The Challenge

The Challenge

I was not appreciated by my peer group or my friends. It seemed that I was a nobody at everything I tried to do. Even my own friends cut me down, so I stopped trying to please them and did things on my own that nobody even knew about.

I had always liked a young lady named Sarah. She was in my class and we would walk to and from class talking about just anything. I finally asked her out on a date, to go to a movie and then to dinner she accepted. My friends in the group teased me about having a date, and I had to tell them about her and how we met. I found out later that she had turned Bob down for a date. Bob was good looking and could have any girl he wanted.

I picked Sarah up at her house in my car and we went out to a movie and then to a local restaurant. After dinner we went out to the car to go home but it wouldn’t start. I opened the hood and saw that the distributor cap was gone. Bob suddenly drove up in his car and asked what the problem was. I told him about the missing cap. He offered to take Sarah home but she didn’t want to but I suggested that she should do so, since my car was stranded.

I found out later that Bob had taken the distributor cap, so he could drive Sarah home. I confronted him, and said to him, “What kind of slime ball would sabotage my car just to take a girl home. It wasn’t as if you needed a new girl. You could have any girl you wanted.” Since I was enrolled in the local white water canoe race being held the next weekend, I challenged him to get into the race and when he didn’t reply right away said to him “What’s the matter Bob are you a chicken?” He accepted my challenge and enrolled for the race.

The weekend rolled around and the weather was warm and the water in the river was high enough to cover the exposed rocks, just perfect for the race. The course was five miles long with four sets of rapids. The first was rated a level 1 which is very easy. The next set of rapids was rated a level 2, which is quite difficult, and the third rapids was a level 3, which is very difficult. The last set of rapids was rated back to a level 2. Rivers rapids are rated on a 1-6 basis with 1 being a beginner or easy rapids and a level 6, which is suicide to take.

On the day of the race the weather was ideal. The contestants were divided into three different sections and both Bob and I were in the same section. The race was a timed race with each racer started individually, with five minutes intervals separating each racer. Along the course were watchers with helpers at the bottom of each set of rapids, to assist capsized canoes and to pass information and warnings to those still on the course. Bob started second and I was third to start in our section, which was last to start. My start time was set for 10:00 am. The course was laid out so that there was about 100 yards of quiet water before the first set of rapids.

This first set of rapids was a rock garden with about a 2-foot drop. The water was fairly high so I chose to go right over the pillows instead of going around them. I hung up only once on a large boulder in the left side of the course but otherwise it was an easy ride. As I approached the second set of rapids I could see Bob just entering so I put on speed, hoping that I could catch him in the rapids. Moving a solo white water canoe rapidly in quiet water is not an easy task. As I approached the rapids I stood up, in the canoe, to read the rapids and saw the left side of the course was deep water. There was a deep V on the left side and about the middle of the rapids was a shelf extending to the middle of the river. My plan was to take the left side V and ferry across to the right side to avoid the shelf. The ride down the left V was good but problems developed as I ferried across the shelf to the right. As I approached I saw a series of deep water waves, haystacks, caused by the fast water racing down the river and hitting the deep slower water, aligned down stream like a roller coaster. These waves could swamp my canoe if I wasn’t careful. I decided to take the chance but I had to make sure that I took the larger waves off to my side. As I approached the haystacks I saw a way to go left and avoid them all together. As I went left I thought to myself that if this wasn’t a race I could have fun riding those haystacks.

As I ran the rest of the rapids and was into the quiet waters below, I saw Bob ahead, approaching the third set of rapids. If I worked hard I could catch him. The problem was that the third set of rapids was the most dangerous and rated level 3 rapids. This set of rapids had a drop of 10 feet over a distance of 100 yards. I decided to read the river and not expend energy to catch Bob.

The rapids were wide at the top and narrowed in the middle and made a left hand turn. Where the rapids narrowed I noticed a wide ledge extending from the inshore along the waters edge. In between, the water was moving rapidly. The deep channel was on the left side of the river and ran close to the ledge but in the middle of the turn was another series of three large haystacks. On the right side of the river was a large boulder located just above the middle where the river turned. The rock was large enough so that little or no water was going over the top, creating a pool of relatively still water behind the rock. This provides a haven in which the canoeist can turn into to rest and plan the next move.

