One of the under-publicized advantages of being old is that people tend to ignore the fact that you repeat yourself when you speak. I’m not sure that forgiveness applies when you write, however, so I am faced with the dilemma of how to set the stage for the third part of a three-part series. My solution: a feeble attempt at teen type text talk: jan 1, 2000! – kayaking on frozen Hudson River!! – BAD MOVE!!! – stuck in stupid slabs!!!! – why me?!? – why friggin’ ice in the winter?? – who knew??? – what to do???? – HELP !!!! (Note: if this made no sense to you, then I’m not destined to text, and you should probably read the first two installments.)
Most people are familiar with the “Uh, Oh” response. It pops up like a menacing jack-in-the-box at the first sign that things are not going exactly as planned. In its more serious forms, it progresses through the “Oh crap”, “Oh sh**”, and “Oh f***” responses. I was now experiencing a serious case of accelerated asterisks which, if unchecked, would gallop through all of the “Oh *” variations in the blink of an eye.
It’s safe to say that being stymied by pack ice, while trying to kayak back to the place where I entered the river, was a brand new experience for me … one that completely escaped being included in my catalogue of possibilities when I set out this afternoon. As I was trying to come up with a way out of my predicament, I happened to glance toward the west shore of the Hudson and noticed that three people were standing there, and they appeared to be looking in my direction. Perhaps they were just contemplating the fine wintry view of the river and wouldn’t notice me. Fat chance! It became quickly obvious that not only did they notice me, but they were gawking at me. Rather than be cheered by this development, I immediately felt worse.
Maybe it was the fact that I now had to contend with spectators, or maybe it was my building frustration, but for whatever reason, I paddled hard, directly toward the ice, and on reaching that frozen blockade the bow of my kayak slid up on top of it. Then a wonderful thing happened. The sheet of ice split. The first sheet I encountered had not been very thick, and my kayak acted as a water borne cleaver, dividing the ice sheet into two almost without hesitation. I quickly paddled through this newly formed channel and into a pool of ice free water. After taking a few seconds to consider what had just happened, I determined that this would be my strategy for getting back.
I looked to my left and noticed that the shore bound watchers were walking along the bank, matching my progress with their steps, their gaze never leaving me. Oh great, I really didn’t need witnesses to my foolishness! Suddenly, a chill, not caused by the weather, ran down my spine as I considered the possibility that they might have less confidence in my ability than I did. What if they called the Coast Guard? I could see tomorrow’s headlines “Authorities ask: Y – 2 – Kayak? Idiot Kayaker Trapped in the Ice.” That would never do.
The fear of public humiliation often proves to be a much stronger motivator than the fear of physical harm. At a minimum, I had to convey the impression that I was totally in control. I picked the weakest looking slab of ice in front of me, and paddled for it at full tilt. Another split, although the presence of contiguous ice prevented a clear passage. I reversed course, gave myself some room, and charged forward. The split deepened. On the third try I was through, and this time there was a larger body of free water in front of me. Slowly, ever so slowly, I inched nearer the boat launch.
My initial success at splitting the ice slabs was not destined to last. I eventually came upon ice so thick that my first charge resulted in the front part of the kayak becoming elevated and suspended on a substantial floe. From this disconcerting vantage point, it did not appear that I had done any visible damage to the ice sheet. The first time this happened, I became ever so thankful that I had a flat bottom kayak and could remain partially suspended above the river without pitching sideways. Not that I had any visions of myself flailing around in the water while the ice floes floated over me … those visions would come later, creating shivers of apprehension after I was safely back at home and had time to consider all the outcomes that might have happened. But while perched precariously, my immediate reaction was one of anger. How dare that ice not break! The resulting adrenaline rush enabled me to push myself off, back up, and charge once more, this time a little faster. Usually, the split would come by the third try, my energy and determination building with each unsuccessful attempt. In this halting manner, I continued my progress north, my distant companions all the while shadowing me.
Finally, I entered a patch of open water that led directly to the boat launch. As long as I could cross it before more south bound ice blocked my path I would be okay. I barely had enough oomph left in me to sprint to the ramp where, after grinding to a halt, I just sat and grinned like a ten year old who had successfully snuck into the circus.
When regular breathing had been restored, I heard a strange noise, a rhythmic but fast paced thumping, and I looked around for the source. It turned out that I was the source, and the noise I heard was that of my heart beating. It was proof that I had once again triumphed over my own ignorance. Hallelujah! Maybe I would learn from this adventure, maybe it was possible that my penchant for blissful unawareness might be slightly diminished, but now was not the time to consider that. I was too tired to be philosophical, and all I wanted at this time was to go home and become warm and dry.
While I remained slumped in my beached kayak, my constant observers arrived at the park. As they rushed up to see if I was alright, I waived them off with mock disdain. I tried to convey the idea that I had always been in control, while hoping that they would not see through the ruse. Observing that I was not distraught, they turned and left the mini-park, shaking their heads and mumbling as they went. I was not the slightest bit curious about what they were saying.
During the drive home, with the heater and radio both turned up high, I felt surprisingly calm. I understood that this afternoon’s adventure could have turned out very poorly, and I would have to reexamine my nonchalance about adverse conditions. Luck can be fickle, and it might be better to have a backup ally, such as skill. I would check into the possibility of learning about kayaking. I might even enjoy it. In the meantime, I had added the sound of my heart beating to my collection of sounds that help banish distress when I’m out on the river by myself. To the singing while I’m paddling slowly and the grunting when I’m racing, I had now added the beat of a thumping heart during those periods of pure excitement. Though all were reassuring sounds of one man kayaking, perhaps the best sound I could add in the future would be the voice of a paddling partner.
And that is exactly what I have done. I have paddled on a number of New Year’s Days since that first one in 2000, but I have never again done so by myself. Nor will I this year. I will go out with other members of the Malden Yacht Club, this time more comfortably (and safely) attired in a dry suit, and only if the amount of floating ice is in the manageable rather than hazardous category. Though my first attempt did not set the glorious standards I had hoped for, it did nudge me toward becoming a safer paddler. I guess that’s not a bad way to start a new century after all.