For the third lap down my favorite watering hole, I opted for some bigger lines to put the finishing touch on a fine day of paddling. The Quake Lake section of the Madison was running a juicy 1,200 cfs and the icy waters were bolstering the strength of the ample hydraulics.
The top half of the run slid beneath me cleanly with the boat piercing the heart of each menacing recirculation. I laid heavily into each stroke as I approached a relatively benign hole with a sticky counterpart lurking just below. While the first hydraulic didn't deliver a critical blow to my speed, it did send the kayak opposite my subsequent stroke. I adjusted quickly, straightened the boat and dug in for the big pull that would carry me over the sticky recirculation. The boat landed flat on the aerated surface and slid several feet past the launch point. I kept rhythmically stroking, but the glory train had jumped the tracks and my boat sunk deeper into the boiling water, the momentum withering as the tractor beam of the sloped backwash took hold.
Slipping upstream toward the maw, arms wind milling like an ill-fated cartoon coyote, I looked at the chaotic whitewater pulsing through the jagged rocks downriver. I stretched out to both sides, but came up short of the strong current rushing around the mid-stream obstruction. The nearest kayaker to me was in Big Sky and there was precious little solace to be found in the knowledge of what was about to go down.
“Cue the Death Metal band and Initiate Beatdown Sequence… Amps at 11, now…” I joked, “Code Red! This is not a drill…” The pourover sunk my stern and launched my eyes and thoughts toward the heavens.
The next 30 seconds were a blur. It was six ways til Sunday. This beast had my number and it was up. Pirouettes and Unintendos, punctuated with payload after payload of f-bombs, broke up the exhausting side surfs. The cacophonic interplay of the roaring river and eerie, guttural gurgles resonated in my ears again and again.
When breathing got desperate and the thoughts went to my children and my love, I knew the unthinkable was once again at hand. I mustered a last solid breath, overturned and settled upside down deep in the hydraulic, my torso braced by the rock upstream and surging boils below. It was high time for a moment of wreckoning.
Beneath the surface, in the frigid, mind-numbing darkness, I regained clarity. Purging the euphoric highlight reel flashing about my mind, I dove headlong into preparations for escape. Once I fully shook the fear and self-pity, the plan of action came quickly.
I resurfaced with the kayak pointed away from the most attainable edge of the hydraulic. Though the surf was raucous, I took a breath and dug hard for a back J-stroke on my downstream side. Repeating that process, combined with a sharp twist of the hips, submerged the bow upstream beneath the heavy water pouring over the rock. Once the river engaged the kayak, I pushed down hard, sinking the bow deep as I leapt skyward. The natural buoyancy of the boat recoiling from submersion matched my jump. By twisting boat and body midair, I landed face first within striking distance of downstream flow. Two ridiculous, breaststroke-esque gropes later and I felt the rivers pull on my blades. Rolling upright, I backstroked into the outflow and spun to face the entrance to the actual crux of the run. With a new lease on life, the rapid came easily and soon I was heading up for a redemptive 4th lap. I know better than to not saddle up again quickly after getting bucked.
It's easy in difficult whitewater to lose your head. It’s intense, fraught with objective danger, and the stakes simply couldn't be higher. It's the subjective hazards, however, which are most often overlooked and are to be found at the core of all my worst moments on the water. While solid physical conditioning is an obvious advantage, it's most often the wandering mind that is the weakest link on any given river day. Where I have found personal success in this discipline, mind and will were strong and fully focused. Misadventure? Tragedy? I’ve had my share.