Saturday, April 14, 2007

Contoocook River Class II

Despite the fact that we went to bed late, I woke up at 4:15 and then about every 15 minutes until the first of the group got up. Most everyone arrived early at the church for the 7:30 start. We had an ample continental breakfast served by a full kitchen staff. We put on our paddle gear and assembled. We were given a name tag and a ribbon. The ribbons helped to insure that the right people and boats were shuttled to the right place. I was matched up to my instructor Dick Morin, a whitewater paddler with decades of experience.

We discussed paddle strokes and water safety. Our job is to get the person out and to shore then save the canoe and any gear. We shuttled to the river for training. Student to teacher ratio was nearly 1:1 and there were many more staff members in little kayaks which provided safety and support roles. They zoomed all around setting up a 2 balloon slalom courses with balloons and brick anchors on strings while we discussed paddle strokes on the shore. They looked like little ducks all swarming around on the river.

Once we hit the water, there were additional rescue staff members on the shore taking pictures mostly but quick to assist with any swimmers. I was in the open canoe tandem class. We broke into groups of 4 canoes so there were 4 students and 4 instructors in my group. There was at least one other group of tandem canoes and quite a few solo canoe folks. The rest were all whitewater kayak people.

Dick held the canoe on shore while I demonstrated strokes to him in both the bow and the stern. Then we put into the water and I got to demonstrate bow and stern strokes while we went up and down the river avoiding strainers and other natural features. When he was satisfied I wouldn’t take him for a swim, we practiced on the balloon slalom course. That was fun.

Then all the canoeists got together to play canoe soccer. Basically we broke into 2 groups- 8 red canoes against the other colors (4 green, 2 tan, 1 orange, 1 blue). Some of these canoes were tandem and some were solo. At first Dick and I hung back and played defense. Then he encouraged me to get aggressive and we started ramming boats. He steered us right into the action and we were right in the jumble of boats. It was a fairly safe way to practice strokes in a “panic” situation. I got splashed many times and we managed to accumulate an inch or so of water in the canoe. Only one person went for a swim and it was a solo canoeist that got rammed by other canoes. The game immediately stopped while we “rescued” her in the 3 feet of water.

While I had a total blast playing this game, I was REALLY glad I wasn’t playing the game in a boat that I owned. I guess whitewater paddlers aren’t afraid to bang their boats around a bit. This was a great way to get to know my partner and by this point I felt comfortable and ready to hit the whitewater.

We loaded the boats and shuttled back to the church for lunch. The warm water had been a nice treat when we took a break mid-morning. Now, as I sat eating cheese and crackers, and drinking vegetable juice, I realized that I could have just brought hot soup in the thermos. It sure would have been tasty!

My wetsuit was very warm and moist and the nylon splash suit had blocked most of the water but I was still quite moist. During lunch I pulled down the farmer John wetsuit so that my tshirt could dry. I had to leave my splash pants on since I was too lazy to take off my paddle shoes. In retrospect, since we ate and then talked for a couple hours, it would have been time well spent to take off my splash pants.

We ate lunch, taked about canoeing informally, then assembled for river training. We talked about rapids and how bubbles in the water cause the boat to become less buoyant. We discussed how obstacles such as rocks will appear in different water speeds and depths. We discussed scouting and best ways to “read” the river.

After lunch we shuttled up the Contoocook River. We needed to carry the 80lb canoe across a swampy area and then slide it down a snowy slope. Though Dick had 30 years on me, there was no question in my mind that I was slowing us down. Once on the river, we decided I’d be in the stern, and practiced peeling out of the eddies and eddying out into the eddy. We ferried across the river and were ready to peel out into fast rapids when the boat just ahead of us flipped instantly while doing the same maneuver. Dick yelled “boat over”, said to lean and we quickly peeled out as planned and went on to provide rescue support downstream. I was a bit apprehensive at doing the exact same thing when the other canoe had flipped but we were fine.

We headed into sets of rapids and it never seemed to fail that Dick would pick some obscure eddy and we’d hit it just right and eddy out. It was really great having such a strong paddler in the bow and being able to stop in the middle of a maelstrom. After we took on some water during a rough section, we pulled up on shore to bail out and I switched to the bow. We ferried across into the rapids and then into an eddy, we then surfed back up into the middle of the rapids and ferried/surfed out into the rapids where we peeled out and back down the river. It was very clear to me what a class 3 or 4 whitewater paddler is capable of. Though I admit I was scared, it was amazing what we could do in the canoe.

All the other rapids paled in comparison and we arrived at the takeout point just below a covered bridge. Dick caught a shuttle back to his vehicle where we put in and I caught a ride back to the church where I changed into warm, dry clothes. I had put on a fleece jacket after lunch against Dick’s advice and I had been too warm. The basic gear set he recommended the night before seems to be just the right combination for paddling this time of year.

We had appetizers and then a huge dinner. Dick introduced me to his wife and we were able to compare notes. They are a very nice couple and I hope I can paddle with them in the future. Soon after, they announced that they were canceling the Sunday portion of the class due to the large blizzard that was headed our way. We discussed future tripping options with the club and headed our separate ways around 8PM. I headed Northeast and arrived home at 11:45 PM totally exhausted and sore. I can’t wait to paddle with these folks again.

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