First day of the new year, a sunny 59º, and the kayak calls, nay, begs for a ride. After much planning and maneuvering throughout the fall, I finally arranged the car to carry a kayak and a bicycle. What better way to try out this wonderful new transportational configuration than an easy float down the Delaware, right?
The first puzzle of the trip was how to get into the boat from the ramp without getting my feet wet. 7 miles with soggy toes, even at 59º, would not be comfortable. I strategically placed the kayak further away from dry ground into slightly deeper water. Taking a graceful leap that would make a gazelle jealous, I land gently in place and push into the current.
That’s when the wind pushed back. What felt like a spring-like breeze on shore was gale-force on the water. I am a lazy kayaker sometimes (I’m being generous with myself here because it’s a holiday and all). The Delaware River is beautiful, but the best part about it is that it does most of the work. Even on the calmest of days there’s a reliable current that will move you downstream. Not today. The wind negated the current most of the time and if I had stopped paddling I would have been pushed back from whence I came. It wasn’t cold, but it was relentless.
Did I mention that I put in the water at 2:45, and this run usually takes 2 hours?
One would think the wise course of action would be to, umm, change plans? Or at least go a little way downstream, turn around, and return? But I had left at noon to gather the bits and pieces for my expedition, and I wasn’t giving up that easily. Anyway, my bike was waiting patiently for me at mile seven. How would I ever explain an aborted mission? Surely the wind would die down, and there would be some semblance of a current somewhere.
Optimism only works to a certain degree, and it doesn’t help paddle.
The first mile was okay. The water was difficult, but stunning; reflections of blue blue sky and bright white clouds hinted of coming of snowflakes later in the season. Geese flew overhead, honking encouragement.
By the second mile my arms were getting tired. I had to paddle hard when the wind gusted to stay on course, and even harder when it wasn’t to make some distance.
Mile three was fun. That’s when the burning started and my brain calculated the possibility of actually arriving at the take-out before dark.
The fourth mile was exciting enough to erase the sense of burning. The Delaware treats you to several smallish rapids so you don’t lose interest. Today she was putting on quite the show. You can hear turbulence a couple minutes before arrival, but it’s difficult to see when sitting low in a kayak. In warm weather it’s fun to aim for the roughest bit and bob about – today I prayed that I could find a spot where I wouldn’t get hung up on a rock and go swimming.
Normal rocky rapids + choppy, wind-stirred water = confused currents that take a while to sort themselves out. You know that feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster, just as it crests and your stomach rises to your throat and you get to relive all the happiest moments of your life before plunging to a certain death? It was like that. Actually, it was really fun. The best way (the only way) I know to get through is to just keep the boat heading into the waves and riding it out ’til it’s done. Paddling ferociously, I was still swept sideways, hard. Not a good way to enter the next set of waves, by the way.
My confidence was building even as my strength waned. Fortunately I was warm from the exertion, and the journey was halfway done. That’s what I convinced myself to keep the panic in check.
Mile five. Another set of waves, ending in a particularly impressive one that crashed over the bow, all slow-motion-like, sending a bucket full of water into my lap. Words cannot describe how delightful this feels initially, with a heightened sense of satisfied pleasure as the icy wetness encroaches on every bit of skin from the waist down.
At this point I was blessed with a resurgence of optimism. Or perhaps it was a cocktail of adrenaline with a shot of numbness. Only a couple miles to go. Soon the foundation of the old Point Pleasant bridge would appear, a beacon of hope in the distance. Any. Minute. Now. Surely around this next bend. Rats ‘n crackers, where is the darned thing?
These weren’t the words I actually used. I wish I knew a greater variety of curses, because I wore out everything in stock.
The sixth mile, the remnants of the bridge appear. Not even too far in the distance, because dusk was lowering its evening blanket over the watery corridor. Magnificent and menacing. Too cloudy for star or moonlight – how easy is it to recognize an unlit boat ramp in the dark?
Mile seven, a span with a number of cottages and docks lining the water. My legs and arms are shaking. Not from cold, but from pure exhaustion. I don’t remember the last time they felt like this. Well, I do, but that’s another story.
There it is! Never shall the sound of keel grating on cement sound so melodic! Out I jump, not one prissy thought of dry feet in mind, for I had had the foresight to have a dry pair of socks and sneakers waiting with my bike! Here’s the funny part: me congratulating myself on my wisdom about the footwear after the brilliant decision to make the journey.
The fun wasn’t over. I went to lift the 75-pound kayak to drag it to the grass for later retrieval. My arms and back screamed, the kayak just watched in amusement. I stumbled around in tall weeds to reach my bike (and cozy footwear), avoiding leg-shattering ditches.
Someday I will write an ode to dry socks.
A second wind kicks in, the personal variety! A seven mile bike ride on the canal path won’t take that long. I fantasize about hot beverages and dry pants. That’s when it started raining. Not a lovely little sprinkle. Ambitiously sized raindrops dive bombed the earth, so heavy that it was surprising not to see craters where they hit.
Surprising too was how fast I could ride back to Frenchtown from Bull’s Island. It was full-on dark when I arrived at the car. I leapt off the bike and hoisted it to the rack. More accurately, my mind envisioned that smooth hoisting motion. The bike was twice as heavy as when I loaded it. Summoning super-human strength I wrestled it into position. Then the gunshots started.
Great. After surviving there and back, I’ll be mistaken for a deer and end the day strapped to a roof rack.
Wait! There are flowery bursts of color accompanying each gunshot – it is a fireworks display at the Frenchtown bridge! Oh frabjous day, I chortled. For ten shining minutes every fiber of my being forgot the tribulations of recent hours and was mesmerized by shiny sparks showering good wishes on new beginnings.