Fall 2001, Volume 19.1
Into the Whitewater's Song
Hal Crimmel (Ph.D., SUNY-Albany) teaches in the English Department at Weber State University. He writes on outdoor themes and is working on a cultural history of river running. He has published in the South Dakota Review and Pacific Northwest Quarterly.
Perched at the top of a rocky throat of Canadian Shield granite, its pink hide rubbed raw by the great northern glaciers, then polished smooth by thousands of years of ice and sand and water, and finished with a glaze of spray drifting from below, I wait. Dark water gurgles and laps at my kayak with the same steady, patient hunger that cut these cascades into the grizzled, boreal woods. The eddy pulses with energy, rising and falling with the breath of hidden currents, its existence staked on the mute, elemental presence of rock, the steady tug of gravity from the planet's core, the cold secretions of distant springs and clouds and snows.
Six million acres of woods and water radiate from this spot. It is a powerful place, where the Moose River vanishes over Crystal Falls, a waterfall plunging fifty feet over a series of four ledges, as the water surges off the Adirondack plateau. Crystal is the most complex falls on the Bottom Moose, which in turn is the most difficult run on the Moose's three sections, a run where the easy rapid is the first, Fowlersville Falls—a forty-five foot descent down a sheer sixty degree granite slide.
Difficult rapids like these demand creative interpretations that, when done properly, bear the subtle fruits that are the allure of whitewater. But above Crystal Falls, I am worried. Like a virus burying itself deep into muscle tissue, fear settles into remote organs with an unwelcome quiver. Minutes ago a quick scout from shore revealed a drop that seemed out of the question: violent, unpredictable, dangerous. My inclination is to carry around it, but my partners are quick to find a pattern in the chaos. It seems to be a simple line, but I am skeptical. We abstract the falls into four moves. Each move is predicated on the previous. There is little margin for error.
For some reason I climb back in the boat, held captive by the spell of falling water. As I linger in the eddy, a bass rumble drifts upstream like exquisite pollen on the wind. The bouquet of sound is heady, and it is the rare paddler who resists its charms to shoulder a boat around such orchestrations of rock, water, and gravity, each eliciting from the other a greater truth. Every rapid is unique this way, yet all are of one. Where there is whitewater, gravity and rock inspire the water to sing softly and sweetly, chant loudly and rhythmically, moan in dangerous sensual pleasure. In turn, rock and water translate the mute laws of gravity into seductive, kinesthetic poetry that should be felt and tasted if it is to be understood. On a river, rock speaks to us in places where the millennial dance of gravity and water has given it voice, telling in an exotic dialect of primeval seas and ancient volcanoes, terrible cold and terrible fire, violent collisions and unfathomable pressure.
Enchanted by the river's song like the seventeenth-century Voyageur, gambling his bales of furs and a fragile birch-bark skin against a chorus of white, I cannot resist the water's seductive voice. It continues to chant its question with hypnotic insistence, and I again think through the moves that will carry me safely to the pool below.
Spatially and temporally, running extreme whitewater is a different activity from flatwater paddling, where the future unscrolls predictably before one's boat, and space and time exist in just two dimensions. A flatwater canoeist need be concerned only with surfaces and horizontal spaces: upstream or downstream; North or South, East or West. One does such paddling in the present, with an occasional eye to a predictable future that is a distant windswept point or sandy bay. In a drop such as Crystal Falls, however, a paddler is forced to consider surfaces as well as the depth of third dimensional space, while projecting from the present into a hypothetical future in order to construct a plausible series of moves, which then are committed to memory. The paddler must then return to the present to complete the run, but he can only go into the future through a return to the past—to that imagined line. It is when the past does not meet the future that the present becomes untenable.
