It seemed easy enough. I’d guided rafts through the Big Eddy stretch hundreds of times, I thought, as I sat in my little yellow kayak above the rapids. And I’d kayaked plenty of class IIIs and IVs.
But none of them were so thoroughly lined with lava rocks as sharp as these.
All summer long, I’d played the “should I or shouldn’t I?” game with this stretch—the rocks in the river here, just above Lava Island, are young, geologically speaking, and razor sharp.
But as the raft of a friend who would run safety for me rounded a bend, I knew my summer’s worth of contemplating was over.
“One last run?” Owen called to me from his raft filled with guests.
As they dropped into the first rapid and out of sight, I paddled out into the current. No turning back now, I thought.
It’s not that Big Eddy is a particularly hard stretch, but ask a guide and they’ll share a story of witnessing any number of people’s mistakes. “Carnage,” they’ll call it.
It’s plenty safe in a raft with a guide who knows the line. But in a small kayak there’s less room for error and more chance of finding oneself head down in a river chock full of those rocks.
I punched through the first rapid cleanly, took a breath and set my sights on “The Notch,” the stretch’s trickiest rapid. There the river bends hard to the left because of a lava rock wall on the right. On the left side, the river pours over a ledge, creating an aisle of turbulent whitewater in the middle. It’s a stretch that can suddenly push or pull a small boat.
I knew the line I wanted, I knew if I kept paddling I’d keep my balance just fine. I took a breath and went for it.
Still focused, I charged through to the next hit, “Souse Hole.”
Thrilled to have come through the stretch’s more difficult features cleanly, I paddled by Owen who’d pulled his raft into an eddy. I smiled and headed for the lesser class IIIs that complete the run.
But, you should never underestimate a river.
I paddled toward “The Three Stooges,” three standing waves shortly before a sharp river bend. Then it happened. I bounced over the first wave, punched through the second but the third caught me off guard and flipped my boat.
There are moments in kayaking when time slows down. You focus your attention. The moment you find yourself upside down in whitewater, the sound of rushing water muffles everything. It’s almost peaceful. You assess. You react.
I knew the rock was coming. I’d seen a private party’s flipped raft get hung up on it earlier in the summer. Eyes open, I set up to roll as fast as I could. I flicked my paddle too fast, though. Just as I teed up for another attempt to right myself, the blue-green water was replaced by black.
My head jolted to the side as it smacked the lava rock. It felt like I’d been hit by a brick. The side of my face went numb; the sound of contact echoed in my head.
Instinctively, I pulled the skirt on my kayak and popped out with my feet down river in the safety position. As I surfaced, the sound of rushing water again flooded my ears. I could see the end of the class IIIs between waves, but knew I was still in for a rough swim.
I reached for my forehead and drew back a bloodied hand. The lava rock I’d hit had punctured the skin just under my helmet.
As I floated toward the last hit on “Old Stogie,” my backside bumped a few more rocks. I took quick breaths between splashes. One more big splash and I’d be through it, I thought.
Soon after, Owen caught up. With help, I pulled myself into the raft.
I looked at Owen.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
Handing me a gauze pad, he hesitated.
“It’s not that bad,” he said.
Sometimes when your brain says, “Yeah, you could, but there’s lava rocks,” it’s a good idea to listen.
At urgent care later that day an attendant plucked bits of rock from my forehead. The doctor, a fellow kayaker, shared stories of other paddlers who’d faired worse than I. I felt lucky by comparison. It took me six stitches, a swollen face and a black eye, but lesson learned. I think…