Running under water

Paddling a wild river in France. Reflections on self.

– The kind of praise ego can’t handle –

It was one of those summers in the early 80s when our enjoyment of physical activities was probably at its peak. Although wholeheartedly involved in our careers, we both always managed to carve out almost 2 months per year for doing something strenuous, something physically demanding and new. We had spent that summer in France again. For several weeks we had played around Arcachon, windsurfing on the Atlantic, then rushed over to climb Mt.Blanc – the highest peak of Europe – in a heroic 3-day assault without even bothering to acclimatize or prepare in any way, and then descended into La Provence again, this time to advance our paddling skills.

Paddling rivers was always on the agenda. Most of the big long European rivers we had “done” already, those arteries of culture, lined with castles, ancient cities, and history wherever you looked. Whitewater was our new aspiration. I had read exhilarating stories about the Durance and thought that this magnificent wild mountain river was perfect for training our new whitewater skills.

Our great little whitewater canoe was freshly repaired after we had literally broken it in two on the upper Rhein in Switzerland the year before. There we had drastically underestimated the brute force of “real big water”. When we flipped it in a huge rotor I came up all right but couldn’t see Parvin. I dived to look for her and saw her floating deep under water, still kind of in a seated position, carefree, not moving a muscle. In terror I reached out, grabbed her hair, her wonderful abundant hair, as if it was made for that purpose, and pulled her to the surface. I couldn’t care less about the boat then, and it promptly wrapped around a rock, and eventually we had two half boats. Later, questioned about her strangely passive behavior under water, she explained that, in one of her recent safety courses (for teachers’ education), she had been instructed, to never try to fight the current when you fall into turbulent water and just hang in there and let the water play you until it spits you out. We finally agreed that the concept was maybe correct, but there should still be substantial cooperation to ensure a delivery to the surface as soon as possible. The whole experience had been frightening but also exhilarating. With a little more skill these big white waters should be “doable”, even with our canoe, I thought.

So we put in, this time equipped with new helmets, and started paddling the Durance. I had heard that there was some kayak-competition event at the famous “Black Hole of the Durance”, but I didn’t know where that was. The river was much faster than anything we had paddled before. We almost flipped many times and added a number of new deep scratches on the boat when we hit rocks, but we kept going and gaining confidence. In those times we didn’t think much of eddy-hopping and scouting the rapids, we just peered ahead anxiously searching for the best passage and hoped for the best.

The stretch we paddled had a few bridges but very little human development, and behind the thick timber forest on the banks towered magnificent snowy mountains in every direction.

After many hours of relentless excitement and past a short stretch of fairly calm water we saw and heard something huge waiting ahead. I thought I could see that it was not a waterfall or something impassable, but all I could really make out was a wall of dancing foam glistening in the sun. Slowly back-paddling, we drifted closer. “This looks terrible!” Parvin groaned. The black-green wall of one gigantic standing wave materialized under the foam. But there was already no turning around or escaping to shore anymore. The drag was enormous, the only thing left to do was to keep the boat in line with the current and be prepared for bracing. When we raced toward the first towering wave I suddenly saw many, many people on the right bank next to the rapid and colorful banners and boats, but it didn’t quite penetrate into my brain yet.

When I yelled my last desperate commands to Parvin I saw her already vanish in white foam, and then the whole boat disappeared. Fractions of seconds later I was catapulted upwards and was only kept from flying away by the canvas cover over my knees. Paddle high, I waited for which side to brace, but I had actually lost all sense where the water surface really was. Then I saw Parvin again when she got almost lifted out of her cockpit. When she came down she crashed with the boat completely under water, and I felt only my head sticking out. It was unbelievable that we were still upright. I probably made a few desperate useless paddle strokes without really knowing what I was doing. When Parvin emerged from the last wave the water surface was nearly a boat length below us, and the boat crashed down like a bomb.

I don’t know if it really was the result of the first little bit of skill or just plain luck when Parvin did a courageous, determined right pull and I a hard stroke on the left. We really saw the vast eddy on the right only when we shot into it, we braced both to the right when the boat instantly wanted to flip, and – we still have to laugh when we remember the scene – zoomed in the most elegant arc over the calm eddy to the shore, and came to a perfect stop, without adding the slightest paddle stroke or anything, touching the bank so gently that it wouldn’t have spilled a cup of coffee. Streams of water were still running off the boat when we almost playfully touched the saving shore.

