Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Adventures in Physics

I'm feeling nostalgic tonight.  Maybe it's because Rachel and I walked at Tolt-MacDonald Park, where Mike and I got married almost twenty years ago.  The river there, the Snoqualmie, was swollen and moving swiftly.  I knew it didn't look like much.  Its usual riffles were ironed out, but that leaves it even more dangerous than usual.  I like reading the river, the eddies, the place in the river where the swiftest water flows.  The Snoqualmie still feels like our home river, though we haven't paddled it since Nick was born.  He's almost old enough for rafting now, but he's a few years away from being strong enough to guide a canoe through anything close to this.  The Snoqualmie river is routinely underestimated by people looking for ways to cool down in middle of the summer.  Every year, we hear of a death, usually a guy floating in an inner tube with no life jacket and a six-pack on a rope.  Yet there are instances when it takes even experienced paddlers by surprise.

Mike and I were river rats before Nick was born.  We'd canoed the Snoqualmie, the Snohomish, the Stillaguamish in Washington, the John Day and Deschutes in Oregon, the Delaware and the Wading rivers in New Jersey.  Yes, we have paddled in New Jersey and neither of us has grown an extra lung.  A miracle, really.  In rafts, we'd run the Wenatchee, the Suiattle, the Methow near home, the New River and the Taggert in West Virginia, and the Hudson river in New York.  We honeymooned, trekking along the Alagash in Maine.  We trekked in the Boundary Waters, in the Adirondacks, and in the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. 

One sunny afternoon, we'd gotten a late start and decided to paddle something easy.  It's funny how a memory can stay with you in all its clarity when things get out of control.  I'd told Mike that I didn't want to paddle anything difficult because my back was bothering me.  I have a very old break and after a surgery, I learned to listen to those aches and shooting pains. 

Mike accommodated me as usual.  He did all the work of getting our heavy Old Town canoe onto the truck, though I helped him tie it down with the knots he taught me, a succession of half-hitches if my memory serves me right.  He's already asleep now, so I can't ask him the name.  It's funny that I could tie the knot, but not remember the name of it. 

We left a bike at the bottom of the run, locked to a tree by the river in town, and drove upstream to our put-in, just below the rapids where the kayakers played.  We didn't even need class threes in our canoe to have a good time.  Class two rapids and riffles were enough for us, especially with Indiana in the boat.  She was one of those dogs who liked to sit, like a lab, on one side of her hip, usually putting the boat into a permanent uncomfortable tilt.  So we went downstream like that.  The river wasn't high, but it wasn't bony either.  Occasionally, I'd have to do a quick draw stroke or a cross-draw to pull the front end of the boat away from a submerged stone, but Mike did most of the work.  He was so attentive, he steered us away from rocks I didn't even notice. 

About a half a mile down the river, too late to turn back, a new section of standing waves appeared.  We could see on the left bank where a mudslide had occurred since our last float, changing the floor of the river.  We were suddenly much busier than we'd planned to be that day.  The water washed up over the bow of the canoe a few times.  The waves were bigger than we usually chose, but we'd managed worse on Ross lake one afternoon when the wind picked up.  Besides, I didn't mind getting wet.  That was the point, but I wasn't on my game that afternoon. 

It was when Indiana shifted from one side of the canoe to the other side, that I made my big mistake.  I forgot to brace using my paddle, and the next thing you know, we were flipped ass over tea kettle, the swiftest part the water carrying us along like children on kiddie ride.  Mike and I ended up on opposite sides of the canoe, each of us with our paddles in our hands and life jackets securely zipped.  I had hold of the canoe while Mike was out of reach and was then pulled further away by an eddy current.  Regular currents are tricky beasts.  Eddy lines are worse.  They mark the division between downstream flow and a current that folds back upstream.  There is often a strong undertow going through an eddy line.  It's where the whirlpools form. 

