340 Miles to Immortality (Part IV)
Almost two hours later, we awoke. After 26 straight hours of hardcore paddling, you’d think that double digit minutes of sleep may not seem like much… and you’d be right. But it completely rejuvenated us half-way. Enough so that it seemed like a good idea to continue. A gorgeous summer day, what better to do than paddle the great river? Nothing.
And though paddling under the beautiful late summer sun was fantastic, the river was best after the sun went down. Because that’s when the stars came out. The river was most silent, gently flowing ever downstream with only the occasional wing dike or buoy to create an audible ripple. Sitting there in the dark in a tiny kayak, floating with the current, you can literally feel the pull of the mighty river as it inexorably carries you downstream. And not just that it’s pulling your boat along, but it feels like the river has an energy to it that’s magnetized and moving and you’re caught right up in it, flowing through one of the main arteries of the continent itself.
Paddling at night was incredible. The stillness of the wind made the water, silently flowing, look like liquid glass. So calm and peaceful. The super moon, full on Monday, slowly waned throughout the week, but provided a nighttime guide light, casting dark shadows in the night.
But for the first two hours of night before the moon came out was my favorite part of the trip. It was cool and clear. Showing some of the most incredible displays of stars I’ve ever seen.
They gave you plenty of light to paddle by, but when the full moon hit, it was blazing. (Incredible that the moon is actually a terribly poor reflective surface, similar to an iron skillet in that it reflects only about 5% of the sunlight that hits it! I spent a lot of time marveling at that).
But the best thing about paddling at night was the laser light show. Because the race was postponed a month, it coincided perfectly with the Perseid Meteor shower, and that alone turned out to be worth the wait. It was incredible. Starting right after dusk the sky was lit up with countless meteors all night. Though they were a little harder to see with the full moon outshining all else, they were still flashing through the sky every couple minutes. For hours on end. When judged by duration, tail length, brightness, and sheer numbers, there’s no doubt we saw the best meteors I’ve ever seen! It was incredible and it seemed like it was all just for us. For extended periods of time we’d fall silent just staring up at the sky, broken only by someone’s exclamation of another sighting. My neck developed a serious cramp from staring straight up while I paddled.
It was common practice to paddle in groups during the night, just safer and more fun than paddling alone in the night on a terrifyingly dark and sinister river. We had several companions at night, but one in particular stuck out: Terika. She was a badass girl who was paddling all by herself and at the point she was tagging along with us (or more appropriately: hanging back), she was 5th in the Women’s Solo division! She was a real trooper and I give her immense credit also because she joined us at one of our lower points energy-wise. That night she heroically kept the conversation going while we were essentially zombies mechanically paddling straight ahead trying not to roll over into the water. It helped so much to talk and make the time go by faster. Thank you, Terika!
But another night, when just Tony, Josh, and I were trying to grind out some miles, we ran into the proverbial wall. That wall was made out of exhaustion and fog. Fog on the river can be a very dangerous thing. You can’t see potential obstacles on the river (which could potentially include barges bearing down on you) like uprooted trees, buoys, wing dikes, etc and it’s very easy to get disoriented.
We’d just pushed on past Katfish Katy’s and we’re running low on energy. Trying to press on, I kept getting more and more tired. Kept startling myself awake as adrenaline dumped into my system when I realized I’d just dozed off… still slowly paddling! The adrenaline kept getting less and less as the dozing became more and more frequent. I wasn’t talking. I was sleepily aware that I should be keeping up with the other guys… and then I’d snap back awake again. And again. And again.
The fog was building around this time. Terrible circumstances coming together. When I’d come back to, I’d be alarmed by the tree floating a few feet in front of me with big branches sticking out above the water! Then as alertness came back and my gaze focused, I’d see it was only fog. I remember bits and pieces from this part of the race… the thickening fog around my kayak was illuminated by my faint nav lights and it began to look physically present, like a solid object. I thought I saw uprooted trees, an actual wall, and even once I swear to God I saw a tiny little canoe with people about a foot tall paddling across the river in front of me. I actually watched them travel a few feet before I realized it was a wisp of fog.
I was at the end of my reserves. Sooner rather than later I was going to lean over in my sleep, roll the kayak, and awake in a terrifying position under water in the middle of this enormous river. At night. I told the other guys and they agreed they were exhausted too. We tried to find a place along the bank to stop at, but when Josh paddled over to the shore, something large and unknown fell/jumped/dove out into the water with an enormous splash that echoed across the river. We have no idea what it was, but it was plenty unnerving. We paddled on. We kept talking about awesome movies we’d seen and when we named actors, we tried thinking up any movies we’d ever seen them in and liked. Believe it or not, that conversation kept our attention enough to keep us awake. And we finally made it to Cooper’s Landing a few miles downstream. We got out, greeted by some local drunk teenagers who were appropriately amazed at our ragged physical and mental state, and laid down on picnic benches to sleep. I got maybe an hour’s worth of sleep but I was continually awoken by my shivering. That was the coldest night of the race and I was sleeping outside, on a bench, in a tshirt, two long sleeve tshirts, and my pfd. Wasn’t too warm.
So after about two hours, we dragged ourselves up and went down to the river to push on, nothing else to do. When we saw the river, I gotta say I was a little excited. The fog had gotten so thick, there was no way we could paddle anywhere on it safely. No choice but to stay on shore and wait. And at that exact moment (like 5am), we saw a car pull up and a woman unlock the store. Like zombies we stumbled inside after her, just to soak up some of the warmth. She recognized us for what we were and indulged our presence. And my God, she turned on a tv in a side room that had a futon and some chairs! I think I asked her if I could lay down for a minute, she said yes, and I went face first into the futon. It was incredible! I got two hours of deep sleep. I think the other two guys slept in the chairs. But that warm sleep changed everything. Gave me the energy I needed to finish the race. (we found out later that the lady had even fixed up a killer breakfast for the racers, but we’d slept right through it!) I have no idea what her name is, but I thank her profusely…
(Concluded in: PART V)