Friday, June 17, 2016

THE WATER GENE


We are never far from the lilt and swirl of living water. Whether to fish or swim or paddle, of only to stand and gaze, to glance as we cross a bridge, all of us are drawn to rivers, all of us happily submit to their spell. We need their familiar mystery. We need their fluent lives interflowing with our own. ---John Daniel  

"Will I really need this?" Cole asked me.
I looked down at the fast flowing  South Fork of the American River,  our kayaks and then to one of my two crumpled up wet suits I was handing him. The full neoprene wet suit would be warm on that day, however the water was even colder.
"It's pretty cold, " I said, "That water was snow a few weeks ago."

That is how I offer fatherly like advice. Usually by stating the obvious.  El Nino had provided moisture for a great spring runoff quenching the thirst of Northern California's dry rivers. However, my youngest son Cole didn't know that. This was his first trip down the South Fork. I promised Cole since moving here,  I would take him whitewater kayaking to coax him to come for a visit. He had experienced some whitewater back in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but he had never paddled anything like the South Fork before. It would take a learning curve. 
He also hadn't paddled in over three years. That's not to say he hasn't been on water most of the time. He was on leave from the U.S. NAVY and just back from  a deployment. I joked with that he needed a bumper sticker saying "My Other Boat is the USS Arlington."

As I watched him roll into his west suit, all my memories of paddling and trips with him flooded into the back of mind. It wasn't so long ago I was taking him on his first canoe ride on Lake Trowbridge and camping trip to Lake Bemdji State Park. In those days, I was sure he would always be eight-years-old and hoping he would inherent my same love of paddling.

"This is why I am teaching you to kayak rivers," wrote Canoe & Kayak Magazine contributing editor Christian Knight in a 2014  Father's Day letter to his daughter, " The river will be the objective disciplinarian I can never force myself to be. It’ll reward you with euphoria when you do well and punish you when you don’t."
"I realize, of course, you are only 8-years-old now." he continued in his letter,  "I haven’t even taught you how to duffek or how to roll. I’m still sheltering you from eddy lines that stretch and yawn into miniature whirlpools. I still clutch your cockpit through rapids that are whiter than they are green. If, somehow, you do flip, I’ll pray you’ll have the composure to remember the steps I have instructed you to repeat back to me before sliding into every river we’ve paddled together."

Everyone knows that blood is thicker than water. But, when their mixed together with an enthusiasm and a determination to kayak or canoe, it becomes an over powering, energy consuming of ones genetic makeup. It's the natural and instinctive need to be on the water, or as  fellow paddler Kim Sprague calls it "The Water Gene." And when passed down to one's children, they will have an ingrained deep-rooted essential need to seek out rivers, lakes, and oceans. Hence: They were born to paddle.

When Cole and I slid into the South Fork we were paddling together for the first in three years. The river carried us away swiftly through a line of standing waves.  He lights up smiling and says to me "This is fun!"
His "Water Gene" ancestry had kicked in with each dip of his paddle. I have no idea where I got mine. My dad wasn't a boater, but he took our family swimming every summer in Nebraska lakes and made sure I took part in school and church canoe trips. My dad would marvel then on how I could single handily turn  the 17-foot Grumman aluminum canoe past the bridge abutment and back through the eddie line and right up to the landing. He might not of paddled, but at least he helped get me to the water's edge.

"My Dad showed me the importance of finding my own serenity." wrote Wet Planet Whitewater's   Courtney Zink, in a tribute to her father,  "His love for water stems from that, and from spending that time with him in canoes on calm lakes, rowing through rapids, and fishing from river banks, he introduced me to that connection as well. That has brought me back to the Northwest as an adult, to stand on the banks of the Washington white water and find a sense of peace and balance in the chaos of the river."

In running the popular surfing wave area paddlers know as Barking Dog,  I told him to wait up stream while I cruised down along side of it so I could get some video and pictures. Now I'm sure many have gone through "The Dog" backwards before both planned and unplanned. But, probably not on their first time though it. Cole paddled down after my signal and positioned himself looking upstream on the edge of the wave paddling with all of his might to stay there, before rolling back into the rapid. I held my breath and thought he hasn't paddle for a long time as he disappeared underwater. A moment, to my relief he rolls upright.  He has the water gene alright.
"I kind of hurt my shoulder when I rolled back." he later told me, "That's why I couldn't get right away. Second or third time I got back up."

I was proud like all dads would be. It was just like he'd scored the winning run or came in first in the race by handling that wave so well. A little family honor was upheld. The current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows about that family “rite of passage”.  When you grow up in Canada you need to  know how to canoe early, especially if your father Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The elder Trudeau was Canada 15th prime minister and had a passion for paddling in the Canadian wilderness.

"Maybe my most indelible canoe memory from that cottage was one of the rites of passage for the Trudeau boys," the younger Trudeau recalled in an essay in Cottage Life magazine,  When we hit five or six years old, our dad would put us into the canoe and we’d shoot the rapids on the stream that went down into Meech Lake. There’s a little dam there, and in the spring they’d open the dam, and there would be a huge V and a standing wave. With much trepidation, we’d sit in the front and go down the drop. I look back on it now and laugh, because my father was sterning, and there was nothing I could do from the bow to aim it right—but it was very, very important for us to do it. To get into the bow of a canoe with my father for the first time, to be the bowman for the first time, and to go down this big, scary rapid."

High flows mean high times on the South Fork of the American River. We followed each other along trading off the lead  back and forth the rest of the way through the bouncy waves and churning rapids.  It was a treat to paddle with him after such longtime. Everyday in Father's Day when I get to paddle with him and see him challenging the currents and lines of the river. He is my paddling legacy flowing from my water gene pool.

We had just finished the run to add to our memories, when Cole said, "I'm sure glad you brought those wet-suits. That water was cold." Once again I stated the obvious. "Well, it's my job to take care of you"