The Path of the Stick

It’s not that I hadn’t noticed rivers before. You can’t miss them in jungly Tena, where they jostle to join the Amazon. There’s the Napo, the Tena, the Misuahalli, the Pastaza…From the bus window, I could even tell them apart, though not by name. This one was brown, that one was wider, another was rocky. But my glances were idle. If I didn’t need to ford them with a backpack or fill a water bottle for silty tea, rivers were just icing on the Ecuadorian cake.

But I eyed the river differently from a small red kayak perched against a rock at the top of a rapid. This river could hold me or flip me, send me shooting over rocks or scuttle me against them. I didn’t yet have the skills to persuade it my way, though Matt, the patient instructor, was trying hard.
   ´Bomber!´ he would say as I finished a weak Eskimo roll or a nervous turn. He was being kind. I still couldn’t put the spray skirt on by myself, let alone negotiate the Tena river without whimpering and capsizing.

Matt had stopped us on a little rock island to scout our first rapid. The men discussed possible routes while I picked at my lurid blackfly bites. Little about whitewater kayaking was intuitive to me. You head for the whitest, choppiest stretches of current for safety, you lean towards, not away from the rock that might tip you over. Underwater, you plunge your head down further to rescue yourself with a roll, instead of reaching up for air. I nodded as Matt pointed out various features and routes (by throwing stones at them as accurately as Huckleberry Finn), but it all still looked like plain water to me. He was a good teacher, and helped us to stumble towards our own routes instead of telling us where to go. This frightened me. I wanted to sit in and just follow him down the rapid, but instead he made us analyze our own choices over and over. He showed us the flow of the main current by tossing in a stick. We watched, petrified, as it bounced over rocks.

    ’That’s what happens if you’re a stick. But you’re not sticks, right? You know how to control this thing, how to edge your boat around that rock over there on the right instead of heading directly into it. And when you hit the little hydraulic below the ledge, you’re going to paddle hard through it instead of getting stuck in it and sucked down, right?´

Right, Matt.

Matt had lived in Ecuador for six years, though really he lived on the rivers of the world. He spoke sweet Missouri Spanish, and softened macho whitewater language with a good ol’ boy accent.
    ´That’s a bomber turn!´ he would say when one of us accidentally did something right, and the word was stretched into ´Ballmer’ so that it took us a day or two to work it out. ´Are y’all dialled into that ketchin´ the eddy thing?´

In a boat, his moves were economical and beautiful: a Missouri merman who could run a whole river with a few well-placed strokes. It seemed to us that he even spoke more fluently when he was on the water.

Matt’s great passion was river conservation, and he told us about the organization he had set up to protect Ecuadorian watersheds. He told horror stories of oil pipelines which leaked every year and had no pressure monitors, and which could only be turned off at the well. One had opened up right into the Quito water supply last year and poisoned a sixth of it, and it was going to happen again and again. He organized river festivals, taught the locals how to kayak, was trying to get a system going where local elementary school kids monitored the water supply as part of their science program. He worked with the town bigwigs to lobby the oil companies and the government to protect their rivers and present them as a tourist attraction. He ticked off rivers between the sierra and the Amazon like a California commuter discussing favorite routes. I wanted to call his mother and tell her what a good job she’d done.

On the rapid, our careful planning was forgotten with the first whoosh sucking us downriver. We hollered as the landmarks we’d picked out disappeared in a blur of water. Halfway down there was a large rock we’d debated for some time: left or right channel? I went straight over it, leaving the water entirely and then bouncing back in with an almighty whop. Aussie Chris, waiting at the bottom, cheered and wished he’d had a camera for my action shot. Matt was less impressed.
    ´Dervala, you took the path of the stick. Next time I want to see you use the paddle once in a while instead of sitting there like you’re in an armchair and letting the river push you around.’
English Chris hit the same rock I did and turned over. He was sucked down the current at speed and was pale and bruised when he fished himself out at the bottom.

Some people are galvanized by fear. I become floppy and passive, which is good on a bumpy airline flight but not helpful on a stretch of whitewater, where I bob like a profane wine cork.
    ‘Paddle! Paddle!’ Matt would yell, as I shot towards the rocks on one rapid after another, knuckles as white as the waves on the paddle that I wasn’t using. ‘Lean into the obstacles!’

I learned eventually to be my own cox, shouting at myself like a wayward dog. ‘Paddle, you silly cow. Lean into that rock. And the other one. Swerve. Here comes a wave—paddle paddle PADDLE! Oh shit! Sweep stroke on the left NOW!’

It worked—I unfroze—and with the noise of the roaring water I didn’t need to feel embarrassed. ‘Good girl. Good girl. Beer tonight. Caipirihna too.’ I would murmur in a quiet eddy.

English Chris took to calling me The Dagger. It was the name printed on my little boat, and I did it justice. I was the only one who couldn’t paddle in a straight line in flat water, and every few minutes I’d spin and skewer his boat sideways on. I tried to pass these off as pre-emptive T-rescues, but he was having none of it.

