(Please note, I did not take this picture and that's a canoe, not a kayak you can see in the foreground, but this is a great example of what most of the trip looked like.)
I know I made the capsize sound totally dramatic and intense, and it was definitely intense in the moment. I had some major panic moments, especially in the very beginning when my hand kept slipping off the bottom of my boat and I couldn't catch my breath. But once I was standing on my feet with all my friends around me, the feeling of drama quickly passed.
I'm actually glad I capsized. It was a major learning experience. True: it's highly unlikley you'll capsize on the average, flat-water paddling adventure. But there are always those unpredictable little events that can take you by surprise. Now that I've done it, I'm not scared of it anymore. I know my life jacket will keep my head above water, I know I'll eventually manage to get to safety, I know I won't die from panic. Now I can use that experience to help make better choices about packing up my stuff (everything goes in dry-bags from now on) and outfitting myself (NO MORE COTTON! It takes forever to dry...).
I spent about 30 minutes recouperating on the rocky island before we loaded my boat back up and hit the water again. I definitely felt weird for a little while, but it passed pretty quickly and before I knew it we were making time down the Willamette. I think the first day was the most eventful. First, I capsized. Then I saw a dead guinea pig floating in the river. That was weird. Then we stopped in a tiny little town (Harrisburg?) and walked up from the waterfront park, past a Liquor and Antiques store to a mini-mart where we bought snacks and beer. Beer was an especially welcome treat that day.
Then we found this crazy place to camp. We had a vague outline of the spots we might try to camp, but we always knew we could pick and choose as we got to the end of each day. There are so many options along the river, not necessarily established campgrounds, just nice spots on publicly owned land. That first night we found this really strange spot that was already outfitted with a fire pit, a couple of tables, the metal framework for a gazebo and a bunch of firewood. The highlight of night one was catching one of the tables on fire. Twice. But that's a long story.
The rest of the trip got progressively harder. Waking up every day after a shitty night's sleep on the ground (despite two thermarests and a cozy sleeping bag) and hopping right back in the boat for 25-30 miles of paddling took its toll. Not to mention, the conditions got worse the further we went. The last couple of days of the trip were plagued by brutal headwinds. A headwind to a kayaker is like a really steep hill to a cyclist. You have to pump twice as hard to go half as fast and if you stop paddling for a second you get blown backwards. It sucks.
Despite the difficulties and the building exhaustion, the trip was really, really incredible. We made some very memorable stops along the way. We stopped on the fourth of July in Corvallis, which was right in the middle of a big Fourth festival, and wandered into town for a drink. My favorite kayaker of the moment, Holly, had been fantasizing all day about a martini and I'd been fantasizing about tequila shots, so you can imagine how bummed we were when we walked into the first open bar we found and realized they only served beer and wine. The rest of the crew were happy with that, but Holly and I put our heads together and decided to run off by ourselves to another bar down the street for our liquor fix.
And what a fix it was! It was happy hour, so our drinks were only $2.25 a piece. The bartender had to tell us four times that $4.50 was for BOTH drinks, not for each. It was such a good deal we each got two and then wandered back down to the other bar to help our friends kill a couple of pitchers of really good beer. Needless to say, by the time we left bar number two and headed down to Safeway for some more supplies, Holly and I were lit up like a couple of christmas trees and behaving just this side of embarrassing. It was really awesome.
The next day we stopped in Independence and ate the best food you could ever imagine. There's something really cool about paddling your boat for 4 hours, then pulling up at some landing in some small town and wandering up among all the normal people, carrying your life vest and your paddle so they don't get stolen off your boat. Everybody wants to know where you've been and where you're going and everybody is impressed with the dimensions of your journey.
It's also pretty amazing to be able to come off the water and walk into a restaurant and order a huge meal and eat every last scrap of it because your body is DYING for more calories because you're working so hard. That feels pretty good. I ate an entire half-pound hamburger at that restaurant in Independence and it was the best hamburger I've ever eaten in my life. I felt like Popeye eating a can of spinach, like my whole body was rejuvinating and my muscles were bulging with every bite.
Our stops in little towns were fun, but the bulk of the trip was obviously spent on the water paddling. For the most part it was a gorgeous paddle. We saw, as usual, tons and tons of birds. So many herons and osprey they almost got boring. We also saw several bald eagles, which are so stunning and relatively rare they could never get boring. We saw farm animals as well, a little herd of sheep grazing near the bank, and two big fat black cows laying right down by the water like two old ladies enjoying the evening together. They were the best. We also saw a deer or two and a nutria sitting on the riverbank. A nutria is a like a beaver with a rat-like tail rather than a flat beaver tail. That nutria was huge.
Of course, the most titillating thing I saw on the trip (as I mentioned on my other blog) was the people having sex. That was funny and unexpected. We were drifting down this quiet back channel past a private island when they slowly came into view. Actually, they were never totally in view, most of the action was obscured by a couple of lawn chairs, but I could see and hear enough to know what was going on. Good for them!
By the end of the trip, I was spent. I lagged far behind the crowd during the last two days and felt sore and exhausted. My arms were practically numb from the constant paddling and my back was killing me from sitting for so long in the same position. One-hundred-twenty miles is a long way to go in a kayak on a slow moving river. It was a challenge and I'm still wiped out, but I'm so glad I went and I'm already making plans for the next trip. It feels really good to take something like that on and see it through. Not to mention I've come home with a fabulous tan and muscles I didn't have before. That's got to count for something.