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Shenandoah proves more than enough for rookie kayaker

June 25, 1998

Tim Rowland

Two things stick in my mind from a white water rafting trip I took a couple of years ago in Costa Rica.

First is the guide, some maniac from Holland who obviously wanted our blood. Second is the kayakers who flanked our boat - presumably with the chore of fishing our corpses from the river should this Dutch nutcase succeed.

They actually had to rescue us once with ropes when old Hans Brinker got our raft hopelessly locked in a bionic, canyon-lined whirlpool that sent our boat spinning in unbelievable, cartoon-speed circles.

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The kayakers had such effortless, dolphin-like grace compared to our cumbersome, overcrowded, glorified air mattresses, that I decided that was the way to travel on water.

So this spring I've been trying to learn, with the help of River and Trail Outfitters, an organization which, in dealing with me, has set records for patience and skill.

Radio broadcasters Don and Mike say for greater interest NASCAR should let a deer loose on the track every 50 miles.

On the river, I am that deer. I'm always sideways or upside down, or sideways and upside down, forcing competent boaters to dodge me as well as the rocks.

This Sunday I was partnered with a woman from Boonsboro named Dawn, and for both of us it was our first time down the Shenandoah.

Dawn's three young boys are vacationing out West and she said this break offered her the opportunity to go down a wild, untamed river on a sliver of fiberglass.

I think very differently from Dawn. Given a similar spot I think I would have said "Oh boy, the kids are gone, I think I'll read a book and - what the heck, you only live once - have a dish of ice cream at the same time." But Dawn is more daring than I.

The first real piece of white water on the trip was called Bull Falls. They got their name because the first person who was ordered to go over them in a tiny boat probably said: "Bull."

Mike Dudash, our wonderful guide, hauled us up on the rocks to study the river before we took the plunge. He pointed to each "chute" and calmly graded it on survivability. "That one's fine, that one's fine, that one will kill you, that one's fine..."

Thanks to Mike's education, we triumphed over this white foaming cauldron of death and enjoyed it so much we went back a second time.

But this conquest may have come with a price, since it built up a false sense of security that came back to haunt me later on, in a rapid called the "Staircase." On this kayaking trip, the sun was so warm, the forests so green, the sky so blue, the clouds so fluffy and the water so refreshing I was sort of lost in my own thoughts, which is never a good thing.

I came out of my daydream in time to see a boulder rushing at me at roughly 328 miles an hour. I had exactly enough time to think to myself "That ain't good" before I was knocked out of my boat and into the froth. Rebecca, a kayaker I'd met on a previous trip, had had the same difficulty and was standing atop the rock I hit.

As I went down, I heard her sing "you just did that to make me feel better."

My scorching reply is still trapped somewhere underwater, so if you're boating down the Staircase this summer and some strong profanity comes bubbling up to the surface, don't be alarmed.

But that was the only time I flipped, and I don't believe Dawn flipped at all.

I was so proud of myself, but the Almighty has a way of disrewarding haughtiness.

Happily drained after a long day in the sun, I went to my hammock-owning friend Kate's house. I sat in the hammock, lifted my legs, and as heaven is my witness, immediately flipped 180 degrees and landed square on my head. I was far safer on the water.

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