As rivers swell and churn, a paddler rediscovers perfection
By Tim Shuff
I rushed with youthful, flood-like urgency, listening to REM’s “Superman” on the tape deck and burning with the desire for that first, addictive taste of spring whitewater.
When asked mid-winter, Why do I paddle whitewater?, I have nothing to say. I have deep-freeze amnesia; my feelings for rivers are as dormant as our nation’s ice-choked waterways and my thoughts are preoccupied with other things.
But something interesting happens as the days get longer, early mornings become light again, the sun regains a palpable warmth and water flows in the ditches. When driving over bridges it is my habit to peer up and downriver, and to mentally put myself down there in the flow. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember, before I started paddling. This tendency, or at least whatever deep motive causes it, is probably the very reason I started paddling.
During an early thaw, from a little nothing bridge on a highway near home, I look out and see water with cresting waves, brown with flood, charging into a suburban forest, and it all comes flooding back.
I remember the feeling I had in more or less exactly this spot two decades ago as I sped by in my parents’ Oldsmobile to an outdoor store clearance sale. There was a kayak on sale, a terrible, old-school design the colour of cherry Twizzlers, and it became my first boat. I rushed with youthful, flood-like urgency, listening to REM’s “Superman” on the tape deck and burning with the desire for that first, addictive taste of spring whitewater.
Today it’s the same feeling all over, a barely containable impulse to just go, to quit everything old and stale and indoors to rush headlong into life and summer and nature.
I remember the rivers I paddle each spring. When the levels are right, the usual suspects will reconvene like migratory animals for breakfast at some diner near the put-in, familiar faces back from a winter’s hibernation, work, travel, family life or whatever else fills up the spaces between rivers on the maps of our lives.
And I remember what brings us old friends together: the memory of surfing a particular wave, coasting in place with the water rushing beneath, mossy rock tableaus on both sides, the spring sun overhead; moments when you discover the power to stop time in its tracks and see the world with laser focus.
The river is my shortcut to the feeling I get from life’s best experiences – the long wilderness trips I don’t have time for anymore, falling in love, landing the perfect job, an empty ski hill on a powder day – times when you see nothing ahead but fresh tracks and opportunity. These are moments of perfection, total redemption, for what could be wrong with a life that leads here?
Taking my eyes off the horizon, I peer across the highway, over the concrete barriers, and down the river, and I remember not just why I paddle whitewater, but why I do everything. The question ceases to be, Why do I paddle whitewater? Joining the flow is simply the best way to celebrate spring; it’s the obvious thing to do. The question is, Why doesn’t everybody?