Thursday, April 14, 2011

Springtime in Bloomington: canoeing the Flatrock River

Bloomington is beautiful in the spring!  Flowers – daffodils, bluebells, violets, and tulips are everywhere, cheerfully sprouting out of the ground, growing by the hour.  Trees all around are enveloped in a greenish – and sometimes a white or pink – haze, somewhere in between buds and fully-developed leaves and flowers.  Birds chirp in the air; water gurgles in the forest.  The earth is very much alive – and, with only three weeks before I'm done with my masters' degree, so am I!

This past weekend, I took a university-organized "Outdoor Adventures" canoeing daytrip at Flatrock River, some two hours north-east of Bloomington.  I say "I", because unfortunately we were also told that there was only one spot on the trip, so Katrina – helped by massive amounts of work she'd intended to do that weekend – sacrificed that spot for me.  Outdoor Adventures' description of the trip ran as follows:

Join us for a day exploring the Flatrock River by canoe! Depending on water levels, this could be a relaxing class I river, to an exhilarating class II moving water paddle.  The Flatrock River is one of few low-level whitewater rivers in the state of Indiana. ... We'll meet the morning of the trip, at 8am at the IUOA office to talk about trip details, then we'll drive an hour and a half to paddle 6 miles of Flatrock Fun! We should return to the office by 6pm.

The trip sounded like good spring fun, though I personally had my reservations about the bold "class II" statement. When Matt had visited us last year, we'd looked at nearby river-kayaking possibilities, and had come to a definitive conclusion that Indiana is just a little too flat for real moving water.  We'd still had a good time paddling the Blue River, some two hours south of Bloomington, but we were definitely paddling:  the river was doing little to propel us.  Still, with the beautiful sunny springtime weather now showcasing itself outside my window, combined with the chance to go with a group and the opportunity to see something new, I was pretty excited.

The day before the trip, we had received some heavy rain in the morning, followed by warm sunny skies in the afternoon.  I had gone for a walk with Hazel in the woods by our house, where the influx of water had formed tiny streams along dried creek-beds.  It had been a good walk, and the trickles of water (along with the blue skies and high-70s weather) had made me all the more hopeful about the upcoming trip.  Perhaps now we would have a tiny bit of rapids on the river!

On the day of he trip, I woke up a little before 7 in the morning.  It was still dark outside, which put a slight kink in my plan:  I'd intended to bike to campus, so as to leave the car with Katrina.  By the time I was ready to leave, though, the sky had lightened – indeed, I left the house with the very first rays of sunshine.

It was a pleasant bike ride.  Dew still lingered on the grass, and the trees all along the road were in bloom.  Patches of fog drifted lazily past the base of each "rolling hill" along the road, invigoratingly cold and fresh compared to the otherwise sunshiny road.  Within forty minutes I was on campus, as awake as could be.

It took some time to grab gear and load canoes in the car, and even more time to wait for other participants, half of whom never did show up.  We had with us three trip leaders, including the main organizers, Julie and Taylor, and six participants, myself included.  They were all girls, which was strange, because I would have expected a more gender-balanced group, male-biased if anything.  Two girls were first-year students (roommates), two girls were sisters (a fourth-year and a visiting older sibling), and one lady, Beth, was a member of the Bloomington community, training to become an outdoor leader (though just a participant for today).

By the time we arrived, in two suburbans, at the river, dropped off one of them at the take-out point, ate lunch, and transported the canoes, paddles, lifejackets, helmets, and a random assortment of gear to the riverbank, it was half past noon.  Ironically, we almost left the keys to the take-out car in the glove compartment of put-in car, but while the rest of us nodded complacently, the older sister, in a split-second flash of brilliance, pointed out how remarkably foolish this would be.  Instead, we wrapped the keys in a dry bag, and secured it to one of the canoes – the same canoe, in fact, that the older sister would be paddling in.

After some brief instructions, we were off floating down the river.  The water was quick-moving but flat – perfect for enjoying the views while the river carried us forward.  Most of the banks smoothly transitioned into a forest, but some displayed a colorful array of bluebells, or were composed of very thin sheets of rock, stacked like pancakes (maybe that's why they call if "Flatrock River"?..), or had an occasional mini-waterfall trickling down their side.  Trees grew right out of the base of the water, tall sycamores with great thick trunks, shining white limbs, and little balls of seed, hanging off of delicate white branches like Christmas decorations.  Many of the sycamores also had picturesque cavern-like openings in their trunks, or bumpy tentacle-like roots that extended into the river.  The roots – along with stray logs and branches in the river – harbored a bunch of turtles, several on each branch, that would jump one-by-one into the murky river as we approached.

