“No man ever steps in the same river twice, For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” -Heraclitus
When I put the kayak in at the Lecompton landing and headed upstream, I was not in the best of moods. I had just finished my first gravel bicycle race ever (50 miles, a long way for me!) and was pretty thrashed and sore. I was looking forward to a shower and quiet afternoon/evening to recover. Upon reading the text I was initially perplexed, not realizing who it was from:
"Hey so if you happen to be in Lawrence this afternoon it's come to my attention that I left two packets of food at the cash register last night. Leaving me with one breakfast... If you could would you mind grabbing that? We're also making super slow progress and this headwind has been kicking our ass. Hopefully your race went better than our day so far."
It was from someone not in my address book, so just listed a number. I had been riding with some friends in the race that I had not located as yet and was wondering if this was some garbled/confused message from them, unsure what the “packets of food left” might refer to. After pondering a bit it occurred to me that this was Alex, SUP-ing the KS River with Jason, lamenting some forgotten food. I quickly realized he’d like me to gather up the food and bring it out to him, wherever on the river that might be. OK, full disclosure here. I was briefly tempted to simply ignore the message, head home, and kick back. But after a short conversation with my conscience, I replied:
"Will do. I’ll text when I’m heading your way and see if we can't connect up somewhere. That wind is tough!" and later "Got the chow. Let's talk logistics. Are you going to make it to the Lecompton landing?"
What essentially followed was a series of messages, along with one valiant attempt to help me locate them by sending a map of the KS River with their location to my flip phone. It was about the size of a postage stamp that could’ve placed them anywhere in Northeast KS, with font so small it could be used to write the Declaration of Independence on a penny. Needless to say, I was on my own. My first thought was to drive the scenic river road towards Topeka and try and eyeball them on the river. There are several good vantage points where large stretches can be seen, particularly this time of year with the trees not leafed out as yet. Stopping at several key points to peruse, and twice climbing down to the river, bore no fruit however. Thinking they must be between there and the landing I drove back and went for plan B:
I’m gonna paddle upstream from the Lecompton bridge a bit. I"ll be looking for you."
"OK, we'll keep an eye out for you."
So I launched my little Zydeco 9 into the river and began upstream. Or at least, that was the plan. As it turned out, I had to head downstream to get into the main channel of the river. The water level was so low it was the only possible spot to paddle without dragging bottom. I swung under the bridge, found the current, pivoted upstream and paddled and paddled and paddled. Progress was slow going given the small, inefficient boat I chose (ease of portability won the day over my 17’ sea kayak) and the current, while certainly not fierce, was steady and unrelenting. I began to have evil thoughts of Alex’s failing memory, picturing myself at home on the couch instead of struggling upstream with a sore, old body. Also, it became very problematic not to get hung up on sandbars as the channel of the river could best be described as mercurial. Scooching myself along to disengage from the sand - cursing, in time, with each scooch - until I hit deep water was not a lot of fun. I felt this was a better option than getting into and out of the boat several times to drag it though, as the water was still quite cold. In essence, slow going would’ve been a step up. After about 100 yards I finally got into some good water and continued along, eventually making the first major island right near the mouth of the Delaware River. I stopped there in hopes of looking upriver and seeing the SUP kings heading my way ……. to no avail. Spent about 10 minutes hoping, then saddled up my pity party and took back into the current. Able to scout out the river channel from the vantage point of the island, I was able to stay in paddle-able water for the most part. But the current had picked up it seemed, and I was still making slow progress. There was another large island a ways up, and I was hoping against hope that this is where I would find, or at least see, them. Another 30 minutes got me there, and I landed on a nice little beach area on the north side of the island. I walked to the west edge and looked upstream. No sign. Yelled a bit and clapped my hands. Nothing. Was just getting ready to consider my next move when:
Well we got to our spot but I think it might be a little beyond where you were wanting to paddle to.
"I’m on a giant island sandbar with trees about 1.5 miles west of the bridge."
