Whenever someone asks whether I've kayaked before, I always reply, “Of course,” with a certain bravado. But as soon as that weak lie in a lion's suit springs from my lips, I have to suppress some embarrassing memories of flipping my kayak in the French Broad River's gentle waters (and even in a few still pools that I won't ever mention).
The truth is, I've never been a water person: I am definitely an earth sign. But a watery whisper from my editor persuaded me to call a guide and arrange a kayaking lesson.
It was pouring rain when I went to meet Pura Vida Adventures owner/guide Joe Moerschbaecher at exit 59 on Interstate 26. But the Brevard, N.C., resident pulled up in his van, and I followed him down to the Green River.
There, the 28-year-old explained that we would be doing the lower Green, which has fairly easy, class-II rapids . (They say that class VI — the toughest — is playing Russian roulette with a headless river demon.) There's also the upper Green — class II and III — and the Green Narrows — class IV and V. Moerschbaecher set up our boats and handed me a wetsuit. As I stuffed my legs into the cramped cockpit and sealed the opening with the neoprene skirt, I wondered whether all kayakers feel as if their bodies were being fitted with some bastard mermaid's tail.
Slipping into the water was easy, but with each stroke I took in the stirring current, the kayak shook. “First you'll learn the wet exit,” said Moerschbaecher, paddling ahead. As I passed him, he deftly pushed me off balance . And though he'd hinted he would do this, he still caught me off-guard. Water shot into my eyes and up my nose, and I became disoriented. Then I remembered his instructions: “Lean forward, yank the skirt loop off, and push the kayak off like a pair of pants.” When I emerged, my attacker told me I'd done well, and I tried to hold back a smile.
Next I practiced paddling into the currents and eddies. As I moved against the rushing stream, I instinctively wanted to lean against the current to provide a counterbalance. “Lean with the current,” Moerschbaecher had advised, warning that fighting it would expose the boat's stern to the moving water, causing you to flip. But my body rebelled and, indeed, my kayak flipped. Towing me back to shore, Moerschbaecher said I had to learn that lesson before we could hope to go much farther.
We took off again. The first set of rapids triggered a mental frenzy of my guide's pre-trip advice: “If you fall, swim to safety. Don't stand up in the river, or your foot could get caught between rocks. Watch for strainers, or tree trunks bearing submerged branches that can trap you if you run into them and turn over. Look downstream, because that's what you can change — not what's right in front of you.”
I could hear Moerschbaecher calling out directions, too, but none of it registered over the roaring battalions of waves.
The front of my boat smashed into a boulder and I lunged forward, just as another one slammed into the kayak's side. It was a bumper-car ride, all right, except the other cars were made of stone and could knock you loose. Paddling through set after set of rapids, my shoulders were taut with tension, and my heart thundered in my rib cage. Joe, however, told me to relax and enjoy, and I repeated those words silently like a mantra as I braved each wave.
Afterward, Moerschbaecher apologized for giving me such a short river run; the heavy rain had quickened the current. For my part, I was glad it was over, though I could only nod my head because my jaws were still clenched shut.
But on the drive back, I felt the knots throughout my body start to loosen. I'll only get this beginner's rush once in my life. And thanks, Joe, for bringing me back alive.