We floated past a woman lounging on her deck.  She jumped up to her railing to look at us.

"Do you need any help?" she asked.

"No thank you," Mike and I chimed almost in unison.  It was embarrassing to have made that move with an audience, but I hoped she'd watch long enough to see us on the shore.

To her credit, this woman watched us as we maneuvered.  Indiana made for the left bank, someones grassy yard.  Even she had her life jacket on, not being a great swimmer.  Mike opted to go with her, not wanting to get back out into that eddy line.  I headed for the right bank, canoe in tow.

Now, I'd gotten a jolt of adrenaline when I hit the water.  It was summertime, but the water was still cold, seeing that it had been snow not all that many hours ago.  About late July, I usually opted out of the wet suit, but I'm not sure what I was wearing that day.  Either way, I remember the shock of the cold water and the surprise that I was down in it.  This was supposed to have been a languid afternoon of paddling. 

That adrenaline and the very best life jacket money could buy helped me to swim with that canoe full of water to the opposite shore.  Well crap.  I caught my footing on the rocks and picked that thing up and dragged it across the rocks.  Where had all that strength come from?  Adrenaline.  The pure white charge of adrenaline. 

Then, I realized my second mistake.  I was up the creek without a husband.  I had my paddle.  I had the canoe, but the rest of them were on the other side.  I'd made that decision based on the current.  I hadn't even consulted with the more experienced paddler. 

Then, I got my first true lesson in ferrying a canoe.  I had never understood the concept.  Oh, Mike had described it.  Our friend Harry had described it.  Probably even the crabby guy who ran the Explorer Post in New Jersey had described it to me.  I just never got it before.

"What do I do now?" I yelled across the river to Mike and Indiana.  She was whining for me to come over.  She knew that this wasn't right.  I was supposed to be with her and the canoe was her ride.
"Ferry the canoe over," Mike yelled.

"How?" I asked.  By now, the nice woman on the deck had gone back to reading her book, since we were on shore, not drowning.  At least I didn't have an audience.  I don't learn well under scrutiny. 

"Just paddle upstream with the nose pointed toward the bank you want to go to.  Let the river do the work," he yelled.  So I got into the canoe and started to cross the river.  My j-stroke was weak since Mike had always done the paddling from the stern.  The nose of the canoe was airborne and I wished I'd thrown a couple of river rocks in for ballast.  Too late now. 
"Now point the nose upstream," Mike yelled.  I pointed the nose upstream, a little toward the left and promptly ended up where I'd started, just a little further down, our canoe firmly planted on the left bank. 

"Nose it the other direction so the current will push you!"

I had no idea how the current would do that.  I finally got the canoe in the water and by paddling really hard upstream, stayed nearly stationary.  Then, I nosed the canoe to the right.  I moved to the right.  I goofed and pointed to the left a little and swiftly, the canoe moved left.  I could feel the current pushing on one side or the other.  Oh!
It was like in physics class, when they split the vectors of force into horizontal and vertical motion.  There was an element of current trying to push me straight downstream, but there was a little bit moving me toward one shore or the other. 

"It's like sailing!" Mike yelled.  I had never gone sailing. 

By now, I was furiously paddling in the swift current, like a kid trying to run up the down escalator.  But I moved across the width of the river.  Once I got the hang of it, it was minutes before Mike had grabbed the back of the canoe, surprising me because I was already there.  I did it!

"I can't believe the way you lifted that whole canoe full of water up onto the shore!" he yelled.  He must have gotten a shot of adrenaline too.  More umph than a triple-espresso. 
"Yeah, did you see that? And I ferried the boat! I get it now!"  I said.  We looked through our stuff and had lost surprising little, a small cooler and a pair of sunglasses.  We figured we might even find some of it further down.

Suddenly I felt amazing.  This wasn't just a quiet afternoon on the river.  This was a down-home wild physics adventure.  'Use the force, Luke.'

Thank you for listening, jb

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