Over the years Life beats us up. Not whining, just stating facts. Therefore, it is SO GOOD to be around women who remind me of my younger self: rowdy, boisterous, athletic, outdoorsy, a little bit raunchy, funny, fun, supportive, smart and creative, and that’s good because they show me how to live all over again. Lately I’ve been having a little trouble holding on to that grrrl that I am.
The women I’m talking about work for the California Women’s Watersports Collective and Sundance Kayak School of Southern Oregon. These two groups collaborate on an annual kayak camp for women. I signed up for this, their third annuaI event, and came back filled with warm light vibrant energy. I love sea kayaking but it’s often cold and foggy and conditions change so rapidly and the consequences of those changes can be so severe that it was wonderful to be in the State of Jefferson’s riverine environment which reminds me so much of the Sacramento and American Rivers of my youth. The sun and warmth of late June made everything friendly. The water was warm. The sky was blue. The drills were fun and interesting and I learned a bunch of new skills and some games I can bring on retreat (Stinky Fish, anyone?) The rapids were friendly and totally doable but occasionally big enough to be exciting as well as fun so you felt really proud you made it.
It was four full days of warm ups, kayak instruction, yoga, massage, really good food, and interaction with a bunch of great women. Over the course of the camp we paddled Class I and II sections of the Rogue between Hog Creek and Almeda with a grand finale at Argo, a Class III rapid to finish the weekend. Here’s a synopsis of the event:
Day One. Wet exits. Key words, Tuck, tap, tug, take off your pants. Meaning lean forward so you don’t hit your head on a rock, bang on the sides of the kayak so you alert your buddies you’re upside down, tug on the loop and pop off that spray skirt, and slide out of the cockpit like you’re taking off your pants. Great mnemonic. We talked about swimming: swimming through rapids on our backs, the back stroke, the crawl, and why not to use the legs in the crawl stroke. We also talked about the California lazy float, on your back with head upstream, feet raised, and butt lifted.
Then we practiced peeling in and out of eddies. Another mnemonic: Position, angle, speed, turn/edge, or Past or Pase. This practice included lots of edging drills. One drill to help us hold our edges was to paddle in a circle around a stationary kayaker in both directions. We worked on forward strokes and paddling straight in a squirrely boat. We also practiced sweeps. Then we broke for lunch on the river bank.
After lunch we played Yip-Poi. There are two teams; one is Yip and one is Poi. As you play you yell “Yip!” or “Poi!” depending on which team you’re on, or if you’re trying to fake someone out. You freeze people on the other team by tagging their stern with your bow. Then they have to stop paddling and raise their paddle on end until someone on their own team unfreezes them by doing the same. When one team is immobilized the other team wins. Another game was Stinky Fish, similar to water polo. You throw a fish-shaped sponge into the water and each team tries to pass it back and forth until one player throws the sponge onto the opposite team’s side of the river. You can block with your paddle but if you’re holding the fish you can’t paddle until you pass it to someone else. I had people yell at me for holding on to the fish too long, but the strategy worked because everyone bunched up around me and then I could pass it to a team member on the outside. These games were useful in getting people to forget to be anxious or afraid in their desire to Get That Sponge and also in getting people to paddle through eddies and currents without noticing because they’re focused on the game, not the water.
Day Two. On this day we divided into three groups. I was in a group with one other student named Ursula. It was me, her and Ashlee, our instructor. We worked on ferries and entering and exiting eddies going up and down stream, usually repeating each drill at least three times. Then we joined up with the group to play more Stinky Fish. After the games we worked our way downriver, scouting rapids from our kayaks, choosing lines, looking for the “V” that provides safe passage, finding the eddy at the end, entering, then peeling out and re-entering the current.
Periodically we’d join up with the others and at one spot we found a swirly little bit of river where we stopped and jumped into the river off a rock into the turbulent eddies and then swam back to shore. The goal was to go under as deep and as long as you can but our PFDs kept popping us back to the surface. While swimming I observed that I dip my shoulder to enter an eddy just like I edge my kayak. On this day I learned to really lean into eddy lines. At times it felt like flying.
