I shouldered my electric blue Perception 9.5 kayak, reached out and grabbed my yellow double-bladed kayak paddle and carried both over to the bank, stepping delicately down the seven uneven steps that lead to the Sangamon River.
I brought the kayak around my shoulder and plopped it down into the Sangamon with a splash.
Next is the tricky part; there’s really no graceful way to transition from a concrete step into a floating kayak with a seat an inch or so below the water’s surface. I lay the paddle down across the front of the kayak’s cockpit, squat down and reach out as the kayak wobbles unsteadily in the water.
I put one foot down on the bottom of the ‘yak, put one hand on each side and plop my butt down on the seat. The craft rocks unsteadily, but it’s all good.
I stuff my feet under the bow, shove off the bank, zero out my Timex Expedition wristwatch and push start. I’m off on my afternoon river journey.
As usual, I’ve got lots to do today, so I figure I’ll stay out for 30 or 40 minutes, paddling upriver for about 20 minutes, turn around, and then catch a ride downstream with the gentle current. Then get on with the day.
Upstream paddling rarely presents a problem in the Sangamon, with current averaging 1 mile per hour.
You have to keep paddling though, or you quickly turn around and head the other direction.
But I’m fresh and invigorated, ready to get some exercise and experience the outdoors from the vantage point of an upright seat on the surface of the Sangamon.
I’ve hit the rowing machine at the gym before, and I like it well enough, but there’s really no comparison to paddling your own ‘yak, propelling yourself forward with each stroke.
I complete my starboard stroke with my right arm low and back – left up and forward – the paddle then dips in to port just off the bow. Now the left hand pulls back; a fulcrum for the forward pushing of the right as the paddle glides smooth, deep and strong through the water.
Over and over. Around and around. The repeated, rotating pushing and pulling of opposite arms makes me feel like a well-oiled machine, making my own way upriver fueled by sheer force of will as the bow splits the water and my little ‘yak kicks up an impressive wake.
The steady rhythm sets the mind in motion.
I know every curve and nearly every bottom contour of the river here. I know where the river channel flows and how it flows, pinging off opposite banks as it flows around curves and through the shoals that have built up hither and thither.
In low water, I know which side to steer clear of – I don’t like impeding progress by scraping on the gravelly river bottom, and I hate it when my paddle hits the bottom during a long, deep and smooth stroke.
You never paddle the same river twice. In fact I’ve paddled this particular stretch dozens of times, and I have yet to paddle it twice.
Sometimes it’s higher, sometimes lower, so I can adjust my route accordingly. Sometimes trees I thought were permanently lodged in the river have simply disappeared. Who knows where they went?
New trees, branches or logs may have arrived from upstream or fallen in from the bank, creating new obstacles to maneuver around, new current flows and new eddies.
The neighbors change too, not all of them friendly.
Ahead a Canada goose swims out, honking a warning. He and his woman have staked out this property for their springtime home. Never mind the deeds held by riverfront property owners.
Yes, the trouble with creatures in nature is they have zero respect for the rule of law. Sheesh.
New flotsam and jetsam always shows up too. The litter of careless river rats who can’t tell the difference between a river and a dumpster. I paddle over and pick up what I can, stuffing it behind my seat. Here’s a plastic tray of gourmet oatmeal raisin cookies.
There hung up on a tree root is an empty heavy plastic bag that contained wood fireplace pellets. Ironically, the bag claims they are “environmentally friendly”. Note to pellet stove owners: they’re referring to the pellets, not the bag.
Up ahead in the distance, I rustle up a small flock of wood ducks who fly off long before I get close enough to see the male would duck’s renowned beautiful plumage. Plumage that almost led it to become extinct when it was hunted for lady’s hats.
Often while paddling, especially when solo, my mind drifts to ponder ideas for future columns I might write. I’m enjoying myself so perhaps I’ll write a column about this river journey. Maybe even two. Ya’ never know.
Which reminds me. It may be getting about time to turn around.
I look down at my Expedition and see that 34 minutes and 41 seconds have already passed. Oops. That’s why I carry my watch. If I didn’t, I’d indeed get carried away by the river. Even when going upstream.
So, somewhat disappointingly, I realize I need to draw this particular chapter to a close. It’s time to head back home and get on with the day.
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, March 10, 2016, by Scott Hays
Next up: Afternoon River Journey: Down