together by the Marx Brothers under the influence of an especially fearful hallucinogenic chemical and I’m not sure we ever put it in the water possibly because we were afraid the thing would sink like a lead balloon. Eventually it got stored in the woods behind the cabin where we built it and the two friends returned home more than 100 miles from their creation, somewhat like Dr. Frankenstein fleeing the birth place of his monstrous creation before the guys with the torches and pitchforks showed up.

The whitewater canoe moldered there in the weeds until Dacques, a burly French Brittany discovered it had become the home place of an opossum which he engaged in combat and eventually reduced to his trophy list. Dacques, in addition to seeking out game birds, bagged an impressive list of wild creatures— a half grown raccoon, a half-grown wild turkey, more than a few rabbits, some squirrels and, for all I know, grizzly bears and mountain lions that were too much trouble to bring home.

Briefly, the difference between a whitewater canoe and a kayak is that the canoe has a larger cockpit and you kneel in it whereas you basically wear a kayak. Putting it on a Laurel and Hardy basis, big Oliver Hardy would fit in a whitewater canoe and Stan Laurel would be suited for a kayak—although both probably would turn over within 50 feet of the launch.

You slide into a kayak, feet extended and sit. You are wearing what’s called a spray skirt a sort of tutu. The first time I tottered down to the water’s edge as a chaperone on a Girl Scout canoeing trip, wearing my spray skirt, I noticed that the girls were seized by a fit of uncontrollable giggling and realized they probably thought I was auditioning for Swan Lake. It did not enhance my macho image, although I did manage to avoid flipping the kayak and having to ignominiously wet exit. I also managed to get locked in the bathroom of the bus when I was chaperoning a YMCA ski trip for teenagers but that’s another story for another dismal day in the life of Joel M Vance, Klutz in Chief of any given outdoor adventure.

I practiced executing the Eskimo roll as assiduously as if I were Nanook himself capsized in the Bering Sea in near zero water temperatures, seconds away from perishing. But no matter how many times I struggled with what is supposed to be a relatively simple maneuver I simply could not pop back upright. I would get three fourths of the way back, my head out of the water glimpsing the amused faces of those on shore and then I would slowly sink back into the depths. I have to admit it was sort of peaceful suspended beneath the kayak, glimpsing curious bluegills swimming around me. But inevitably, I would begin to run out of air and would frantically tug the spray skirt free of the kayak cockpit rim and porpoise to the surface blowing and whooping like a grampus.

I consulted an expert kayaker in a swimming pool in Arkansas, watching him flip the kayak upright with more no more effort than if he were scratching his ear. And then I would try to do what he had done and it was the same old story. “I don’t know why it doesn’t work,” he said. “There must be something wrong with you.” Yes, there was— I didn’t have enough brainpower to realize when I was whipped. I was like a little boy who refuses to cry “uncle!” in a schoolyard fight until the bully who is beating him to a bloody pulp finally quits in disgust. The kayak was my bully and I figured that sooner or later it would have to give up. But it never did.

And so it came to pass that Joel donned his tutu and tucked his kayak under his arm like a businessman going to his office with his briefcase and traveled to where the fast water flows, namely the Spring River of Arkansas. Icy water, gushing from Mammoth Spring, feeds the river across the border from Missouri into Arkansas and supports trout as it winds its way south often over small rapids and many rocky ledges. It was here that I skirted the edge of disaster when I sailed over one of these ledges, somehow turned sideways in the current, and wedged under a submerged limb which stuck up stream like one of the water obstacles planted by the Germans to deter the allies from landing on the Normandy beaches in World War II.

Fortunately, I was canoeing with several guys who were infinitely more rational than I and who realized that not only the kayak but I would be pinned beneath the water by the limb and they splashed into the river and dragged me and the kayak free. The narrow escape called for a beer so I had several.

Proving that experience, even bad experience, is no cure for a lack of common sense, I launched my kayak into the Flambeau River in Wisconsin after perching my daughter ,Carrie, on a rock outcrop high above a 90 degree turn in the river where there was a daunting rapids. My idea was that Carrie would photograph me as I negotiated the rapids and then I would write an article with dramatic photography and become wealthy. The idea that I could also become drowned did not occur to me.

I negotiated the first set of rocks with all the aplomb of an Olympic contestant and then the river inconsiderately changed course 90 degrees with the water piling up at the bend, a tsunami of conflicting currents that grabbed the kayak in a giant hydraulic claw and flipped it over neatly with me underneath. I didn’t hesitate one second to see if somehow I had subconsciously learned the Eskimo roll, but frantically clawed at the tutu, ripped it free and squirted out in an explosive wet exit leaving the kayak which, as far as I was concerned, could careen on downstream to hell. At least, I knew that Carrie would have gotten several dramatic photos of me courting aquatic disaster. After I gathered my errant kayak and my wits I shouted up to Carrie, “Did you get that?” I had risked my life for a memorable series of dramatic photographs and had survived.

“I didn’t take any,” Carrie said. “I didn’t think you wanted me to take any photographs if you did it wrong.” I’m afraid I said some things and it is a tribute to her forbearance and forgiveness that she still claims to be my daughter.

My love affair with the kayak, much like an operatic libretto where the hero winds up with a dagger in his heart, came to an end on a searingly hot day in the mountains of Colorado. As if I hadn’t already tickled disaster in Arkansas and Wisconsin, I thought to pit my dubious kayak expertise against a real whitewater stream—namely, the Roaring Fork, the name of which alone should have given me pause.

I called a local floating shop and said “I’m a semi-experience kayaker and would like a short trip on local stream of several hours.” The helpful fellow directed me to a quick and what was supposed to be an easy 3 ½ mile float and said “This is a good stretch for an intermediate kayaker” and so it was for perhaps the first 200 yards. After which for the next 3 plus miles, if you have seen the movie Deliverance, you can understand what suddenly confronted me.

It was nonstop rapids and the only thing lacking was some inbred halfwit playing the banjo and a guy high on the banks above me (too high incidentally for me to climb out of the damn river and hike the rest of the way) with a rifle and a grudge against city fellers. The water was numbingly cold, snowmelt from the surrounding mountains, although the day time temperature was in the 90s. But I wasn’t in the daytime—I was in the water and I quickly realized that if I ever flipped the kayak I would be upside down in the coldest water this side of one of those charity polar plunges where people raise money for hopeless causes. In this case of course I was the hopeless cause but I didn’t need money–I needed a warm bed under about four feather comforters where I could curl in the fetal position and forget Nanook and his damn kayak and especially my damn kayak.

I felt like a Chihuahua would feel balanced on a 2 x 4 rocketing down the Niagara River, nearing the lip of the Falls. To capsize would be the end of Joel M Vance as I knew him. Finally, a half hour after I optimistically entered the water on what was to be a several hour fun float, I rocketed at warp speed the last few yards to where my car was parked. I was so cold I couldn’t get my hands free from the paddle (possibly because my fingers were panic-welded into the aluminum shaft). Somehow I finally struggled out of the canoe, a cartoon caricature of hypothermia, staggered to the car, somehow got it started and turned the heater to full wintertime power and began to defrost.

It was the end of my obsession with kayaking and I loaded the thing on top of the car, tied it down and have never used it again except as a potential home for possums.

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