We also practiced crashing into rocks, leaning into them, and pushing off, always a valuable skill. I love paddling right at the rock, hitting it hard enough to slide up onto it a little, slip back, push off and spin around. Super fun. Another time Ashlee had Ursula and me paddle blind down a small but fairly long rapid to get the feel of the river. We closed our eyes. It was so cool. All your other senses kick in. You smell, hear and feel the river all around. It was amazing.
We did some more stroke practice, working on rudder strokes, draws, and more forward stroking, plus edging, in addition to spinning in circles using forward and back sweep strokes on either side. I got better at putting my spray skirt on, which was huge. It was hard on the first day, but by the end of the weekend I had it down no problem. We did some more hip snaps and T-rescues. Ursula and I became “Abillibuddies”, which is basically using the buddy system, always good on the water. We became a team, working together, encouraging each other, and helping each other carry the boats.
Day Three. This was Swift Water Rescue Day. We started with throw bags and ropes. We learned how to pack the bag and identify entrapment hazards offered by loops in ropes and straps. We talked about how to throw overhand, underhand, and sidearm. We talked about rope length and how to rescue a swimmer. Then we practiced rescues with some of us walking upriver and swimming down so those on shore could throw the ropes. The drill was to throw the rope upriver of the swimmer so the river takes it down to them and not away. Then the swimmers put the rope over their upriver shoulder so it doesn’t flip them over on their faces but pulls them along on their backs. The rescuer pulls gently and continuously on the rope so the swimmer pendulums smoothly to shore.
In another drill we practiced walking through a shallow but very fast rapid. I learned two formations: triangle and circle. This was something completely new to me and super fun. Pretty hard too. Twice I was swept off my feet by the strong current. But it taught me how to bring a group across a rapid relatively safely. After that we played with more eddies and practiced more hip snaps and played some more Stinky Fish. A good day.
On this, our last night, we had a big party. There were games, a catwalk, and a costume competition. There was music, dancing, and prizes. I won for best catwalk in a green curly wig and a blue tutu! It must be the influence of RuPaul’s Drag Race, of which I’m a big fan. Instead of yoga, on this evening a massage therapist showed up before dinner and I got a 20 minute massage. Delightful!
Day Four. This was an AMAZING DAY. Actually one of the best days of my life. We paddled downriver and came to a beautiful deep section where we landed and lunched and those of us who wanted to jumped off a tall rock. I did a massive preacher seat. I wish I could have seen it, because it felt like one of the best I’ve ever done. I got the angle of the hips just right and hit the water from my butt to my knees. Thank goodness for wetsuits, because the skin would have been flayed off the backs of my thighs. I went down in a big air bubble as the water displaced. Then the water cascaded back down and the buoyant wetsuit and PFD popped me back up like a cork. Bellissima!
Ashlee told Ursula and me we were going to do a Class III rapid called Argo for the grand finale. The run was just up from our camp, where we’d take out. I felt a little anxious but then I looked up and saw a bald eagle soaring upstream right over our heads! It was river right, the line we had to take. I knew then we were going to crush that rapid and we did. Everyone made it down smoothly and found an eddy and to me it seemed easy, thanks to skills learned from our fearless leaders.
I’m so glad I did this. It’s great to be in a group of strong, competent women with lots of young, positive energy. By the time you get to be 50 or 60 a lot of rough stuff has happened to most of us and it wears us down. I’ve had an especially tough time over the last fifteen years since Eric first started having open heart surgeries and this is just the infusion of energy I needed. Dancing! Twerking! Butt clapping (don’t ask)! I felt like I was twenty or thirty again.
I’m also glad it was a full four days because on the last day I was really beginning to feel the river so that I could paddle way less and let the river do the work. I definitely got comfortable in those little skirted river kayaks and even started to feel one with the boat and the river which was my ultimate goal. Along the way I learned games, drills, and skills that will serve me well when I get back on the ocean. Winning!
There was a lot more I could talk about, but the best thing to do is see for yourself. I will be back next year for sure! Mad props to our wonderful teachers Anna, Melissa, Ashlee, Buckets, Sarita and Sami, and also to Liz (who I bonded with over RuPaul’s Drag Race) our intrepid photographer. You guys did a great job! Thank you so much for this wonderful experience!