Is there anything more disorienting than a howling wind? A relaxed and peaceful place is instantly awash in chaos, the gale itself an all out assault on your very constitution. Eyes battered by grit, mind fried in turmoil, your swarming thoughts circle around one primal, persistent message: Get. Me. Out of here! And so.
I didn’t last very long in the canoe that first full day on the river—maybe an hour, tops. Our 42-pound Wenonah, such a treat to load onto the roof rack or paddle through smooth water, bounced around like a beach ball in the relentless headwind. Robert rapid-fired instructions across the bow of the boat—Paddle left! Draw right!—but from where I sat, we were totally at the mercy of the Upper Missouri, which seemed downright unmerciful under these brutal conditions. Alder shared my sense of impending doom, punctuating each of Robert’s directives with a piercing, resoundingly appropriate, Ruff!
The other members of our crew were strung out behind us, struggling to keep their own boats on track as they fought the waves and the wind. We were flying down the river by comparison, which meant we had to slow ourselves up every few minutes in order to stay with the group. These were the moments that really put me over the edge, as in order to stop moving forward we had to rotate the canoe perpendicular to the river and then try to hold steady—gunnels dipping precariously close to the surface of the water as we rocked from side to side. I felt like a lobster about to be thrown into the pot.
Surrender to the Wind
How could this be the same river we were on last night? Yesterday, we had launched from Coal Banks Landing late in the afternoon, brilliant sunshine overhead and a gentle breeze at our back. The fast-moving current intimidated me at first, but I had found my rhythm by the time we arrived at our first campsite 5 miles downriver. There, we’d received a small-town welcome from the Texan flint hunter I’d met at the landing, who’d now coincidentally set up his camp at the same site we’d chosen. To the gentleman’s chagrin, his lady-friend (a good-natured Lab, as you’ll recall from Part I) pooped in our pathway while we were unloading our gear—an unfortunate faux pas for which he tried to make amends by lighting us a fire. His kind efforts were futile, however, and the pair quietly retreated to their tent while we were preparing dinner. They were gone before I awoke this morning. I was sorry to have not said goodbye.
Today was a different story, and one I feared wouldn’t end well. “We need to pull over!” I finally hollered to Robert, daring to turn my head only briefly to make sure I was heard. Robert looked battle-worn, too, his job at the stern made even more difficult by having to bark firm commands at Alder, who received the occasional bite of salmon jerky to keep him centered in the boat. I could see that Robert’s pile of treats, broken up into pieces and scattered at his feet for easy access, was disappearing fast.
Somehow, we managed to bring ourselves to shore without incident. When we got close to the bank, we pulled a 180 and paddled upstream into the shallows—Alder ejecting himself from his foam pad into the froth before we’d even touched ground. Once he stood on solid mud, Alder pivoted toward me with a wild canid countenance that spoke louder than words: There’s no way in Hell I’m getting back in that boat. I couldn’t have agreed more.
It Takes a Floating Village
I hated being the one to cry uncle, forcing everyone else to come off the river.
Captain Crumbo was the first to approach, looking uncharacteristically awkward in his camouflage-coated kayak. The kayak was designed such that Kim had to lean way back in his seat, with each pull on his oars yielding a palpable strain on his upper body. Later in the trip, Kim accepted my offer of a Thermarest chair to provide him some back support. But for now, he was in obvious pain as he dislodged himself from the tiny cockpit.
“How are you doing?” Kim asked when I arrived by his side, his tone of half-laughter helping to ease my embarrassment. Alder had already greeted him like a long lost friend and was off to visit our companions as they emerged from their crafts. Watching them from a distance, I could imagine a scene from the Lewis and Clark Expedition more than 2 centuries past: a small squadron of bedraggled boaters hauling themselves ashore against an impressionist backdrop of windblown grass and raging water.
The unsettling wind prohibited a conversation, which was a good thing for me since I couldn’t have said much to Kim without breaking down in tears. I’ll be forever grateful that he didn’t make me feel like a wimp when I told him I couldn’t go on, despite the blatant inconvenience I caused for all involved. If I had been a member of the Lewis and Clark crew, I probably would have received 50 lashes for my lack of courage in the face of adversity. Instead, Kim immediately kicked into problem-solving mode—a former Navy Seal on the beach carefully assessing a sticky situation.
The next 30 minutes were a lesson in spirited cooperation. Since staying put wasn’t an option given our timeline, we had to reorganize the cast so the show could go on. And quite a show it was:
John took over my role in the canoe, serving as Robert’s power-paddler in the bow. They tackled those waves like there was no tomorrow, translating my terror into 2 boys having fun.
John’s river kayak, temporarily out of commission, was stored as oversized luggage on Sharlow’s mega-raft. The kayak was positioned crosswise on the back of the raft, which appeared to have been t-boned from the heavens above. Poor Sharlow had to paddle 2 boats in 1.
And me? I was the humbled guest of honor on Abbie and Denny’s dory for the day—a luxurious red rowboat that had taken them safely down the Green River during our prior trip together in Utah. Alder and I relaxed like royalty on the dory’s padded seats, basking in the generosity of our co-adventurers on a river gone wild. Would I have even noticed that small herd of snapping turtles on the rocks if I’d been floundering about in my canoe? Maybe, maybe not. But I think I’ll consider them a gift from the wind.
(to be continued)