I am not sure if I'd ever been in a canoe before.  I'd thought I had – but the paddling motion did not feel familiar, so maybe all I've ever been on were kayaks and rafts.  In a canoe, there is only one paddle, and it only has one blade, so, in a two-person canoe, you're constantly paddling on just one side, while your partner paddles on the other.  The person in the back does get a little variety, as he is responsible for steering (though it is the person at the front that can see ahead better – hence necessitating good communication!).  I was the steersman in a canoe with Beth, and we made quite an excellent team.  The other double-canoes housed, respectively, the two roommates, the two sisters, and two of the leaders.  We also had a smaller, single-person canoe, captained (and crewed) by Taylor, the third leader.

The river continued to be mostly flat, though certain sections were punctuated by a series of class 1.5-ish water:  turbulence that was noticeable, but still pretty mild and really fun.  Beth and I maneuvered the canoe beautifully, and even the novice sisters – who, initially, were more piloted by the canoe than successfully in charge of piloting the canoe, had gotten into a rhythm.  It was roughly then, some 45 minutes or an hour into our paddling, that we came across a bridge.

The bridge was for a highway, and was supported by two concrete pillars, which divided the river into three even sections.  It was also right after a bend in the river, and in a series of those lovely rapids.  Now, with all that foreshadowing and careful description, you might think we turned over here.  No, we didn't.  We were the first to go under the bridge, and though the current did pull us with surprising vigor towards one of the pillars, we paddled fast and hard and had a beautifully smooth ride.  But the roommates, canoeing a little behind us and to our side, were swept sideways and promptly turned over on first contact.  The instructor canoe dashed over to aid the roommates, whose boat was floating alongside them in the water, completely covered in water, and spilling paddles, booties, water jugs, and miscellaneous contents into the river.  The sisters, meanwhile, were so caught up in watching the roommates, that they forgot about their own precarious predicament altogether – until their boat turned sideways and hit the pillar square on the side, throwing the two overboard.  Taylor, in her one-man canoe, saw that she was on course to collide with the two floating sisters – and, in an attempt to not mow them down, flipped as well.

All in all, it was an eventful 10 seconds.  Once on the other side of the bridge, and seeing the domino effect of canoe-flipping, Beth and I paddled hard to the bank, snatching up a couple of paddles, a neoprene bootie, and two girls along the way (well, not quite snatching up, but extending a hand; the third made it to the bank a little downriver by swimming).  We were not quick enough to intercept the roommates, but the two actually looked quite content floating in the water, with Julie in the instructor boat chasing after them and the two loose canoes.  Taylor, meanwhile, joined us on the bank, looking slightly dumbstruck:  "You should see that boat", she said, referring to the sisters' canoe.  We walked 100 yards up the river, and came to the bridge.  Sure enough, the boat was there, bent at a near-90 degree around the pillar, water gushing on either side, completely inaccessible.  We waited for a few minutes for Julie, but, realizing that she might well be half a mile down the river by now, we decided to turn back downriver.  Except we had a bit of a problem:  five people, one two-person canoe.

We toyed with the idea of loading all five of us in the boat, but Taylor, the wisest and most experienced of us, sensed that that would end very badly.  Instead, she and the sisters walked downriver along the bank, while Beth and I stuck to our boat.  Within a few minutes, just around a bend, we saw Taylor's canoe, floating peacefully in an eddy.  It must have been floating there, undisturbed, for a good 15 minutes, but just as we approached, the boat took off downstream, and into the largest rapids we'd seen yet.  We gave chase, narrowly avoiding capsizing as we reached out to the boat, only to have a standing wave wash it right out of our fingertips (and fill our canoe 1/4 full with water).  Finally, the river flattened, and we managed to capture the feral boat.  In another minute, we came to the bank further downstream, where the two leaders and two roommates were awaiting us.

Loss of a canoe, a paddle, a couple of water bottles, a neoprene bootie, two or three waterproof jackets, and a bit of self-confidence notwithstanding, we were actually doing pretty well.  The water was cold but not icy, and the sunny 80 degree weather could not have been more welcome.  Taylor and the sisters had already made it down the bank towards us, so there was nothing more for us to wait for:  and it's not like we had any choice about which way to go, either.  As for the lost boat, we'd have to do without it:  we could not recover it by ourselves without more people and lots of rope, and even if we did manage to pull it out, the boat was in such a condition that it still would not do us much good.  The roommates, as the least experienced and the most shaken by the recent swim into the water, volunteered to become "passengers", so that one sat in the middle of the leaders' boat, while the other joined Beth and I.