The only way to escape the current and find safety behind the rock is to execute an eddy turn. This turn is one of the most essential maneuvers in running rapids. It allows the canoe to escape from the current and to find safety on shore or behind a rock. I chose a path through the middle of the upper rapids that would allow me to do an eddy turn behind the large boulder. So I could view the rapids downstream. It was easy to do. I pulled up behind the boulder, stopped and looked downstream. I noticed a series of V’s on the right side that would take me past the narrows and avoid the haystacks but this path was longer. I chose the longer and safer way using the right side of the course. As I negotiated the rapids,

I saw Bob swamp and almost capsize, and as I pulled up to him, I saw he was okay. The easy part of the rapids was yet to come; a drop of about three feet, and then a series of rock gardens.

As I got through the lower section, I noticed there was a commotion on the banks appearing to come from the watchers. A message was being passed that a canoe was over and a bearded man in a red life jacket was coming down through rapids 3. Since I had canoed this river before, I remembered a series of flat rocks near the shore just below the large boulder that would make an ideal spot to use my rescue line. I always carry a rescue bag in my canoe for just such an emergency.

I ferried across the rapids and moved into an eddy current that brought me to just below the series of flat rocks. I jumped out of the canoe and wedged it between two rocks, got my rescue bag and climbed upon the rocks. I moved to the edge and found a crack to brace my legs in and then got ready. I opened the rescue bag, took the end out and brought it around my butt and held it in my left hand. The bag with the rest of the line was in my right hand, ready to throw to the man in the river. Looking upstream, I spotted the life jacket coming toward me. The river narrows to about 30 feet wide and is just opposite my location, so I knew that man had to pass this point. The ledge on which I was standing ended about 25 feet below me and if I could stop his weight the river would carry him into the eddy where my canoe was tied and help could easily get to him. My only hope was that he would spot me and be able to grab the rescue line. As he approached I looked for a point beyond him to aim to throw the rescue bag so the line would cross near his shoulder so he could grab on to it. As he came into the narrows, he did spot me. I threw the bag and my aim was a little low, but he was able to grab the line easily. I then faced down stream and had the line around my butt with both hands on the lines in front of me. If I couldn’t hold him both of us would be in the river. I then laid flat on my back on the rock, with my legs braced in the crack and slightly bent, ready to catch the swimmers dead weight. I cannot begin to describe the feeling I had when the man hit the end of the line. I watched the line and when it went taut, I tried to straighten my legs. The weight at the end of the line was so great that I was lifted from a prone position to one where I was almost standing straight up. The pain in my arms and shoulders was so great I didn’t know if I could hold on. Even with my paddler gloves on, the line started to slip and I thought I was going to lose him. Finally, the swing of the line took him over into the eddy and a number of people moved in to help get the man into safety and then out of the water. I retrieved my rescue bag, recoiled my line and went down to my canoe and removed it from between the two rocks where it had been wedged. By this time the rescuers had the man up the bank and into a truck waiting above.

Soon everyone was gone and I sat in my canoe, I thought about the race and the bet with Bob. Both were gone the minute I decided to attempt the rescue. I was feeling disappointed and good at the same time. As I looked around, I noticed two large haystacks upstream just below the ledge. I remembered that if one could place a canoe right in the middle between both haystacks, the downward pull of gravity in the river would hold the canoe in place and I could lift my paddle out of the water and the canoe would stay in place.

Since the race was over, I decided to have some fun with the river. So I went for it. I caught the eddy current and moved upstream until I was parallel to the haystacks. I slowly ferried out into the current and moved toward the haystacks. I was almost in the right place between the stacks when the current took my bow to the port side so rapidly that I couldn’t stop and ended back in the rock gardens on the left side of the river. I found an eddy current and moved up stream on the left side and ferried back into the current again. It took me two more tries, and on the third pass I moved slowly onto the stack, bow pointing upstream. The canoe stayed right in the middle and didn’t move. Here I was motionless in the middle of class 3 rapids with water coming around both sides of the canoe higher than my head and a roaring sound that was unbelievable. I raised my paddle out of the water and lifted it above my head and shouted at the top of my lungs. What grand feeling, nobody was around; it was just the river and I. I had been given a wonderful gift.