Now we became aware of hundreds of people all around us and kayaks everywhere. There was this roar, a sound surprisingly different from the deafening roar of the rapid, the roar of human voices. Only when it ebbed away did I recognize what it was: people cheering! We looked up and saw them applauding, waving, beaming in enthusiastic approval, and running toward us. We sat there as if struck by lightning.

“Bravo! C’est genial! Excellent!” they started to bombard us in French, “Ah, c’est des allemands, c’est pas mal!” My French is not too good, especially not when I’m trembling from an overdose of adrenaline. But Parvin soon gave little gasps of surprise “o mon dieu!” and covered her mouth in astonishment, listening to the people, showering her with information. “This is The Black Hole”, she shouted, spinning around toward me and spraying me with water from her wonderful hair. We glanced over to the roaring foam spectacle and looked at each other and all the people, and we burst out in laughter. “This is the competition-event, look at all the kayaks! We ran The Black Hole, can you believe this?” They started to interview Parvin about our expertise; they thought this had never been done in a canoe.

By then I had somewhat recovered my senses, all the undeserved admiration and the thundering rapid so close by made me uneasy. Somehow we didn’t really say much to correct their misjudgment. “Let’s go, before they kill us for cheating!” I said.

I must admit, to be so unexpectedly the direct receiver of such a shower of at first implausible praise, open affection, and, god forbid, visible love, was something you don’t forget easily. Our brilliant performance was of course not skill at all, nor was it done to impress, it was just misunderstood plain luck. The fact that all the love was in a way undeserved could still not completely erase the magical wonderful effect of it. They applauded something that was just a misinterpretation, they loved us for, what I found, was simply not true. We didn’t deserve the affection, so I couldn’t really enjoy it.

For a brief moment though I did, because I was just so taken by surprise. And this sweet little moment strangely lingered in my memory and somehow grew like a seed and emerged one day as a profound lesson. Today I can see how this is indeed one of the tragic results when you carry around too much Self all the time, too much of what you want to be loved. When it happens then, when you suddenly receive the love you have longed for so much, the tragic dilemma is that you can’t really enjoy it. Because, in your compulsive self-definition, you find that it’s not really directed at you, at the one you think you are, at the image of you that you were so busy holding up all the time. But it is directed at somebody they chose themselves to love without consulting you, at the one you certainly are too but are not so sure if you want to be.

“Les voilá repartis, alors, voyous !” “Here they go, watch them !” 400 eyes observed our reentry out of the eddy into the raging current and expected an exemplary, immaculate maneuver. We immediately very nearly flipped because at that time I didn’t even know about the typical problem of this trick. We still heard the surprised outcry of the crowd about our now painfully obvious drastic lack of skill, but in seconds we were carried away.

Just around the next corner, not more than 200 feet away but out of sight and all by ourselves again, we finally did it, and it was almost a relief: we flipped in a harmless, hardly noticeable little rapid that any novice could have mastered and swam.

We swam for a long time. Without much extra floatation the boat did not sink but just rolled around in the current mostly under water. We bravely held on and just accompanied the drifting corpse of a boat, floating ourselves in our life vests. There was no way to drag or maneuver the boat, we just waited for some contact with “terra firma”. We bobbed through some rapids and swallowed water, we touched a few rocks, but there was no way to stop the journey.

We saw a person, standing on the bank ahead, taking picture after picture of our misery. When we rushed by, only 10 feet away from him, he yelled: “Eh, donnez-moi votre adresse. Je vous envoie les photos!” ”What’s your address, I’ll send you the pictures!” I wanted to laugh but only swallowed some more Durance water.

After a long time we finally felt ground under our feet and tried to brake. But the water was still too deep, and our attempts to brake ended in an involuntary running motion. Slow motion running in flowing water with a capsized canoe to hold on to. What a thrill – that’s how running on the moon must feel like. We laughed till we cried and gagged from swallowing even more water.

I think after nearly half a mile we finally were washed ashore in a wide turn. We dragged the boat to safety before it broke again, emptied it out, and – well, we took a long rest, but what else could we do? – we launched again, upright of course, and carried on. Very carefully now, we sneaked around some more terrible rapids, portaged one, and finally successfully ran the last one, in sight of the little town Embrun where our truck was waiting.

Our little canoe lived on for a long time. It carried us on very exotic waters all over the world. We flipped it less and less and never broke it again. We took it on very long trips and learned to flow with the river not on the river. Eventually we ventured out on the open ocean and soon found its limitations there too. It always was “our little canoe” and belonged to our life like a pair of shoes.

             Klaus  written and revised between the 1990s and Dec. 2010

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