Friday, August 12, 2005

Things Were Not Peaceful at the Monastery

My stomach nestled firmly high up in my throat near where my tonsils would have been had I not had them taken out as a kid. My testicles crawled up inside my body and had my bladder been full it would have emptied. I was floating in my small yellow kayak about fifty feet upstream of Monastery Falls where a boy had drowned fishing not five days before and I was terrified. The water bunched up from the normally wide expanse of the river and pounded its way through the two large granite rocks at the head of the falls not five feet apart. The river was up and the hole at the base of the upper seven-foot drop was a monster. It was one of those that would swallow me whole and spit me out a couple hours later like a stale burp.

Random blobs of foam flew up from beyond the brink as the roar of the rapids approached. My instructor was standing near the top of the upper drop eyeing my approach and form that right now was desperately feeling like it belonged on a nice couch back in Iowa instead of wedged into a whitewater kayak above the biggest falls on the Red River. The other classmates were scattered all along the right side of the falls all perched at a point where they thought they could see me bite the big one as best as possible. The current sucked harder at my boat pulling me towards the throat of the angry beast and I knew there was no backing out now. There would be no room to paddle until below the first drop because the rocks on either side were too close together. The instructor had informed me that I should paddle like hell to gain enough momentum to make it through the huge sucking hole at the bottom and to be sure and turn the paddle so it wouldn't behead me if it got caught on the rocks. My legs started turning into jelly as I paddled like hell toward what was certain death and drowning number two within a week but damn if I was going without a fight. I gave two final pulls on the paddle, folded it along side the boat and closed my eyes as the water fell away from the boat and it yawed down directly towards the gaping jaws of the monster hole.

The water slammed my chest as I brought my paddle back out and desperately went through the motions trying to find some solid water somewhere in the aerated foam that engulfed me. I couldn't tell if I was going forward or being pulled back but I felt the blade of my paddle sink into some dense water somewhere beneath the foam and I pulled with all my might launching my boat forward and into the bright sunlight on the far side of the standing wave beneath the hole. However, I was slightly askew and my boat surfed right down the backside of the wave and into the shore right at the base of one of my fellow students feet. The nose of the boat slid along the face of the granite boulder with a loud scraping noise before wedging firmly into a crack and stopping me so hard that the momentum of my upper torso kept going slamming my thankfully helmet head against the deck of the kayak. Dazed but still clutching my paddle, I tried for an upper brace as my boat slowly rolled over but it was weak and the boat kept going. Just as my head was about to disappear under the foamy water, the paddle blade hit bottom and pushing up I was able to right the boat.

The boat was upright and I fought to regain my composure as my kayak now hurdles over a couple intermediate drops towards the lower larger drop of ten feet, backwards. This was back when white water kayaking was in its infancy and the short stubby models of today weren't even a thought. The channel was to narrow for me to be able to turn my boat around in time to meet the lower falls head on and so I straightened it up slightly as I went over the lip, backwards. I hit the much shallower and less dangerous hole at the bottom of the lower drop and was immediately flushed downstream. My kayak sickenly tried to roll as the various eddies piled water on the deck but the adrenaline was kicking in and several almost savage braces kept it upright until I finally eddied out in the large eddy along the shore of the manicured lawns of the monastery for which the falls is named after.

My stomach and testicles both assumed their rightful positions within my body and the pounding adrenalin gave way to shaking in my hands and arms as I realized that I had made it through the falls and more importantly, lived to tell about it. I floated there for a couple minutes soaking in the peaceful surrounding below such a violent section of the river and listen to the sounds of my cheering classmates. I regained my composure and with a few strokes, punched out of the eddy right below the lower hole at the base of the falls doing a peel out while surfing the wave to the other side of the river where they were all waiting. The classmate whom legs the bow of my boat almost pinched beneath the upper falls joking told me how large my eyes were as my boat turned backwards and almost upside down. I hid the quivering in my arms, legs and voice and as bravely as I could said, "Oh that's nothing, you should have seen the size of your eyes!"

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