Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Swimming the Eel River

The Eel River is on my mind this morning with many thoughts - we haven't been on it much this year - the Willits Water Festival next weekend - our upcoming trip on its wilderness stretches - and those warm sunny days kayaking it last spring.

The Outlet Creek to Dos Rios stretch of the Eel River has been described as a Class III whitewater kayaker's delight. It isn't run regularly by a lot of boaters due to its location in the northeast corner of Mendocino County and because it is primarily a rain-fed winter and early spring run (making it a foul-weather run that is often chilly). This stretch of the Eel River is quite special to me because it is where I learned to whitewater kayak (I probably should say am still learning).

Yes, my beginnings on this run were tormentous as many who were with us might recall. Fears and tears and of course lots of swimming. Jeff's patience and the strength of our relationship was definitely tested on our trips to the Eel River.

When we started running the Eel River, I was a SWIMMER (in several senses - one being that I was a life guard and water safety instructor who swam regularly for fitness and the other being that I swam most of the time when I capsized). Fortunately, I was a good swimmer and usually self-rescued by holding onto my gear and getting into an eddy and onto shore.

When we started boating on the Eel River, I had just relearned to roll. I had a decent flat water roll and was racking up combat rolls in the ocean surf and rock gardens; however, the river roll was eluding me. I hated capsizing for numerous reasons - the water was COLD, the air was COLD (problem with learning to boat in the winter), my playboat was not easy to roll, my kinesthetic senses were altered in the current, I was terrified of hitting my head on a rock, or being stuck in a hydraulic. Yeap - a TON of EXCUSES!

(I would like to say that more time on the river has cured these things, but I am sure that I will swim again on the Eel - afterall - we are all in between swims.)

My first season of boating on the Eel - I ran (swam) it twice and gave up on whitewater kayaking FOOORRREEEVVVEEER! It was too cold, too scary, and too frustrating.

I continued sea kayaking and rock gardening and then even started kayak surfing. I saw photos and videos of the beautiful waterways that people were whitewater kayaking and felt a little sad when I stayed home while Jeff and our paddling buddies went river kayaking.

In the winter of 2010, I became determined to master my fears and learn to whitewater kayak - so off to the Eel River we went. Some days we would just park and play (drill) on one rapid and others we would practice different skills while heading down river. I still managed to swim plenty; however, I rolled more than I swam. I am certain that I have swum every rapid on the Outlet Creek to Dos Rios section with the exception of Tunnel and CalTrans(Willow).

In our sessions on the Eel, I realized many of my fears - hitting my head on a rock (the helmet has a couple of scratches but I am no worse for wear -I think- and getting stuck upside-down in a hydraulic and working my way out without swimming -took 3 rolls but I did it).

The cold water is still a huge issue for me. The Eel River has some great surf waves and I so want to learn to surf, but I still prefer to keep upright in chilly fresh water. My kinesthetic sense underwater in current is improving with experience, but I still get disoriented. The Eel River has many firsts for me including my first combat river roll, my first time whitewater river kayaking without Jeff and I am excited about the prospect of my first multi-day wilderness whitewater trip. Will swimming be involved on this trip? I definitely hope so . . . when it is warm and sunny and not necessarily an out-of-boat experience.

Sorry - no photos or videos of my swimming on the Eel, but this video might show a bit of the character of whitewater kayaking on the Eel (notice the contrast between the gray days of winter and the sunny green days of spring).

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