Sunday, November 13, 2011

Extreme Flatwater

It’s been a little over a month now that we’ve been out here paddling down this Greenish River. Time to take stock. Since we packrafted out of the Wind River Mountains where the Green was a near-vertical brook tumbling through fallen trees, boulder piles, and snowfields we’ve seen over 600 miles of country, two reservoirs, and a few scattered bridges near the couple of towns we passed. Upon leaving the mountains, the river flattened out promptly into a meandering mirror for the banks to look themselves over. And it’s stayed that way.


Rapids? Some wave trains here and there, a few boulders to dodge. But barely enough excitement to get the blood flowing. If you want rapids, this isn’t the source for you. There’s been so much flat paddling that we’ve taken to calling this sport “extreme flatwater.” A sport that we’re sure will soon overtake the daydreams of adrenaline sports enthusiasts everywhere looking for the newest, wildest fix.

Now it might take some time to catch on. We’re well aware of the drawbacks. It may not have all the usual selling points: no parachutes to fail, no avalanches to ride, no waterfalls to get happily pummeled under. But it is extreme. Very. Why? Because this sport provides the opportunity to experience something even more dangerous than broken bones to the well-being of otherwise seemingly sane minded individuals: time and space to think. And observe. And float. And think some more. Sometimes more profound, sometimes less.

Important questions do arise though. For instance, what are the ethics of blogging? Is it the river trip’s equivalent of a Facebook status update? An attempt to find justification for whatever it is you happen to be doing by forcing those absent to become aware of the fact that you are indeed still doing something. Perhaps. These remain open questions, unresolved.

In extreme flatwater, the best questions remain unresolved. That way they can be recycled each day of paddling through flat water, moving very slowly, with plenty of twists and turns, towards that still far off sea. Another problem: Why are we doing this? A good and difficult question, best pondered while cursing over a pile of stinking, smoking tamarisk twigs trying to get a pot of river water to boil. And the instant refried beans to follow don’t always provide a satisfactory answer. Especially not the next morning.

But as I’ve had some time to think about it, I’m going to propose a reply, a reason for paddling all these weeks and maybe also the factor that makes this sport so extreme. Love. Love of the River. Now I hesitated to use such an antiquated word. (The word ‘love’ that is. ‘River’ isn’t antiquated yet, but that’s not to say it won’t be soon.) My generation is cautious about using it. And not without good reason. For us, it reeks of naivety and unseemly emotion, the domain of Indy rock bands and their superior counterparts, country musicians. It’s for the emos. For the rest of us—those who are capable of exercising some restraint with the publicizing of our feelings—it’s clearly better to signify our appreciation of something by slapping a guilt-free, virtual thumbs-up of approval on it. We “like” it. With our Facebooks. A youtube video of a baby monkey riding backwards on a pig, for example. Liking is harmless and entertaining: nobody gets hurt.

But here I am, admitting it to the internet and all other interested parties. I don’t just like this river. I love it. Call me names if you wish, but if it’s not love, then what is it? It’s not ambition or determination alone that get feet slammed into frozen shoes every morning. It’s not pure masochism that keeps pushing sore shoulder blades through poppings and creakings: for 30 miles a day: against the wind: on flatwater. And it’s not simple pleasure that is felt when a bend in the river reveals another abstraction of a bygone era: the Beautiful. When evening’s electric emphasis discovers the gold in cottonwood leaves, suddenly. The feeling is something closer to deep gratitude with a sense of being undeservedly chosen. Wonder. And that beauty returns, in some form or another, with every day spent on the living river.

Besides, what, other than love, would drive somebody to spend four months out here floating through the winter? Insanity, boredom. Probably. But those things can lead to love too. Freud might blame it on a failed love of another type attempting to make itself sublime. But what would love’s success look like anyway, sublime or not? One thing that's extreme about extreme flatwater is the difficulty of failing. You just have to paddle. That’s all. That challenge is hard to capture on a GoPro. But there is also the extreme difficulty that arises if you spend too much time paddling. The difficulty of loving anything mortal, the river included. Such an act comes with the fear and trembling (that’s right adrenaline junkies) of admitting that another's life has taken hold of your own. Taken hold by giving unconditionally while, at the same time, needing to be cared for. Fear because the living river has become inseparable from life itself, and yet both remain finite and fragile. It comes with fits and stammers and the surveying of escape routes. There are many. But if you choose to stay with this liquid love, to see it through, then it seems there will necessarily be rising responsibly, loss, and the need to surrender among it’s many joys. And this is what extreme flatwater is all about: the rush that comes with the loss of the control that would otherwise consume so much of our lives, the riding of the waves (or in this case the slow current) of the river towards its usurpation of our ego’s power, the high that is the abdication of our sovereignty. In the name of the river. In the name of love.

Alright, enough jabber. Things are getting a little country in here. Which is easy to do out here in the country. And all this commentary is making the whole feeling doubtful. (Maybe it would be better to just decide to really really like the river instead.) I don’t know. But I can say that the last four days floating through Desolation Canyon alone (Will and I decided to tackle it solo) have brought up all these concerns. It’s been a powerful few days of moonlight in the trees and silence hanging from the canyon walls like a blanket. 80-some miles of seeing evidence of other people only in footprints and airplanes. Perhaps the lack of company has got me thinking about love. Plato, after all, claimed the movement of love is driven onward by a lack. And maybe he knew. If so, then what calls us flatists to the desert river, again and again, may very well be a lack. A lack in our too civilized hearts of rich solitude, space, sunlight, and the quiet murmur of waters. But there is no lack, it seems to me, of profit, of comfort, of progress, of green grass or fossilized gas, the reasons some people would give for wanting to sacrificing the free gifts of the free river to the free market. In fact, there is an excess of these things that our capitalists say are lacking; they’re just poorly distributed at the moment. Nevertheless, these reasons still convince people somehow. An estimated 7 to 9 billion dollar pipeline from Flaming Gorge in Utah to Colorado’s front range wants to begin to dry these canyons that have been our home for the last two weeks. And oil and gas interests want to continue to encroach on the wild boarders of Desolation Canyon. Such threats to a loved one, in the name of cheap energy and Denver lawns actually do give kick of fear and despair to us flatwater enthusiasts. The intensity of which is on par with running waterfalls. So we pray and hope and blog.

But we’re cheered by this fact: there is more paddling to do. We have Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons ahead. For the next 120 miles, there won’t even be a riffle. Just the thought of it makes my palms sweat and gets my heart pounding. Extreme flatwater. Soon to be all the rage.


  1. I understand why, its just ashamed we don't have eyes on back of our heads for the view too...

    paddle on (Powell is enormous, Labryinth is cool, but not as 'grand' as everything else you are seeing).

  2. Hey guys. I walked down the river in 1998 while in college. I now live in c springs. It would be fun to get together, have a beer and compare notes when you return from el gulfo.

  3. while you are out there on more flatwater, ponder this Podmore: if you were to write a book about your trip, how would it go?

    cheers to a well written post, and to many more to come! my thoughts are with you and will, be safe!


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