I had one more set of rapids to go, so I decided that I wanted to play those rapids. In went the paddle and out of the present stack through the rock garden and into the next rapids. I must have navigated the last set of rapids three, four, or six times. I don’t remember. I ferried across many times and I even tried a back ferry. Each time I only went partway down and then did a eddy turn behind a rock and looked for a way to go back up stream and run it again but using a different path. As I was doing this I noticed no canoes were coming down. Apparently because of the rescue they called off or delayed set of racers. After about an hour I moved out of the rapids to go to still water to empty my canoe of water, and finally go down stream to cross the finish line. I had already lost and the time was about noon or 1:00P.M. I think. Since I hadn’t finished, there were some cars and timers waiting for me and I found that Sarah was also waiting. She came down to see if I had finished, and told me that Bob was bragging about how he made me quit the race. It seemed that no one knew what had really happened. I loaded my canoe on the rack and Sarah drove me to the start where my car was located. That night there was to be a club banquet and I asked Sarah if she would go with me. She said that Bob had asked her and I asked what her answer was. Sarah said that she was waiting for me to ask her and did not give Bob an answer.

That really made me feel good, so much so that I kissed her for the first time there in the parking lot in front of everybody. She was a little embarrassed, but I noticed that she kissed me back. Who cares what Bob was bragging about? I had my girl and I knew what had happened in the river. I was on top of the world.

I arranged to pick Sarah up at 7:00P.M. because the dinner began at 7:30 P.M. As we arrived we ran into Bob and the gang, and I had to pay off my $10.00 bet to him. Surprisingly I was willing to do this, and I even complimented Bob on how well he overcame his swamping in the rapids. He was surprised at my compliment and the rest of the dinner preceded very smoothly. Bob didn’t rub in his victory too much, but I didn’t mind as I had Sarah as my dinner partner. The awards for the race were given out at the end of the dinner.

After dessert was served, introductions began at the head table, beginning with the sponsors of the race, members of the club running the race and also members of the state committee who oversee all races. One person was a surprise to me. He was headman from the state committee and his name was Donald Mason. All were introduced and gave short speeches and then the results of the races were read and awards given out. It turned out that Bob had finished third in his division. He was very pleased with his medal.

As the last awards were given out, Mr. Mason from the state committee was introduced and began his speech. He thanked everybody and complimented the club on how well the events of the day went. He went on to talk about the race and how dangerous racing can be and he related his capsizing in number 3 rapids and how he was rescued. He complimented the club members on the safety precautions taken, such as having watchers at each section. As he was speaking I was wondering what was going on, as I knew nobody knew that it was me who did the rescue. He then went on to talk about a special award that his committee gives to special canoeists. The award was called “The River Rat Award.” To earn such an award, a person had to love the river, had to be a good canoeist, and had to do something special. He went on to say that this award was given to the very few and the last time was two years ago. He then went on to narrate what had happened to him when his canoe had capsized. His one thought was the narrow rapids below his position that he had to go through in only a lifejacket.

He was afraid that no one would spot him when he saw his rescuer on the flat rocks ahead he felt relief so that he was able to grab the line. He thought to himself that this was a godsend. Mr. Mason then turned around and said to someone behind to roll it and on the screen behind him was showing a video of his rescue. Everyone saw his capsize and how dangerous the rapids were. They saw the rescuer and his preparations and what happened when Mr. Mason hit the end of the line and the power that pulled his rescuer upright and also saw the people helping him from the water. At that point I thought that the tape was over but much to my surprise it didn’t. The film continued recording my rolling up of my rescue bag and getting into my canoe. It then showed my three awful tries to get into the haystacks and finally my success. It even showed my canoe paddle above my head, and we could hear my shout. At this point Sarah turned to me and said, “Jim, is that you? I recognize your green canoe.” I told her yes it was and turned red from embarrassment.

The film continued and followed my hour of playing in the last set of rapids. By now, all of those who remembered my canoe were turning to look at me. The film finally ran out and the house lights came on. Mr. Mason said that the person in this film has earned the River Rat Award and he would like to thank him personally for rescuing him from the river and he later found out that this person had given up winning a bet to effect the rescue attempt. So I would like to ask Jim Curtis to come up to receive this award. I went up and accepted his thanks and said to him that I really do not deserve this award, as any good canoeist would do this for anybody in trouble on the river. To which he said that I was in the right place at the right time and that no else had the time or the position that I had. I accepted the award, gave a brief speech and went back to my seat.  I was given a standing ovation from the assembly and I could not help thinking that I now had everything I wanted and to get it I had to give up a race and a bet and then spend an hour playing on the river like a kid.

End of Story

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copyright © 2014 James M. Curtis



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