With three of us in a two-person canoe, the boat had become palpably less stable and maneuverable. Beth and I tried to avoid as much of the whitewater as possible, but in another 10 minutes we came, full speed, to a lose-lose choice of hitting a rock on the right, or a clump of branches on the left.  We opted for the branches, and managed to almost not flip... almost.  On colliding, I grabbed the branches we hit, and tried to hold the boat in place – but the bow had began to fill with water, and once it did, there was no turning back; I was merely postponing the inevitable.  Soon the three of us were taking a plunge, the cold water squeezing air out of our lungs, so that I was suddenly very aware and very thankful for my lifejacket.  Grabbing the boat, I guided it to shore, while muffled commotion upstream told me that we were not the only ones to have capsized; indeed, looking back, I saw that only the leader boat had remained afloat.

Another scene of gear-rescue followed, where I valiantly saved a paddle and a water jug by jumping out onto the river and swimming towards them.  I was getting ready to jump in for Taylor's boat, too, but evidently the not-quite-tamed canoe had a mind of its own.  Veering at and under a fallen tree, it managed to get itself 90% submerged and 100% stuck on a rock or some other submerged feature.  Having already gotten myself thoroughly soaked, and as the only guy and proud member of the Chugiak High School swim team, I swam to the tree and spent a good 15 minutes trying to extricate the boat:  tugging and pushing the boat, lifting and swinging the branches of the falling tree – but all to no avail.  Finally, we were forced to conclude that that boat, too, was claimed by the river, at least temporarily.  The leaders would have to try to extricate the uncooperative boat some other time, perhaps in a week or two, if the water level would drop.

On the shore, we once again re-grouped to find a spot for Taylor and her gear, and to go through a mental inventory of what else went missing.  Nine out of nine participants were still with us – check.  Three out of five boats – 60%, just barely passing.  Food:  probably failing, as most of it either got carried overboard, or soggy beyond repair; fortunately, I had brought an extra five or six granola bars in my backpack (note to self:  extra food = always worth it).  Paddles: 90%, impressive, I guess it's a good thing they're so big and they float – granted, you'd think the boats would too.  Water bottles: one less than whatever we had 5 minutes ago, and one less camelback-like water jug from the group gear; that's a shame, the University won't like that.  It was roughly at this point in the list that the older sister gave a cough:  she'd just realized that the car keys – both sets of car keys, one for each vehicle! – were still in a dry bag, securely attached to her boat; and the boat, in turn, was crumpled on a pillar in the middle of the river, 20 minutes upstream, and completely inaccessible by us (lesson learned:  always keep the keys on you, i.e., in a zippable pocket of the lifejacket... and, in the case of multiple keys, preferably distributed amongst different people!).

As it turned out, none of us had a cellphone on us (granted, the one electronic device that we did have, a camera in a supposedly waterproof ziplock, proved that maybe leaving the cellphones in the car was only for the best).  So, we continued downriver, till we came to a house near the shore where Julie borrowed a phone to make an uncomfortable call to the university.  I was not there to hear it, but I can imagine how it went: "so... we might need someone to pick us up... or bring us keys.  Well, no, we didn't lose them, we know exactly where they are... but they're in a canoe.   ... Yes, we're in a canoe too, but that one's jammed on a pillar in the middle of the river, we can't get to it... yeah, and we lost another canoe too.   Yes, of course I'm serious!  ... Where are we?  On the river, downstream from the put-in, not quite at the take-out ... What, what do you mean no one has spare keys? – well, call the office.  Oh, they're closed on Sundays, aren't they?..."  Poor Julie continued down her list of University emergency contacts, while the rest of us sat on the bank, engaged in idle talk or staring down at the river.  The weather was still great, and the nature resplendent.  This would all be quite comic, really, if we didn't feel bad for the University's outdoor club's lost gear, or for the fact that the soonest anyone could come pick us up was some 2.5 hours away.

We continued downriver, which had now become exceedingly flat:  probably a good thing, too – as refreshing as falling overboard had been, it was getting to be later in the evening and a little cooler, and none of us fancied another swim.  We had less than a mile left, and at least a couple of hours until the University could get someone out to us; so, with nowhere to rush, we let the current carry us at its own speed, taking in the scenery.  A goose squawked at us loudly as we passed, taking off low above the water, and landing some 50 yards away, only to repeat this another handful of times more; perhaps it was drawing us away from its nest?  We also saw many more turtles, basking in the fading rays of the sun, as lengthening shadows crept over the trees and the water.  Then, right as we neared our destination, a blue heron – a Native American omen for good luck – flew overhead, and then onwards and onwards... further downriver.  All is well that ends well! (– And having to wash only three canoes instead of five, when we got back to campus in the wee hours of the morning, counts as "well" enough, right?!)

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