Two years ago, I showed up at Paradise Campground on the McKenzie River for my first private whitewater kayaking lesson. Coincidently, it also was my first blind date—with the instructor.
A few days earlier, I had been bellyaching to my coworkers how badly I wanted to learn to paddle on the McKenzie; as luck would have it, one of them knew a fantastic paddler in Bend who had taught lessons in the past. And as double luck would have it, he was single and my matchmaker coworker turned my first kayaking lesson into a first date. Talk about pressure!
It was the type of Oregon summer day that breeds romance—sunny, warm, a slight breeze in the air. I had arrived 10 minutes late, and realized, after seeing no vehicles with kayaks loaded on them, that my instructor also was tardy. I sat on a picnic table in the shade of some alders on the banks of the river and began watching the fast current.
Ten minutes passed. Then 15.
While some people may be disheartened by the possibility of a no-show, I began praying he wouldn't show up. "I could go hiking instead," I thought to myself as I came to terms with the river's muscular energy and pictured myself being tossed like a ragdoll at its whim. I had never fully thought about rivers like this before. I continued daydreaming about escaping to a hike instead. "It'd be so nice and calm," I bemused, the sound of the river tugging at my thoughts.
But, soon enough, a man in a baseball hat and sunglasses approached me. His arms were folded, and sidestepping like a crab, he approached me hesitantly and said, "Kristine?"
He was classically handsome—clean-shaven, short hair, an excellent build. Most importantly, he had an unexplainable demeanor that made me instantly trust him. My heart skipped a very real beat and before I knew it, I was on my feet, walking over to hug the man who would soon be saving my life.
After a quick shuttle to the put-in and an enlightening experience of being squeezed into snug equipment, we shoved off from shore. Things started out smoothly enough. The current was pulling us quickly downstream, and while I wasn't sure how to maneuver the creek boat, it seemed like I was getting the hang of it.
My instructor explained, "Try to stay with the main current. Avoid the white riffles—that's where rocks are."
"Um," I responded, "I have no idea what I need to do."
The words were hardly out of my mouth when my kayak's bow hit a rock and spun me sideways. The upstream edge caught the current and, in a blink, the kayak flipped. Instantly, my whole body was pressed tight against the bottom of the river—an awkward position that prevented me from reaching the grab loop on my spray skirt (not to mention I was not making the most elegant first impression on my dreamboat instructor). I was stuck in the frigid water, pushing myself off the rocks for a second or two just to suck in some air like a desperate fish, before spinning back under the surface. I was on the verge of blacking out.
As he has retold the story (many times!), he paddled upstream in a flash, worried that the date would be over as soon as I could get out of the boat. When he reached me, he placed the bow of his boat next to me, sternly told me to take hold of the end of his paddle, and then pulled my hands to his bow and told me to grab on to his boat. He let me catch my breath for a second as we continued to drift downstream, and then tried to teach me how to bow rescue, a type of roll in which I could use the bow of his boat as leverage to roll upright.
Instead, though, I realized I could finally reach my grab loop, and I popped out of my kayak and clung to my instructor's boat as we bumped through a series of rapids. It seemed like miles before we reached an eddy and I finally was able to swim to shore.
Embarrassed? Hardly! Adrenaline. Yes. Oh yes, now I knew why people were into this sport.
My instructor (my savior!) retrieved my kayak and paddle, and before he could try to talk me out of it, I tenaciously jumped back into the boat.
Four miles later, I had a few basics mastered and was activating muscle groups I never knew existed. Yet, with any glimmer of white on the water, my instructor would paddle toward me and ask if I needed help.
Half of the time, I did, and in those moments where he helped guide my boat through rapids and around log jams, the whole fiasco cemented in my heart as an amazing, albeit death-defying, date. By the time we reached the take-out nine miles from my bumbling start, I had a newfound respect for whitewater kayakers—and an endorphin-drenched admiration for my instructor.
Although they apparently make great first dates, crash courses in paddling are not generally the safest or most enjoyable way to learn whitewater kayaking. A more common first step is to take a few introductory lessons with an American Canoe Association (ACA) certified instructor. This can be followed with group trips organized by a local outfitter.
Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe is a full- service canoe and kayak instruction and rental center, right for beginners as well as teaching more advanced skills. 805 SW Industrial Way, (541) 317-9407.
Moonlight Canoe Tours are a magical way to experience the Cascades. Stars above and frogs croaking in the shadows pretty much guaranteed. June 20-23. Contact Wanderlust Tours at (541) 389-8359. Including transportation to a remote lake, $65/person. SW