The current sweeps by silently. Water whispers over black rocks, deep down, carrying dancing particles of sand that bounce and swirl along the river's rocky bed. Leaves the color of fresh blood glide and stumble, ghostly travelers in an underwater netherworld. The water tugs gently at the boat, urging it on, impatient now for the falls below. It is as if the river, sensing the coming thirst of winter skies, pulls the water out of the woods, hurrying it downhill, hungry to feed the cold northern jugular of the continent, the mighty St. Lawrence; ready to surrender to the November storm-maker, the sullen North Atlantic.
I pull the black webbing of my helmet strap tighter. The gorge is full of sound, and molecules of spray from the river soar on the weak sunlight, carrying with them the sweet tang of tannin and the rich, fecund odor of autumn decay. The soothing fragrance of Northern White Cedar spills across the river, its aromatic scent a reminder of tenacious survival in the face of the punishing spring breakup and thin damp soils. Yet doubts dwell, linger, vanish, and resurface, not completely erased by the ease at which my paddling partners skipped down this beautiful, dangerous drop.
Running rapids has always been and will always be about merging opposites: past and future, confidence and doubt, questions and answers, theory and practice. These daily whitewater meditations must be faced with a confident humility. The guide hesitates under the burden of history on a high water day, knowing that the usual clean line at Lochsa Falls is slightly left of center, but sensing today that an exploding wave is an invitation to flip a raft of "tender, pulpy people" (Muir 248) into the numbing Idaho snowmelt. Walt Blackadar, jammed under a log on the South Fork of the Payette, suddenly finds himself out of confidence and out of choices. Powell and his party, the questions as thick as the planks in their wooden boats, seek answers in the Canyon of Lodore. The No Name misses a ferry; Disaster Falls is christened. A century later the private rafter, oars biting into muddy desert water the color of liquid rock, wonders if a wave train feeds into the cold depths of Warm Springs hole, or just by it.
A quick flick of my wrist, a slight downstream lean, and the boat peels out into the current in a graceful sweeping arc that leaves a brief trail of amber bubbles across the dark surface. I feel my chest tighten as the river's reflection of forest and sky, stretched taut across a fluid canvas, begins to distort as the narrowing banks compress the current, whisking tiny spinning whirlpools into the channel. Smooth brown water slips downstream in a sleek V-shaped tongue, the surface as perfectly fluid and silent as a raindrop. A pattern of boils begins to worry the glassy surface as the riverbed protests the constant siege of water. Threads lead and follow, appear and vanish, burst and shrink.
The cold of the water seeps through the boat. The plastic hull nuzzles the ancient Canadian Shield granite, mature, elegant rock, possessed of a timeless grace. I like granite. It is a hard, no-nonsense rock, straight-shooting, spare and clean. Granite is not like the soft sedimentary rock of the South, which hides sinister undercut ledges and sewer holes beneath warm Appalachian waters. Unlike the crumbling rock of desert canyons, granite is a dependable, stable rock. It is the rock with which I associate home and place. I see granite and feel the river running high on an April morning and a slick damp coldness beneath my feet. Granite is the pungent smell of summer rain on sun-baked rock that slowly darkens the lichens. It is a hint of blueberries, the crackle of pine needles underfoot, the resiny scent of woods and sweet smell of water.
The boat settles firmly into the current's grip. I nudge the bow into the downstream V and slide carefully down a narrow chute that drops a boat length. A series of shallow waves casually carry me toward the triple-tiered main drop, but the full impact of the horizon line below has my pulse staggering with fear and excitement. From here on, the past must carry me through the present, and finally the marker wave I memorized comes into
view. Measured strokes carry me to it, then along and over a rocky four-foot ledge into an eddy above the symmetrical third pitch, where the current drops thickly over a twelve-foot horseshoe-shaped falls.
A boat must cut cleanly across these eddy fences, which throb and pulse as water flowing one way meets water going another. This eddy, like most, is a curious thing. It flows upstream in seeming defiance of gravity, yet is an utter slave to its laws. It offers a simple fluvial geometry of flat lines amidst a text of angles and circles. It is a hushed breath next to the thundering heart of a giant. As if uncomfortable with its contemplative role while the rest of the river rushes by in a furious hurry, eddies are quirky, squirrelly, indecisive. They are uneasy places, where the water is swollen and wrinkled, as if weary from reminding boats that they cannot go two opposing directions at once and remain upright. The water relaxes and unties itself, then tenses and knots again, as if sorting out the tangle of past complications and preparing for those of the future.