"OK, I think we’re probably still about 4 miles out. So I doubt we'll be able to meet up. If you want to leave it there I could get it in the morning."
It was 7:38 pm and the sun was getting ready to set; yeah, I’d say that’s a bit beyond how far I’d like to paddle. The scene grabbed my attention though, and I stared transfixed. The sun was a beautiful orange-pink glow, hanging in some low-lying purple clouds hugging the western horizon. There was a slight breeze blowing upstream at my back, not a sound could be heard. A waxing crescent moon hung in the southwest sky accenting the whole scene, and a high cloud cover gave a muted, ethereal tone to everything. Under other circumstances it would be beautiful, but then I considered - no, this is absolutely beautiful, circumstances notwithstanding. In fact, as I mused over this, the circumstances themselves made them better than ever. I texted back:
"Will leave it hanging in a tree on the north side of the island near a beach in a yellow dry sack. Good luck!"
With that, I hung the dry sack, pushed into the river, and headed downstream - a perfect night for a float. I had scouted out the river coming upstream so knew the channel, and I opened an IPA I had brought up for Alex and Jason, figuring they would not be up for them at breakfast - perhaps a slight rationalization. I discovered an interesting side channel connecting near the Delaware that had a good current. It appeared the river couldn’t quite decide which way to go, nor could I, so I drifted along and let it decide for me. We headed left into the new area and river magic took hold. I drifted lazily along, adjusting every now and then with my paddle, but enjoyed every minute. I decided for the other IPA; no rationalization this time, just sounded good. Swung back into the main part of the river, bypassed the first island I had encountered on the way up, and quietly slipped my paddle into the water so as not to disturb the moment. As I neared the landing, I decided to head directly for it instead of following the channel on the other side of the river. It would shallow quickly, more than likely, but decided I would just get out and drag my boat along. Time to head for home.
Text reply, from Alex: "Thank you, Dan. I owe you big time."
After thinking it through though, it was I who should be thanking him. These are the times that keep us alive. Those serendipitous moments that fill our lives with meaning we would nearly always miss and let slip away; never noticing the obvious, the opportunity. A quote from one of my favorite Kinsella novels, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, puts it nicely,
"I tell you Gideon - there are all kinds of mysteries dancing around us like sunbeams, just beyond our fingertips. They’re there, like birds in a thicket that you can hear but can’t see.”
Perhaps we didn’t make connection like we planned. Alex wouldn’t get his dinner food - along with a few other goodies I stashed within, minus the IPA’s - until tomorrow. Yet this was a total success. A section of an enigmatic poem by Jose Alcantara gets at this spirit as well,
“If you have a compass, smash it. Nothing can point you to true anything, let alone true north. Besides- and never forget this- you are trying to get lost."
Here was one of those mysteries, one of those times of working on getting lost.
I texted back: "No worries. Bit of an adventure. Learned something about the river. And i drank the two IPA's I brought out for you guys on the way back!"
The adventure Alex and Jason had undertaken was awesome, and part of what makes a trip such as this worthwhile are the unknown factors. They weren’t sure if they could finish, weren’t quite sure how far they could go on any given day - given the vagaries of Mother Nature and a Kansas spring - but just headed out the door (sans food in Alex’s case). But regardless of any missteps; they were outside, they were on the river, and that adventurous spirit is what keeps us alive and breathing, and I was glad and fortunate to be a part of it, however small.
The river shallowed and my kayak drug bottom, slowed to a crawl, then stopped. I stepped out of the boat into the calf deep, cold water of the Kansas river, lost my balance as my foot sunk in and fell sideways into the water, completely soaking my left side. I lay there for a second, considering the ridiculous predicament, and laughed out loud - another small moment of grace to keep me honest. Real life, if ever there was. (The IPA’s might’ve had something to do with it as well - at least that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!)
So Heraclitus was right in so many ways. The river certainly changes in definite ways, but just as certainly, I was not the same person I was two hours ago.