The instant your boat flips, the roiling rapids become a murky green silence. It's a rhythmic quiet, the whoosh of water not unlike the sound of blood rushing through your head. It's late afternoon on the Animas River in Durango, Colo., and after spending all day preparing for it, I've just kayaked through the river's biggest rapid. Upside down.
This morning, groggy from a nervous night, I meet my guide, Ian, at Four Corners Riversports. He's a ropy, ageless man so fit he looks elvish. The kind of guy who has a Free Tibet sticker on his Forerunner not because it's cool, but because he spent a year there with the Peace Corps.
I watch a safety video about "strainers," logs and branches that, if you don't paddle around them, can suck you under and hold you there until next spring's runoff. I figure this scenario must be what the huge, serrated knife strapped to Ian's chest is for, but I'm not clear on whether it's for hacking branches or slitting your wrists when you know you're done for. Ian smiles. "It's for slicing cheese at lunch," he says.
We perch our boats on the bank of a small pond. I hope I don't look as dorky as I feel in a tank-top wetsuit and booties. I squeeze my hips into the plastic shell, my legs bent so my knees brace the top and sides of the boat. I scoot to the edge and nose-dive in. The boat bounces back and instantly centers, with me still gratefully above water.
Watching me wobble, Ian tells me how to escape from my kayak underwater. I'm to pull the strap in front of me (a.k.a. the oh-crap strap) to disconnect me from the cockpit. Then I'm to push out of the overturned kayak and swim to the surface.
"Now rock your hips and let yourself go over," he says.
"Just go right over?" I ask.
"Don't worry," he says. "The worst that can happen is you'll get wet.
It doesn't take a vivid imagination to conjure a few worse things that can happen when you're trapped upside down in a tight plastic boat underwater. Even so, I rock myself over and, after just a second of panic, pull the strap and wriggle out. It's instinctive and surprisingly easy.
It's midday now, and the August sun is hot. After spending the rest of the morning honing my skills in glassy Turtle Lake, I'm settling into my boat at the river's edge. My legs and ankles are sore, my shoulders and stomach muscles burning. "Now do exactly what I say," Ian says, his tone stern. I push out into the water, and my boat scrapes over the smooth stones, which make a glunk sound as they knock along the sandy riverbed. Then the current takes hold of me. It's much faster than it looks, and I'm speeding past Ian, who's pulled off into an eddy. "Dig deep, he yells. I turn my panicked paddling into an even pulling, and I quickly cross out of the flow and swirl up into the eddy.
I watch Ian make smooth turns in and out of the current. In the lake, I carved the boat after only a few shaky circles, crunching my hip up toward my shoulder with my abs. It wasn't unlike turning on skis: When I got it right, I felt the difference between just sliding through a turn and setting the boat on edge. Now, however, it's all I can do to stay upright. "Look and lean downstream," he says. It's counterintuitive, but I learn quickly: If I lean upstream, water catches the edge of my boat and flips me faster than I can say "oh crap."
We work our way down the river and, with the exception of a few tiny rapids, it's mellow and anxiety-free. Towering, fragrant cottonwoods and willows arch over the banks and give way to fields of sagebrush and pinion pine. Then the sun starts to ebb, and the water gets deeper, greener and scarier. The brown river stones grow to purplish boulders. We're getting close to the big rapid, so we do the sensible thing: Beach our boats and go scout ahead.
It's easily five times bigger than anything we've encountered. "Do all of your students do this?" I aask Ian. "No," he says, taking off his nose plug. "But a lot do."
Back in my boat, I take a deep breath and follow as Ian edges into the current. We round the bend, and the river surges underneath me like an ocean wave. The water's so fast, I feel like I'm riding a spooked horse without any reins. I can't think. I can't breathe. The water turns frothy white, and I see Ian navigating the first part of the rapid ahead of me. I paddle furiously to remain facing downstream. I can't get myself in the right position, and I'm on top of the rapid, cockeyed. I rush over it and slap the water with my paddle to stay afloat. I can hear Ian yelling at me from the shore, but I can't process what he's saying. The whitewater is sweeping me into the side of the canyon, straight into a boulder. Then I'm under, and all is quiet.
The current feels much slower underwater. I open my eyes. All I see at first is green water, then air bubbles floating to the surface. I look down into the dark green depths, half expecting to see a spotted trout hovering there. It's cool and lovely here, peaceful even, and I have a vague feeling of wanting to stay awhile. Which, of course, is quickly trumped by my need to breathe. I pull my strap, wriggle to the surface and take a deep breath of evening air, sweet with the scent of weeping willows.
I hoist myself onto a rock. "You OK?" asks Ian. I perform a self-inventory: I'm wet. And cold. And still terrified. But I've got so much adrenaline rushing through me that I'm already halfway up the bank, thinking about what I need to do differently the next time.
"Yeah," I reply, my voice sounding surprised. "I guess I am OK."
"You're not going to do it again, are you?" he asks.
Despite my shivers, I feel a huge smile stretch across my face. "What, and risk getting wet?"
HERE'S WHERE YOU CAN GET YOUR FEET WET
The Animas, a free-flowing river that wends through downtown Durango, has one of the longest boating seasons in Colorado. Book a class with Four Corners Riversports:
>Jackson Hole, Wyo.
There's no better way to view the spectacular wildlife of the Bridger-Teton National Forest than by paddling down the mellow upper Snake River. Snake River Kayak and Canoe will take you there.
>Forks of Salmon, Calif.
With an annual run of its namesake fish, the Salmon River is revered as one of the nation's most pristine. The all-inclusive Otter Bar Lodge and Kayak School operates a remote lodge right on its banks.
>Bryson City, N.C.
The Nantahala River is a kayaking mecca, situated in the Great Smoky Mountains. Stay a weekend at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and you'll likely learn from former Olympians.