The boat glides in an upstream ferry out of the eddy across a watery tightrope. Whitewater dances around the nose of the boat, tempting it into the backwash below the four-foot ledge. Suction and the small pool below keep me from washing backwards over the horseshoe falls just inches behind the stern of the kayak. Time stands still as the boat spins silently between the rocks, suspended in one dimension on the plane of the dark water. Another flick of the wrist, two quick strokes, and I am cleanly over the falls and into a deep pool that exits over two dangerous slots.
I eddy out and focus on the line. To the left, a channel of the river cascades violently at a right angle into the main flow. This is the crux move. There will be fierce competition for my boat. Either I will drop over the falls cleanly or the cross current will sweep me into a rock sieve. The boat must be just a few feet from the rock face to properly launch over the falls. I stroke toward the lip. My wood paddle twitches and jumps in my hands like a sapling in a spring storm.
The water glistens in the sun. I feel its reflection on my face, that same crisp fleeting heat that flickers and dances in the right season across the Ottawa, the Salmon, the Gauley. The pungent essence of wet rock and water the color of tea rises to my nostrils, triggering a river of memory. I am lapping "massive droughts" of tangy, tannin-stained water from a magical artesian spring on the Oswegatchie that was, in fact, runout from a beaver pond; the first distant rumble of big western water is reaching my ears; I feel the thrill of a horizon line and the rasping bite of aluminum on rock and the quick cold shock of North Country snowmelt.
Like an errant fishhook embedding itself in flesh, the low volume stern of my boat snags violently right where it cannot. The boat flips upstream and burrows down against rock. I try to roll against the current, once, twice, a third time, but the plastic hull is pinned fast. Water crashes down into the rock sieve to the right. In front, the river thunders over the final pitch, an eighteen-foot waterfall that descends into a narrow coffin of rock. I feebly protest against this injustice before the water pulls me under again, piling against my head, roaring a question in my eardrums. A swim is imminent, but I search for an answer; find none. There are no options. I pop the spray skirt, kick to push out from under the boat, breathe air, but the current has me as surely as a hawk a rabbit.
Coming out of a boat in whitewater is, I think, as close to the shock of birth imaginable. From the snug safety and warmth of the boat one is suddenly pulled into a cold and unforgiving world, at the mercy of powers so great one can only hope to endure. Like birth, swimming whitewater is an instinctual act, a fundamental struggle for light and air.
In ruthless, compulsive adherence to the laws of gravity, the current sweeps me over the falls. A rock pounds the back of my helmet and, like a double bladed razor, lifts it forward on my skull, just enough for the next rock to strike with a sickening crack against bare scalp and bone. Cloud-to-cloud lightning wells and explodes in my brain. My body is a small, stunned ball.
The tight wrap of water takes me deeper than ever before. Deep down, the water assumes a dimension all boaters fear and respect. It is all business here, where the sun cannot reach, a strange silent world far removed from the musical interface between water and air. Suspended in this private dark space I am stunned that the past has met the future in a way I did not expect. My eyes, unwilling to wait another second, open of their own accord but find only darkness. I am unprepared for this. There is nothing to do but wait.
Finally, a dream of light faintly glimmers above. The water begins to glow a promising deep amber, then gold, before giving way to air. Air. My paddling partners are frozen in time, staring at the falls. I catch a rope, wobble on shore, paddle gone, boat bent and broken. On the back of my head the river has left a ragged quirky scar that is shaped like a question mark. It is still there, smelling of cedar, tasting of tannin, feeling like granite.
Muir, John. Steep Trails. Ed. William Frederic Badè. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1994 (1918).