A Path of Least Resistance

The Youghiogheny River is in southwestern Pennsylvania. It’s one of the top whitewater rivers in the tri-state region. It’s considered a class 3–4, which is standard jargon for kick-ass. It has to do with the size of the rapids and volume of water in the channel and level of difficulty of passage; i.e. boulders, trees, waterfalls, etc. The day I floated down the “Yough” pronounced “YOCK”, it was just one cubic foot below the closure stage. That means it was running full and FAST. The guy at the rental office assured me that it was ideal conditions for a beginner, such as myself. It was more “cushy” not as “choppy.” We had only planned to do just the first leg. It was a 1-hour, 4-mile long stretch of the river. Piece of cake, right? The take-out? Railroad Rapids. Despite my fears of moving waters, I wanted to impress, so I took a leap of faith that everything would be alright.
I tried not to feel like a complete idiot as the guides and my partner explained the last minute details to me. I didn’t want to seem nervous, but inside my heart was throbbing, my legs and arms: jelly. In short, I was terrified. I griped a little tighter to the paddle and wiggled myself snugly into the kayak. I looked up at my partner for further instruction. “Ok, now just paddle. No matter what happens, just paddle your heart out!” and then he pushed me into the water. All I could hear behind me was the roar of the water pouring over boulders. I’ve always been more fearful of being ‘found out a novice’ than actually being a novice. Even though I had the faintest idea what I was doing, I acted like I had been kayaking for years. I even scoffed a few times as the guides or my partner tried to parlay vital information on the rapids. Especially in front of the family of four that was behind me at the rental office. I appeared to be in total control and even judged them for their utter lack of ‘expertise.’ I mean, had they been going to the local pool to practice roll sessions for that last month? Had they read up on the latest statistics of the Youghiogheny River, the ecology, the designations of class of rapids???
So, here I was, me and the Youghiogheny River. I began to totally regret agreeing to this trip. I began to look longingly at the family of four sharing the double kayaks. I was all alone in my own kayak. My partner, who’d been kayaking for years, was behind me in his own kayak. All these horrible thoughts passed through my head. Like, me, being tossed for minutes in the “washing machine” of Railroad Rapids and kayakers and guides trying desperately to get me out. Them pulling my limp, dead, water-logged body ashore and my partner, scratching his head, saying something like, “but I don’t understand, she was so athletic…”
So then my rational brain kicked in. “How hard could this be?” I begin to think. “The river will do most of the work; I just have to go with the flow.” Confidence surged through me. I paddled like my life depended upon it. Most likely, it did. You know how in those last seconds just before you are about to do something stupid how everything kind of slows down. Well, I remember the scratching of the boat against the algae-covered rocks, the smell of dead craw-fish, and the sound of the rapids. It’s like I was dreaming. Like it wasn’t really happening. My mouth was metallic, my knuckles were white.
It brought back a vivid memory of when my family went to Hershey Park when I was probably no more than 4 years old. We decided to go down the Log Ride. And they determined that due to height and weight factors, that I, the littlest, and youngest, should sit in the front. It seemed like a brilliant idea at first. But once we reached the top of the first drop I remember vividly, standing up and attempting to jump out of the log as the view in front of me dropped off. There was a woman who worked the ride sitting at the top under an umbrella and she shouted, “NO! Sit back down!” and my brother grabbed me and pushed me back into my seat. And we teetered, tipped and dropped off the edge into the freakin’ unknown! I was terrified. I don’t think I peed my pants, but I wouldn’t have put it past me. I mean, how could you possibly expect a four-year-old to handle that kind of terror all on her own??
And here I was, on the water again, all alone.
The first few rapids passed me by without much notice. I just ‘paddled my heart out’ and everything seemed to work out fine. I wouldn’t say I was enjoying myself in the least, but at least I wasn’t drowning. My entire memory of the 4-mile trip blurs from the beginning to the very end when we arrived at Railroad Rapid.
Upon reaching Railroad Rapid, the last rapid of the trip, I was feeling okay. I was feeling almost confident. There, the river widens and slows before channeling most of its energy into one particular rapid. There was a railroad trestle (hence the name of the rapid) and a small sandy beach on the right. Up above, there was a campground. Some of the campers were sitting in chairs, drinking beers, watching the paddlers line up in the queue, waiting to contend with the final assault in the four-mile journey.
And then I noticed that a couple in a tandem kayak was somehow trapped at the mouth of the rapid. There was only one way through; it wasn’t like you had an open run at this thing. You had to go through the one open rapid, otherwise, you’d be trapped in a ‘washing machine’ or get stuck on debris. They were literally stuck perpendicular to the rapid. Just sitting there.
I held back as much as I could in the eddy but I couldn’t hold myself back much longer. Exhausted and kind of in shock, I just let myself drift towards the rapid. As I approached their boat I made the fatal error of leaning upstream. My boat tipped, I fell into the water and I remember looking up towards the light, which was coming through the opening of my boat. I pressed my hands up and tried to overturn the boat, but it was wedged into the water and a two-person tandem kayak. I was trapped. Panicked, I kicked and probably screamed…to be honest, I don’t remember what I did. The next second, I was pulled under the boat ahead of me, into the washing machine. I came up for a brief second, only to be pulled back under again. I remember how the cool river water felt as it filled up my life vest. I remember how the sounds of the people above the water were muffled. I remember the contrast between the dark rocks and the sun penetrating the water. I remember feeling the bottom of the boat above me as I passed under it into the rocks below. I was forcefully tossed against the rocks at the bottom of the river. I popped up again and there was my partner. I reached out to him, and he yelled, “don’t touch my boat!” and before I could react I was dragged back down. I soon felt the rapid smooth out and I popped up again. There was another boater who appeared and began yelling, “grab onto my boat!” and he pulled me to shore.
I sat on the sandy beach, humiliated yet grateful for being safe. My partner stood a good distance from me, I think, realizing just what an ass he had been. I tried my hardest to hold back the tears. I wanted to be strong and appear as though none of what just happened was a big deal. But the tears came regardless and they flowed as free and as fast as the Youghiogheny. After all, water does follow the path of least resistance.

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