A few hours later after my voice was sufficiently hoarse (those calls are hard on my vocal chords!) there was an interesting occurrence. The three of us were going almost single-file down the river and I was bringing up the rear. All of a sudden, I saw something I’d never seen before. The best way I can describe it is to say that a “wall of wind” had formed ahead just ahead of us and came upon us very quickly. I saw it from afar and it hit me within a matter of seconds. It was one of the craziest weather phenomena I have ever experienced. Dead leaves were torn from the trees on either side of the river, tossed around in the air, and whipped at us. I had to shut my eyes tight to avoid debris getting into my eyes and had more than a few leaves stuck in my hair. The flung leaves that fell into the water formed a nearly perfect line right down the middle of the river. The worst of it only lasted about a minute, though the wind continued to come in waves, albeit less intense, for about 20 minutes or so after the initial gusts. Then it started to rain. It was just barely spitting at first but progressed slowly into a steady rainfall that lasted another 20 minutes, give or take. We had checked the forecast beforehand, mind you, and it had showed nothing in the way of rain or storms for the day. Once the weird wind and rain had passed, I thought the worst that could happen was over with. I didn’t realize that that “wall of wind” had really marked the start of a very demanding series of trials for me.
Not long after that crazy weather, we came upon a part of the river that was almost totally dammed-up all the way across with fallen trees and debris washed downriver. The water flowed freely through it but there was nary a space for a board to get through. Such an obstruction, I had learned only weeks before when I went paddling for the first time, is called a “strainer.” We had come up on some much smaller, easily avoided strainers earlier in the day which led to Connor and I deciding to coin a new phrase: “Get strained, bruh!” This, however, sounds like some form of positive reinforcement offered by your closest surfer friend. It reality, you need to avoid strainers at all costs; they are dangerous! A better phrase might be “DON’T get strained, bruh!” This would be good advice, but, for a newbie paddler such as myself, it is easier said than done. This particular strainer would come to be my first problematic experience while paddling. Coming up to it, I was a bit nervous because I had never had to avoid something like this before. Jason instructed me to “hit the deck” because it would be easier to navigate the obstacle that way, so I got down on my knees to paddle through it. Or so I planned to. Right before said strainer, there was a bunch of low-hanging branches from trees to the right of the river. While concentrating on the fast-approaching strainer I failed to consider that going under those branches with my paddle sticking straight up into the air might be a bad idea (who knew?). Suddenly I had no paddle! Immediately upon realizing that my paddle was out of my hands, my board hit the left side of the strainer (no paddle, no steering) and I was tossed into the water. That is when I realized how strong the current really was. You go along a river like the Wakarusa without realizing just how fast the water is flowing…until there is something hindering that flow. Coming up on such a hindrance you can hear how fast it is flowing but I don’t think you can truly grasp how fast and powerful the flow is until it is pulling you under. Having been dumped into the water, I experienced the full force of the river first-hand. It was pulling at me from below, pushing at me from behind, and pinning me against the fallen branches that made up the left side of the strainer. Though those branches were the initial source of the problem, they were also the only reason I was able to fight against the water to pull myself up and out of it. Luckily my board was also pinned against the same side so I was able to reposition it and get onto it after emerging from under the water. The problem, then, was that my paddle was stuck in the low-hanging branches behind me. I was the last one through so, though I thought about trying to swim back a bit and grab it (in hindsight I’m glad I didn’t try that), Jason had to paddle upstream to grab it for me and I made it through. I was a little shocked by that incident but didn’t let it phase me. I continued on paddling, remaining vigilant but trying (and succeeding) to play it cool, knowing that surely the worst for the day was over.
Wrong again! Not too terribly long after that, we happened upon another dammed-up part of the river. This time I went into it pulse racing. I knew what might happen…again. It did. My paddle stayed with me this time but again I hit the side of the strainer and was dumped into the water. I fought the same unforgiving force trying to keep me down under the water, propel me forward through it, and pinning me to the right side of the strainer this time. I managed to hang onto my paddle through this and once again used the fallen branches to get to the surface of the water. My board was pinned again on the same side as me but this time it had been pushed completely vertical and I had a hell of a time getting it back to it’s proper position so I could get back on, all the while trying to stay above the water under constant threat of being pulled back under. This time was scarier. At one point I had let my paddle go and had the guys catch it downstream so I could concentrate on getting through with my board. I had scurried up my vertical board to try to use my body-weight to get it back into the proper position to no avail. In the end I had to swim back a bit to grab the back of the board so that the current wasn’t constantly working against me from behind, forcing it vertical. After doing so, I got it back into the proper position but, due to the narrow passage through the strainer, I had no room to get back onto it. I held it from the back and put my legs up under it to get through the passage. In a clumsy display, I had nearly cleared the passage when I vaguely remember thinking “ouch.” After having gotten past this second strainer, I felt pretty defeated and discouraged. The guys made sure I was okay and we kept paddling, needing to make sure we would finish before the sun set. I was shaken from the series of events and fell very quiet for the next hour or so. The guys could probably tell I was upset and didn’t push me to talk but did look back to check on me often. I felt bad that the atmosphere had gone from lighthearted to tense but I didn’t have the energy or motivation to bounce back for a while. At one point not long after, I looked down and realized that my right foot was scratched up pretty bad all up and down the heel and was bleeding quite a bit. This made me even more frustrated. Eventually, due in no small part to seeing a very young baby deer on the riverbank (so precious), I came out of my funk and we were able to finish the trip without further incident. There were some amazing stretches of the river where the sides of the river were rock faces that made you feel like you’d been transported to another place outside Kansas. I was even able to get some pretty decent pictures to document the experience. The rest of the trip was downright pleasant and we ended the day with listening to our official theme song “Panda” by rapper Desiigner and our tradition of getting limeades at Sonic.
All in all, paddling has, so far, been an eventful and exciting new activity for me. By no means have I let even my most daunting experiences stop me from wanting to continue to pursue this sport. On the contrary, these “trials and tribulations” have only served to make it a more rounded experience to learn and move forward from. I will continue to get out on the water and improve myself and, hopefully someday, be able to maneuver with such skill as to avoid even the toughest and biggest of strainers. I can’t wait to get back out on the board and see what experiences are waiting for me, all the while giving myself a pep talk that will most certainly include the phrase “Don’t get strained, bruh!”