Wet Exit

October 12, 2005
Filed under Travel

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“We’re on the Powerhouse section of the Snoqualmie River,” said Tim Leary as we removed the kayaks from the roof of his van. Tim owns and operates Seattle Raft and Kayak, a company specializing in door-to-door, all-inclusive paddling excursions. We were not far from the various RV parks that sit between Seattle and the jutting Cascades, and we were about to run a section of river just a few hundred yards below the spectacular Snoqualmie Falls. “It’s a really popular beginning training ground for Seattle kayakers,” Tim said as I wriggled into my dry suit. “It’s a Class II to II-plus beginning stretch of river.” He had used the word “beginning” twice, putting me at ease, since this would be my first time on moving water in a real kayak — one that requires a paddler to wear a spray skirt to keep the water out of the boat and to sit inside the craft, rather than on top, as I was used to.

I own two sit-on-top sea kayaks, and I’ve taken them out many times through the ocean surf. But when things get dicey, all I have to do is roll off the boat, then let it bang around in the waves until I can count my teeth and figure out which way is up. This would be entirely different. This time I would soon be upside down intentionally. Tim made me do it. In fact, after we had carefully trod the tricky path to the water, lowering the kayaks down the steepest section on a rope, it was only a matter of minutes before I had water up my nose. Otherwise, I was prepared for battle. Once Tim showed me how to remove the excess air from my dry suit, I no longer looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy. The rubber booties I
wore allowed me to walk over rocks comfortably, and the helmet on my head fit snugly and would protect my noggin from the rocks that created the river’s rapids. Oh, and my heart was in my throat. Not that I was scared, mind you.

On this point I want to be perfectly clear. I was definitely not scared. I was one notch beyond that. Chicken? Yellow? About to cry? The way I looked at it, I shouldn’t even have been nervous, not since Tim had only moments before said, “If you ask me, everybody wins. I can’t tell you how many people I take out a year who start by saying, ‘Whitewater kayaking — that’s crazy. I could never do something like that.’ And I say to them, ‘Trust me, you’re in good hands….’ And they come with me. At the end they say, ‘Thanks so much. This was one of the best days of my life. I never thought I could do something like this. It was really a great experience.’ ” When Tim told me a few minutes later that I had to intentionally turn the boat upside down, I was certain I was having an experience, but I was nowhere near sure it was great. We were sitting in our boats in a large calm patch of water called an eddy.

Tim let me know that I had to practice a “wet exit,” a technique wherein the inverted kayaker finds the grab handle on his spray skirt, pulls on it, releasing the tight rubber seal, then pushes himself from the cockpit of the boat, rights himself, then breaks the surface and embraces his new-found appreciation of air. All this is supposed to take place in about three
seconds — that is, if the kayaker is comfortable in the water and doesn’t panic. I, however, managed to resurface in a little more time than it took to build Rome. Once I was back in the boat, Tim showed me how to employ the forward stroke and the forward-sweep stroke, maneuvers I could actually perform. He pointed out features of the river and how to use them to best effect. Then, before we guided our boats into the moving water, he said, “The river is going to take us downstream whether we like it or not.

Learn to let the river do the hard work for you. Your job is more directional control: pointing and correcting. Correct, but don’t overcorrect. The better you get, the less you’ll paddle.” I paddled a lot. But as I followed Tim through the first set of rapids, I felt fantastic — awkward, clumsy and stiff, but fantastic. I feathered the paddle left, then right, guiding the nine-foot plastic boat through the riffles, wincing and smiling simultaneously. We made it to an eddy, and Tim reminded me to relax. It was my turn to lead, so I shoved off and, as instructed, tried to maintain good posture, keep my hips loose and rotate my torso instead of wearing out my arms.

I mostly managed this, I suppose, since I arrived upright on the downriver side of the rapid. Seattle Raft and Kayak’s “whitewater taster” class included one more rapid, a long, nameless beauty that, once I was safely through it, I dubbed “Not So Bad Rapid.” Then, as I was making my way to the take-out spot, basking in the glory of having battled the whitewater to at least a draw, the back of my kayak suddenly zipped downriver, causing me to lose my balance and turn over. One-one-thousand, two-one-million, three-one-zillion.

I wrestled my way to the surface, grabbed the boat and, on Tim’s instruction, began to push the water-filled craft to shore. I had, to my chagrin, just experienced my first true wet exit. Tim provided the hot chocolate, as well as solace, at the van. I was embarrassed to have turned over, especially after having run the rapids without mishap. I’d been caught in an eddy line, Tim said, with one part of my boat sitting on almost-still water and the rest getting pulled by the current. It happens, he said. With luck, it will happen to me many more times.

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