For all the rhapsodizing I do about the great outdoors, occasionally I wish I had taken up needlepoint, calligraphy or some other sedentary pursuit that would keep me out of harm’s way.
Such reflections typically manifest during inopportune moments, such as the time a grizzly bear tore after and damn near caught me outside Alaska’s Denali National Park, or when a shark circled the 8-foot rowboat a buddy I were rowing across Long Island Sound in the middle of the night, or when a blizzard pinned three of us climbers inside a two-man tent for days at 19,000 feet on Mt. Aconcagua in the Andes, or approaching Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon.
Anyway, on a much less dramatic scale, I had one of those moments the other day while kayaking down a set of ledge rapids on Enfield’s Scantic River known as The Staircase.
Somehow I had gotten hung up on a “smoothie,” or submerged flat rock, just above a narrow chute through which I would have to squeeze before plunging over a 2-foot drop.
Aware of my predicament, a group of paddlers spun around in an eddy 50 yards downstream to prepare to fish me out of the icy water if I happened to flip.
Among them was my buddy Phil Warner, one of New England’s top paddlers and rescue instructors, who once helped me back in my boat when I turtled on the ocean side of Fishers Island. Thus, I felt reasonably confident I wouldn’t be visiting Davy Jones’s Locker – especially since I was wearing a life jacket and helmet – but Phil had mentioned that just a week before he had to come to the aid of one paddler on the Scantic who had overturned, smashed into the rocks and broke his nose.
Having fractured my nozzle on two separate non-nautical occasions I had no desire to go for a trifecta. Plus, it’s kind of embarrassing to go over in front of a crowd.
So I scooched forward, bouncing the kayak up and down and rocking from side to side. Freeing yourself from a rock in rapids requires a leap of faith, which came at the instant the plastic hull broke free and I shot forward.
I could see Phil wildly swinging his arm, directing me to aim toward the center of the river, away from boulders that jutted directly ahead. I jabbed my right paddle into the boiling current in a low brace, the kayak dutifully pivoted, and I skittered past the rocks, plowed through a short standing wave and squirted out like a watermelon seed.
“Nicely done,” one of the paddlers remarked when I caught up to the pack.
“I really didn’t feel like swimming today,” I replied.
The Staircase is the final challenge in the 5-mile Scantic Spring Splash Canoe and Kayak Race, scheduled for Saturday, March 30.
The first hurdle at about the 2-mile mark is a tortuous portage around a 12-foot dam, forcing you to lug your boat up and down a steep detour known as Heart Attack Hill, and then relaunching just above the hairiest drop, Stocker’s Rapids.
Tim Nutt of Vernon, a top competitor who helped organize last week’s practice run for Saturday’s race, gave a detailed tutorial on successfully navigating Stocker’s, culminating in a seemingly effortless plunge through a roiling gap followed by lightning-quick strokes to avoid two menacing boulders.
After watching Tim and Phil smoothly pass through Stocker’s I uncharacteristically decided discretion would be the better part of valor and joined a handful of paddlers on a portage around the rapids, still thinking about my nose.
Most of the other paddlers who dared to tackle Stocker’s the other day stayed upright, but a few Maytagged in the churn and wound up shivering on shore while they emptied their boats. At least nobody wound up in the emergency room.
After Stocker’s paddlers must contend with Chimney Rapids and finally, the dreaded Staircase, only a hundred yards or so from the finish, where crowds typically stand on a bridge like NASCAR spectators, hoping to witness some carnage.
You can watch YouTube videos of past races in which wild cheers erupt whenever someone flips.
I hope I don’t give onlookers something to celebrate this Saturday.
The Scantic River Watershed Association, sponsors of the 22nd edition of the Scantic Spring Splash Canoe and Kayak Race, will hold registration from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Powder Mill Barn on South Maple Street. The registration fee is $20 per participant but is reduced to $18 for those who donate a non-perishable food item to the Enfield Food Shelf.
The race starts at Quality Avenue in Somers. Volunteers restrict parking so plan on a quick boat drop and then drive your car to the end and take a free bus shuttle back to the start.
Five novice classes start first at 11:30 a.m. The 13 racing classes follow at noon. There is a class for everybody regardless of skill level – even those of us who decide to portage Stocker’s and get hung up on The Staircase.