Ebb and Flow staff blog by danielle houltberg

I’ve always been drawn to the water. Ever since I can remember I’ve loved to be in and on the water. I have a summer birthday so nearly all of my parties growing up revolved around a pool or some other body of water. I went to the ocean for the first time when I was maybe 6 years old and couldn’t get enough of that either; it only served to solidify my love for the water. Even back then I had this great fascination at the power and grandeur of the water (though six-year-old-me probably couldn’t have put it in quite so eloquent of terms.) The waves crashing down onto the shore didn’t induce fear so much as awe in me. I respected the water, which I think is the beginnings of learning to be cautious around it. That respect led to the understanding that the water is a force that, though beautiful, can be ruthless and unforgiving. And not just the ocean is that way. Water in any form is a force to be reckoned with. Understanding that and not taking it for granted is a key factor in staying safe in the water. I’ve had that understanding for a long time so I’ve always been completely comfortable in and around water…and drawn to it. So naturally, being pretty new to the world of outdoor recreation, the new activity I was most eager to try involved being on the water. In this case specifically, being on the water on a stand-up paddle board (SUP).

I’ve been out SUPing a handful of times now; twice on a small local lake called Lonestar, once down a twelve-mile section of the “Kaw” (the name local cool-kids call the Kansas River,) and once down the whole Wakarusa River. I started on Lonestar to get comfortable on the board without having to worry about a current of any sort. The most trying thing I dealt with there was 20mph winds that made it a little difficult to steer, especially on the inflatable NRS board. After about an hour on the board (and guidance from Jason, my “paddling sensei” as it were) I felt very comfortable on it…confident even. I’d gotten my balance down and had a good grasp on controlling where I went with the paddle. It was a great feeling to try something new with friends from the shop. Jason, myself, and our friends and coworkers Sara and Conner all went that first time. Having friends there that were experienced was helpful and, though they might have poked fun at my shaky-legs before I perfected my balance on the board, they really were supportive which I appreciated. The next time I went out I felt ready to do a river paddle but we had just gotten a butt-ton (it’s a real measurement for liquid…look it up) of rain meaning the rivers were extra high and flowing much faster than normal, so I opted to play it safe and had Jason take me out to Lonestar again. After that second trip I felt ready to really conquer something more challenging and try out my honed paddling skills.

The next time we went out, Jason, Connor, and I did a twelve-mile section of the Kaw after putting in at Eudora and doing a half-mile or so of the Wakarusa. It was a totally different experience. For one thing, you are moving the whole time (whether you want to be or not), which means you have to pay close attention to what’s ahead of you. We decided to do the river that time because we figured, as it had been two weeks since we had gotten all that rain, that the flow-rate would have decreased. It had not. We realized that morning that it was still pretty high and moving pretty fast but decided to go ahead and paddle it anyways. I was ready to get on the river but knowing that it was still much higher and flowing much faster than normal made me a bit nervous. Once we got on the water, however, I realized that I had no reason to have been worried. For one thing, I had no experience with which to compare this one to so the river at that depth and speed didn’t seem abnormal to me. I even told the guys I couldn’t wait to get on it when it was flowing at the average rate because I’d probably feel like a professional after being on it when it was so fast. It took no time at all for my nervousness to dissipate and turn into excitement! I felt my sense of adventure in full effect as I felt perfectly comfortable and confident on this huge moving body of water. Just floating down the river felt reminiscent of something out of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…minus the racism. (I thought to myself, “I’d write about this,” and here I am!) Though it required more concentration and work than paddling on the lake, it was still relaxing. I felt peaceful.

After having done the river once, I felt ready to do it again the following week. Connor, Jason, and I decided that we really enjoyed the small portion of the Wakarusa we’d done at the beginning of the trip the week before, so we wanted to do the whole thing this time. It normally isn’t totally doable because it isn’t deep enough. With all the rain and the Clinton dam having been let-out recently, however, it was, so we decided to give it a go. We put-in at the waterfall area at the off-leash dog park by Clinton Lake—much to the confusion of a few fishermen who were out there. The start of the trip was pretty calm and cool. I had walked along the water a little ways before with my best friend Jenny and her dogs (when we had taken them to said off-leash dog park) so it was interesting to see it from a different vantage point; not to mention how different it looked just because the water was so much higher. There were some sharp twists and turns and narrow passageways at the beginning, which was in sharp contrast to the wide, open space that you have while on the Kaw. My skills were tested and further honed by having to navigate those obstacles but it made for a more challenging experience, which I enjoyed. After getting used to the more winding and narrow river, it felt like the rest of the trip would be “smooth sailing,” so-to-speak. I took a few pictures and just enjoyed the more technical paddling experience. I even got to practice my animal-calls. I do a pretty decent Velociraptor call that, as it so happens, is pretty similar to a few different birdcalls (did you know dinosaurs are more closely related to modern birds than modern reptiles? Thanks, Jurassic Park!), so I got the attention of a few Osprey (Falcons? Hawks? I’m not totally sure which they were) that we came upon.

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!”

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.