There is a certain amount of self discovery that goes hand in hand with trying new things. Prior to setting out on our current journey we never really considered ourselves particularly adventurous. Now we know that most of our favorite activities, from ziplining in Massachusetts, to mountain biking down Pike’s Peak 14,000 foot summit, to spelunking in Kentucky (and Belize, New Mexico, . . .), all require some form of head protection.
Why should whitewater kayaking be any different?
The irony is that we weren’t particularly jazzed to even try it. We’ve kayaked calm lakes and rivers dozens of times and are pretty lukewarm on it as a standalone activity. Paddling a kayak for the sake of paddling doesn’t do that much for us. When we do go, it is almost always as a means to explore awesome scenery, like in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.
We also didn’t expect much from the whitewater. We’d traversed some of the biggest whitewater in the country, albeit on a large raft. And as great as that Grand Canyon trip was, we both felt like the rapids were the least interesting part of the excursion.
Neither of us really felt compelled to go out of our way to combine these to elements, kayaking and whitewater, into one activity. We’d mostly done it already. Or so we thought.
Then we drove into Durango, CO; a lovely old mining village named for a Basque word meaning “water town.” The moniker couldn’t be more appropriate. The fast flowing Animas River that cleaved a valley into the surrounding San Juan Mountains also cuts the town in two.
Although we could see the river from almost everywhere in Durango, we got our best view on the Animas Trail. For seven miles the bike path follows and crisscrosses the river on its way into town. From the trail’s many bridges and pull offs we took the river’s measure and contemplated its many rapids, including a large Class III right near the city’s center.
If we wanted to try whitewater kayaking, we certainly wouldn’t need to go out of our way here. Paddling the Lower Animas from Durango couldn’t be more convenient. She practically begged us to give her a try. How could we refuse such a lovely lady?
On the advice of a friend in the area, we called 4 Corners River Sports and they hooked us up with inflatable kayaks, PFDs, wet suits, and Jeff, our own personal guide.
We put in to the Animas at a spot that was nice and calm. That gave us both a chance to get accustomed to the kayaks and me an opportunity to grill our guide.
One of the great joys in trying out these activities is meeting the folks who do them for a living. Jeff told us he kayaks every single day in the summer. When the winter comes, he shifts gears to lead back country skiing expeditions in places without chairlifts or lodges or even trails. His kind of skiing requires jumping out of a helicopter. Truly hardcore.
As impressive as that sounds, it’s not unusual. Tourist areas from Durango to Nepal team with similar people living similarly exotic lives. On our travels we’ve met professional skydivers, paragliders, scuba divers, even PHD’s now working as fly fishing guides.
I always find their stories inspiring. These are people who spend their days doing what they absolutely love. They’re a reminder to me of all the different options we have in life and what is possible if we simply have the courage to follow our hearts. They’re living demonstrations that not all paths lead to Dilbert’s cubicle.
My conversation with Jeff didn’t last long, though, as our first rapid interrupted the chit-chat. It was a small one that we managed easily enough but it became immediately apparent that this would be quite different from our previous whitewater rafting experience. The kayak is a much smaller boat and rides far lower on the river. You really feel the water’s power and movement in a way you don’t in a larger raft.
But more than anything was the feeling of control. I was alone in the kayak and was responsible for the outcome. It was me versus the elements. I had no experienced crew manning my craft. I alone determined whether to take the rapids “big” or try to skirt around them. It was exhilarating.
Well, I mostly determined such things. Often times the river and the kayak had minds of their own. Several times I found myself cruising directly into rocks rather than around them. On one such occasion the pounding water tried to drive a side of my kayak up a boulder threatening to dump me in to the dangerously churning river.
Remembering Jeff’s counter-intuitive instructions I tried to lean toward the rocks that conspired to capsize me. The water had other ideas, though. As I threw my weight against the high-side of the kayak, the current turned me completely around. The boulder threatening to tip my kayak was suddenly on my other side. Instead of using my weight against a capsize I found myself leaning into one.
With only fractions of seconds to spare, I mustered all my strength to fight inertia and change directions. I threw my weight back toward the rocks and felt my near-vertical kayak slide down the boulder. Now fully in the water, the current spun me around again, but this time toward freedom.
That was the most harrowing moment of the trip, but not our biggest rapid. The Class III toward the end of our run was big and long, like several rapids strung back to back. It was fast and fun and a totally wild ride.
We started this excursion unsure if we even wanted to spend our day on the river. We ended it thinking about getting some kayaks of our own.
We figure we could easily add years to our travels by seeking out the world’s great whitewater runs. Maybe trade in the RV for a smaller “hippy van” with a couple of kayaks on top. It’s an idea that definitely has potential. And one that all started because we tried something we didn’t originally expect to enjoy.