   ‘God, it’s the bloody Dagger again,’ he would sigh, as I half-heartedly wrestled with a boat going backwards before smacking into his kayak for the tenth time that day. Obscurely, I felt I was allotted a set number of collisions every day, and it was better to use them up on friendly surfaces, at least while patience lasted. It was comforting to collide with a boat containing a human who might save me instead of yet another rock. Maybe this is why I didn’t bother to master the sweep strokes that would straighten me out. The thunk of fiberglass provided human reassurance on a river far bigger than me.

    ‘Perhaps,’ Chris suggested with only a touch of English acid, ‘you might try paddling on both sides. You’ll find it helps you go straighter.’
    ‘Don’t look at the rock,´ added Matt, ´’If it’s the only thing in a mile-wide river, you’ll still hit it if you stare at it, I guarantee it. You’ve got to focus on the path you want to follow, not the obstacles.’

Eventually I flipped over in a rapid. The risk-takers in our little group had been swimming through rapids for days. Aussie Chris was cheerful and gung-ho, and his smooth arms were strong enough to muscle through even when his strokes were wrong. He usually went first, and would bob up from a spill, spitting water and grinning, while I looked on from the top of the rapid and prayed the river wouldn’t take me. My caution compensates for incompetence, and it was the last day of the course when I finally overturned. I knew I was going to hit the rock and yelped out curses. The little kayak leaned at a horrible angle, and then my head was underwater.

I was calm but stupid. I forgot everything, forgot how to tuck forward to protect my body and prepare for a roll that would right me, despite a whole day in a swimming pool where we’d done nothing else. A rock smacked me in the face. I craned around uselessly and got my nose out of the water, but my noseplugs were still on. I did it again and still got no air. I sank back down and breathed out a little, still racing on with the current. I felt very sorry for myself.

I can hold my breath for a long time. I hoped Matt might rescue me, though we were in a rapid and I didn’t know where he was. I felt a thump on my boat and thought it was more rocks. I still didn’t tuck forward, or raise my hands out of the water to be grabbed by a helper, and I let the rest of my air go in slow bubbles. I was waiting for my prince on a fiberglass charger and getting desperate. Eventually, I did what I should have done 20 long seconds earlier—yanked on the spray skirt and slid out of the boat, gasping and close to tears. I clung to the front of a waiting boat and bounced down the river, banging my legs on the rocks.

    ‘Are you okay? Can you put your feet down? It’s not deep here. You’re going to get really smacked up if you float.’ I staggered towards a rock to rest on. I was trying not to cry.

    ‘What happened? Was the flap of your spray skirt tucked under?’ Matt asked anxiously. Suddenly, I felt like an idiot. I couldn’t tell him that I had been dangling upside down waiting to be rescued, that I had wanted someone to right me up, kiss my boo-boos, empty my boat, and put my spray skirt back on for me, that I was angry that they had all abandoned me in a rapid. But it had taken me two seconds to finally get out of the boat, and everyone else had been rescuing themselves for days. I felt pathetic.

Chris had charged through a rapid to recover my paddle, on Matt’s orders. He had manoeuvred through the rest of the fast water with two heavy paddles and was waiting for us in a quiet spot downriver. Matt gave me his own paddle and hand-cranked through the same rapid. I felt meek.

    ‘Paddle your own canoe,’ my friend Candy had said to me before I left on this trip, and I finally understood the literal meaning of the instruction. I’m good at looking helpless in bus stations so that someone else will heave my pack onto the roof of the bus. I’ve made companions protect me from scary dogs and country bulls. I’ve had friends find me jobs, look after my mail, and clean up my messes. Even on the kayak course, I was shameless about letting the others carry my boat down to the water, though the first rule of the sport is carry your own stuff.

But kayaking finds you out. It’s just the boat and the river and the rocks, and none yields to princess techniques. The river punishes the half-hearted and cushions the brave, and it demands commitment to the moment like a Zen master with a stick. It changes every minute, and yesterday’s languid, clear flow is today’s swollen, silty torrent. ‘Anticipate! Then commit!’

Whitewater kayaking changed my way of seeing, like diving did before. On the long drive from back from Tena to Cuenca, I leaned carefully into the bends and edged the passenger seat towards fallen rocks on the road. For breaks we stopped the car to parse strange rivers with our new kayak grammar, which was soon to bore Chris´s wife rigid, though she was too nice to say.
    ‘Lovely bit of fast water there. You’d have to watch out for that hydraulic, but there’s a nice eddy behind the triangle rock if you could catch it coming off that ledge. Might flip you if you missed it, though.’

After the course, at night, I dreamed of kayaking through a cocktail shaker of caipirihnas, swerving around crushed ice. And during the day, I thought big, corny thoughts about courage, self-reliance, and the River of Life, while my mental editor sneered at the tired metaphors.