It's been almost 15 years since my wife, Carol and I decided to upgrade from inflatable rafts to recreational kayaks and we've learned a lot in those years, mostly the hard way.
Before we bought our kayaks we tried out a couple of demos on a nearby smooth water stream and loved every minute of it. We returned them to the dealer and placed an order for two nine foot kayaks with paddles. When they showed us a catalog of accessories including spray skirts, dry bags and paddle leashes, afraid of spending any more money, I said, "No, we probably won't need any of that stuff."
"Are you sure?" Carol asked.
"Well, we can always get them later," I answered.
When the new boats arrived we wasted no time in taking them to our local lake and paddling around like a couple of kids with new toys. We were pleased with the improvement over the unwieldy, wind susceptible rafts and after several flat water trips we became more familiar with the kayaks. We decided we were ready to take them to a section of the Alsea River which we had floated down many times in our "2 Man" rafts. (Actually, one medium sized person was a raft-full; they really should have been called "2 Midget" rafts.)
The Alsea empties into the Pacific at Waldport, Oregon and above 12 miles of tidewater is a scenic, rocky river with Salmon and Steelhead fishing in the fall and winter, and rafting, canoeing and kayaking in the summer.
We loaded the kayaks in the back of our pickup and drove 20 miles upriver to a boat ramp used mostly by drift boats in Steelhead season. We zipped up our department store life jackets and I stowed my wallet, my watch and glasses in zip lock bags inside a canvas ditty bag and stuck it in the cockpit, behind the seat.
The river was a little high, but we had rafted it in much higher water with no problems. We planned on getting out 2 miles down river at Blackberry Campground and I was going to walk or hitch a ride back upriver to the pickup while Carol waited there with our friends, Andy and Shirley, the campground hosts.
We happily started out, splashing each other with our paddles and maneuvering around the rocks and shallows. In our rafts, when we encountered rapids we would basically try to get in position and then just hang on for the ride. If you got turned around backwards, it didn't matter a lot. We quickly discovered that the kayaks were different, demanding a lot more attention and control.
After a few mild white water stretches, we began to see what the purpose of the spray skirts was. We both had several gallons of water sloshing around inside our boats making them hard to control. Ahead I could see the spray of the biggest rapid on the trip and I yelled at Carol to follow me through it.
As I entered the rapids the bow of my already water logged boat dipped under a wave, filling the cockpit completely. In what seemed like slow motion I rolled over and slipped into the icy water. I looked back to see Carol doing exactly the same thing and soon we were swimming side by side hanging on to our swamped boats. I looked downstream and saw my ditty bag merrily bobbing its way around a bend in the river. Following along behind it was Carol's paddle and my hat.
We worked our way to the shore, emptied our kayaks and took stock.
"Why didn't I tie that bag in my boat?" I lamented, "There goes my drivers license, my credit cards, even my social security card!"
"Yep," Carol said, "and maybe along with spray skirts we should have got some of those gizmos that tie your paddle to the boat so they don't go bye-bye like mine did!"
Shivering, I took my paddle apart so we each had half and we started down river canoe style. There was one more section of rapids to go through just above the campground and I was afraid that we'd never get through it with our makeshift paddles. We really didn't need another dunking.
"Look!" Carol yelled, "There's your hat!"
Sure enough, caught on some submerged underbrush, was my waterlogged hat. As I dragged it out of the water, she yelled again, "And there's my paddle!" Caught between some rocks near the shore was Carol's paddle and in a few minutes we were back to almost normal.
As we rounded a bend, I spotted a welcome sight ahead. Barely floating in a back wash my ditty bag was dangerously close to the main current, and I paddled furiously to get it before it could head downstream or sink. Evidently the zip lock bags had enough air in them to keep it afloat.
"Maybe we should get some of those dry bags, too." Carol observed as I retrieved my goodies.
We navigated the last rapid without any problems and hauled out on a muddy beach with a steep bank at the upper end of the campground. By the time we got out of the kayaks and drug them up the bank through the Blackberry bushes we were wet, muddy, scratched and exhausted.
Thankfully our friends had a campfire going in front of their motor home, and when they saw the shape we were in, they built it into a roaring fire to warm us up. Andy drove me up to retrieve our truck and we soon had the kayaks in the back, the heater on high and headed home.
The next day we were at the kayak dealer looking at the accessories catalog.
Written by: Bob Cleland - Waldport, OR
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