Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The wrong white water

Before I go any further, I must warn any rafting readers that the following post may prove disturbing.

Upon moving to Canberra, I looked around for a convenient student group with whom I could go white water rafting. Alas, it seems rafting is not the sport of choice for Canberrans*. So I took up other activities, went canyoning and rock-climbing, got into mountaineering and started sea kayaking. I kayaked on the lake and did a couple of trips out to the coast to paddle there, even tried surfing a kayak. What I did not do was try paddling a kayak on a river.

Rafting down in Tasmania, I met my fair share of kayakers. A lot of them had been rafters once, but turned to kayaking to escape the inevitable faff of rafting's large groups and excessive gear. Others sought the greater thrill and challenge of kayaking, or just a whole lot less work in portaging around rapids. Whatever the reason for their transition, it was seldom reversible; very few returned to rafting after taking up its dark cousin as a pastime, and those exceptions would often bring their kayaks on trips rather than risk boarding a raft. Clearly the kayaks had seductive powers beyond the strength of mere mortals to resist, making any transition a one-way trip. I had gone so far as to take up sea-kayaking and even surf-kayaking—while it's technically possible to surf a raft, the ocean waves are scarcely their element—but I was leaving the rivers to the rafts... until Sunday.

I should have resisted, should have fought harder against the threat kayaking posed to my rafting integrity. Honestly though, I missed the river. There's something awesome about sitting in a river flowing at 70 cumecs—power enough to crush you in an instant—and looking at the surface but seeing what's hidden beneath it. The combined sense of helplessness against something so strong and confidence from knowing what to do to make it across that water alive is one that I cherish. I hadn't had that feeling since rafting the Franklin over the summer, and wanted to feel it again. Nearly ten years rafting doesn't qualify me for kayaking though, which is a whole new level of terror with a whole lot less control. I wasn't sitting in a kayak anywhere near the rivers I was used to, and there hadn't been any beginners white water kayaking trips in a while. Then one was posted on the ANUMC website, a grade 1-2 section of the Murrumbidgee. So I donned my new ladies' wetsuit (I'll start buying men's outdoor clothing again when the manufacturers stop assuming that all men are overweight and start making clothes for men who are fit because they spend time outdoors), armoured lifejacket and a helmet with my latest ad hoc GoPro mount. After discovering that my knees don't get along well with bracing in a lot of white water kayaks, I spent some time sitting in different kayaks until stumbling across one that wasn't just bearable but was actually comfortable.

We strapped kayaks onto the club trailer and towed it to the get-in at Tharwa Bridge. From there, it was less than 15km down to our get-out at Pine Island. Alas, most of those kilometres turned out to be flat paddling. In between though, there were rapids... well, close enough. Tassie rafters, think of the lower Derwent, only with a few more trees mid-river and without the actually becalmed sections. I assume that any other paddlers will know of a mostly flat river suitable for beginners that can be used as a comparison. On a raft, I would have been dead-bored (my usual way of keeping myself entertained on flat water is to flip my own raft, flip someone else's raft or otherwise conspire to have more people swimming than are in the boats). I could have done with shorter sections of flat-water, but the rapids proved a good introduction to white water kayaking.

The first few rapids were all firmly in grade 1 and easily passed. Then we hit a grade 2. On a raft, I would have paddled straight over the top without pausing, certainly without scouting. The wave train would have given me a moment's entertainment, and that would have been it. A group comprising no small number of beginners needed to be more cautious. A couple of experienced kayakers went ahead to scout, pulling into eddies to point the way for those following behind as we wove between willow saplings. It was easier than I'd expected, kayaks having a lot less momentum to fight against in order to turn them. It was just as terrifying as I'd expected. Let me stress, this was an easy rapid, requiring some quick turns to follow the best lines but with plenty of good lines to choose from. I would have been more than happy to swim it, but apparently kayaking it is a whole different story. My adrenaline levels went through buzz and rush, then kept climbing.

I will gladly confess that I'm an adrenaline junky, but I like it to be delivered in levels that give me an edge and focus my senses, not overwhelm my rationality. I haven't hit the panic level in a few years, and I was quite happy keeping it that way. Apparently skirting around an itsy bitsy stopper at the end of a rapid and having my kayak roll ever so slightly was enough to trigger a panic response. All these years of steadily dosing myself with adrenaline must have been good for something, because I successfully fought the urge to run away (which would simply have resulted in me rolling upside-down) and made it through the rapid without a hitch. When my heart stopped sounding like a bodhrán beating out a quick jig, I realised that I was actually enjoying myself.

If you look closely, you might notice the
boat rock slightly at 0:36. 

There were a few more rapids at similar levels, which lacked the blind terror of the first and helped to remind me that this was an easy river. If I had flipped (which seemed to be my greatest fear) I would just have wet-exited and swam (which didn't scare me at all), rather than faff around trying to set up and perform my somewhat unreliable brace-roll. Most of the group portaged (hoisted boats onto shoulders and walked) one rapid, basically because it was completely choked with willows and we all portaged over the Point Hut bridge with it's recirculating stopper.
Shortly before the end of our section of river, we came across a boat, upside-down and pinned beneath a log. First thing to check: whether there was a body in it. 

Fortunately it was body-free. It was also clearly a flat water craft, meant for fishing on a lake and never intended to tackle white water. We pulled it free and it half-floated briefly before sinking like a stone.

Towing the "rescued" kayak to shore.
Most of the group were all for heading back then, and we paddled the last rapid to the get-out. Three of us kept our lifejackets on, grabbed some rope and walked back up the riverbank. The kayak was submerged mid-river, wrapped on some rocks. We had to swim across channels up to chest-deep before we could reach it. Getting it unstuck proved simple, but returning to shore burdened with a kayak was a more difficult task. We barely had it out of the water when someone came looking for us, car shuffle and packing of the trailer now complete. Triumphantly carrying our prize back, we encountered someone who had just bought an identical kayak and was considering rafting the next section (grade 3-4). Fortunately he was somewhat dissuaded by the condition of the boat we'd retrieved. I sincerely hope I never become that complacent about kayaking on white water, but I'm glad that my spine-crushing terror has faded.

*Early on, I heard Canberra residents described a few times as Canberrites and Canberrians, but Canberrans seems to be the term of choice.

A cumec is a unit often used by white water paddlers to measure river flow. It stands for cubic metres per second and is the volume of water that passes through one point on a river every second. In theory, it's easy to calculate. All you need is the cross-sectional area of the river, and the average flow rate across that area. In practice, it's almost impossible to measure either number. Yes, you can measure the width of the river, but the depth varies across that width. Yes you can measure the flow of one point in the river, but that varies even more across the width and depth of the river, with eddies (backflow) actually forming along the banks and riverbed. Fortunately there are companies (generally running hydroelectric schemes) who survey rivers and work out their flow rates at different levels, and then give the numbers to anyone who wants them.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff! Thanks for writing this up. Reminds me of just how it felt to begin white water kayaking - it really is a heart-pounding experience - and how I still feel on the river after too long on dry land. Also, good to know I won't be the only former raft guide in Canberra.