Monday, November 30, 2009

Marathon on the Achibueno

(C) Matt Smink
The water of the Rio Achibueno is the cool, minted blue of Crest toothpaste, and cold as a recently melted glacier ought to be. My dry top, my armored shield against the ice, is recently broken from the rescue in the Rio Claro canyon. I add two layers of fleece on top of my union suit, pull on the useless dry top, cinch down the many straps of my PFD and hope for the best. With my boat hoisted on my shoulder I head down to the river, seal myself in, mess with all the outfitting, and push off into the river.(C) Matt Smink

The rapids begin. And they do not stop for another nine miles. It is the longest, busiest, most continuous river I have ever paddled my way down. It is studded with granite boulders varying in size from Dinosaur eggs to hippos to sports utility vehicles; the river weaves through them like a tongue flicking between ginormous gap teeth. I am very lucky, as Tino is my personal escort for the run. Together with Zoe, we catch every micro eddy, navigating our way through the maelstrom with precise paddle placement with Tino literally shouting at us directions for which blade to use and where.Around halfway through, I notice a tangible difference. Something has shifted in my brain. I look a the river with a certain logic; I know where I want to go, how to fly through slots and doge the hole at the end with a late boof stroke, how to hang on and surf out when I get worked, how to cruise into the eddy with a powerful stroke and correct angle. I'm no longer a pinball at the mercy of the torrent and granite. Tino keeps watching my lines and throwing his fist into the air. He's proud of me.
....And then I swim. Three times. I haven't swam on a river in 6 months, not since I went right instead of left on Middle Keeney's on the Lower New. I haven't swam yet in Chile this time around. I haven't swam three times in one run since the Green, my true first river run ever. Why, then, is this happening? And after my epiphany of true understanding and Liquid Logic? The culprit is my lack of hand roll. On each swim my paddle, my mechanism for rolling and control, is ripped out of my grasp. The first time is stupid. The second time, two hours later, is more forgivable. The rapid is bony and steep, I thunk directly over a pour over, and although the the hole kindly ejects my boat and I, it keeps my paddle as a souvenir. I am in calm water by the time I pull my skirt and flounder to surface, gasping.And the third time? By now the sky is dimming and the temperature has dropped. With the busted neck gasket on my dry top, I am shivering and soaked. I'm following Tino like a dog, cursing every inch of water as I pull through it. This river was supposed to be 6 miles but it turns out to be 9 miles. It's been hours and the rapids have not relented. I face them now not with fear but with irritation and anger. When I flip over on a terrible line through a long class 4, my knuckles grind over the granite, my hands jam under rocks and pop out violently as the current rips me along. I grit my teeth and hold on as my head cracks against the rocks. Finally my paddle gets caught and I pull my skirt. When I emerge, I grab onto Matt's stern and he drags me through the remainder of the rapid. Up ahead, Tino is doing the same for Zoe, who has a big gash over her eye. Tino is looking behind him as he paddles and I see him mutter 'oh, no...' I turn around to see Tracy going through the same rapid, the same terrible line. She must have been following us. She's on her head as well, the bright blue underside of her boat banging comically like a duck in trouble. But she manages to hold on and right herself. Later on, her neck will swell and tighten from the beating, and she won't get on the Achibueno again.

When I shore up on the rocks, my hands are bleeding and my right hand is completely numb. I put it in my mouth and bite down as hard as a demonstration for Tino. He looks tired. I wonder how much longer till the take out, and how I can paddle without a right hand. Without a choice in the matter, I fumble my way back in the boat and with my left hand, curl the fingers of my right hand around my paddle. Each bend in the river uncurls to reveal more white, spitting water, and no bridge.

By the time we do reach the take-out, the feeling has returned to my whole hand with the exception of my little finger. The whole crew is has fallen into an exhausted silence. I strip away the layers of wet fleece and neoprene and pull on dry cotton. I call the act of taking off wet paddling gear and shivering into civilian clothes "The process of becoming Human." It's a joyful but often arduous process, and I'm not fully human again until I'm under a blanket with something to eat and a book, fully dried and guaranteed safe.

One of my students and I climb into the back of a truck and bump along the 10 km home. We stop every now and then to explore the river bank and search for an earlier take out. We are met with no luck, and we never run the beautiful, diamond clear, marathon lower Achibueno again.

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