Destination Kansas! (Part 1)

Part 1: The world’s longest vacation to Kansas… the biggest (and smallest) electric strip mining shovels… dinosaurs from car parts… Kansas not the flattest, okay… a storm that would make Dorothy think twice… waterfalls in Kansas?… getting the hell into Dodge


“We’re almost there,” said my wife eagerly, uttering words about Kansas possibly unsaid since weary wagon parties heading west. We’d spent the five-hour drive bickering about silly things like her oversleeping, me misplacing the charging cable, us not packing enough sunscreen.

How much sun protection is needed for a week in Kansas? I’d wondered.

Who knew?

Our tension may have related to the destination. I’d crossed Kansas dozens of times, usually at 80 mph. Spotting countless signs for roadside Americana with a just hint of size queen fetishism—World’s Largest Easel! World’s Largest Czech Egg! World’s Largest Electric Strip Mining Shovel!—I got the idea to take the world’s longest vacation to Kansas. Hopefully, seven days would do it.

I caught myself describing the idea to wife and friends as a bit of a joke trip, and I felt guilty about selling it this way. I wanted to do the trip in earnest, without a suitcase full of sarcasm and irony. But even Kansas made this challenging with the state motto Ad Astra Per Aspera, which translates as A Rough Road Leads to the Stars. Apparently, even founding Kansans realized most folks are just passing through on their way to Colorado.

I kept reminding myself to visit without casting judgment. So here we were. Outside a sweeping bend in the highway, a sign read: Kansas Welcomes You! Appropriately, in the grassy distance, there was a big gray barn. I imagined a farmer in overalls deadpanning, “Now why would you want to do a thing like this?”

We started in the southeast corner of the state near the town of West Mineral, where an orange behemoth with black boom rose 16 stories above tree-line. Meet Big Brutus, the world’s largest electric strip mining shovel still in existence. With weather approaching, we were encouraged to climb up ASAP. Scrambling along catwalks we visited the engine room. Eight empty platforms once held the 500hp motors that powered this 11-million-pound rig. During its short operational life, from 1962 to 1974, Brutus blazed across the landscape at 0.22 mph. Using a 90-cubic-yard shovel, Brutus stripped 9 million tons of lignite from a shallow seam, traveling only 12 total miles before being decommissioned following environmental reforms.

Today, the surrounding landscape is crisscrossed by over 1000 linear lakes, rain-filled excavations that comprise the bluntly-named Strip Pits Wildlife Area. Inside the rustic museum, I examined Little Giant. At 700 pounds, it’s of course the World’s Smallest Working Replica of the World’s Largest Electric Strip Mining Shovel.

An afternoon detour next led us to Dinosaur Park in Erie, where ten model dinosaur skeletons were welded from auto parts and scrap metal. They were created by the late Robert Doris, at the suggestion of his daughter, between 1989 and his passing in 2007. A stegosaurus had piston arms and leaf-spring ribs. The spinosaurus’ skull was an oil pan supported by a tin can. Two velociraptors had shocks for forearms and claws made from pruning shears. But the crown jewel was the tyrannosaurus rex. Atop car frame legs, it towered 12 feet, ready to run amok through the rural town.

Heading west through the rolling Flint Hills, darkening clouds foretold weather. NOAA radar revealed a flood advisory and approaching storm the size of Oklahoma. A roadside sign offered a more zombie-like explanation: “Those in the grave who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

We decided to stop for the night, but an internet search didn’t reveal any campgrounds or affordable motels. Outside Sedan, rain poured in waves like a 1950s film noir. Under a gas station shelter, I approached an idling county deputy.  He mentioned two city lakes a few miles north that might have camping. He wasn’t sure.

Passing through the tiny downtown of Sedan, we discovered scant food options on a weeknight in mid-May. I circled back to the Pizza Hut and parked. A knock on the window startled me. The deputy. My mind raced. Why did he follow us? Did I make an illegal u-turn? Did I take inappropriate photos of Big Brutus? Does he know I sold my wife on this trip as a joke?! How do I explain that I’m trying to be a more-rounded American explorer without sounding like someone who is trying way too hard to be a more-rounded American explorer?

The burly fella nodded in his deputy hat, which dripped rainwater from the plummeting downpour he was ignoring. He called the city dispatcher. The first lake had camping. We could pay $10 in the morning at City Hall. He shrugged. Or not, he said. It’s no big deal. We thanked him profusely, and he returned to his vehicle with a friendly smile.

We darted inside under torrential rain and ordered. While waiting, my wife and I perused some advertorials we collected at a gift shop. The Kansas Official Travel Guide offered a page 3 myth-busting section. One box in particular, KANSAS NOT THE FLATTEST, explained six states have less topographic variation than Kansas. In increasingly flat order: Delaware, Minnesota, Louisiana, North Dakota, Illinois, and Florida. Unmentioned was that Kansas lies on an elevated plain, ranging from 679’ in the east to 4039’ in the west. Surprisingly, this makes it the 17th tallest state, compared with its 7th-tallest neighbor to the west, Colorado. That show-off.

Glancing outside, I noticed the street was flooding which suggested we hustle along to our camping adventure. The first lake was not ideal, with the campground exposed on a windward ridge. Accessed by a half-flooded mud road, by morning it might be a lake. Luckily, the second lake presented a leeward event shelter surrounded by short retaining wall to divert runoff. We tent camped on cement. That night, the storm intensified until lightning struck nearby trees. Rain plummeted onto the aluminum roof so furiously it sounded like millions of crickets that could shatter glass. Opening the tent door, I noticed a pool spreading toward us, so I built a diversion dam with canvas tarps and dry bags.

Lying awake, I noticed my wife was staring at me with a mix of fear and judgment. I tried to ease the tension with an observation. Babe, have you ever wondered why Dorothy decides to leave Oz and return to Kansas? Yes, the place had a strange authority structure, with a creepy wizard overseeing a bunch of witches who use flying monkey enforcers, but otherwise it was a technicolor wonderland. She left a cool group of eccentric pals—a talking lion! a sentient scarecrow! a poorly-lubricated robot!—for a black and white plain of tornadoes and flood advisories. Speaking of weather, we heard a tree crash into the lake.

“That’s really hilarious,” said my wife. “And to think you had me worried about sunscreen.”

At some point I dozed off and woke to find the truck didn’t wash away during the night. After breakfast, we finally walked the World’s Longest Yellow Brick Road. Over 10,000 painted bricks, most imprinted with donor names, circled the quaint town. We stopped at city hall, offering $10 and sincere thanks for the World’s Friendliest Deputy of Chautauqua County.

Our whirlwind continued with a joining of two words not normally associated: Kansas and waterfalls. Yet, while searching for camping options the previous night, I stumbled across a webpage at listing 46 waterfalls statewide. Yes, most were unmarked, unnamed, man-made retention dams. But a half-hour west of Sedan we reach Cowley State Fishing Lake, where a falls plummeted 25-feet off a limestone sill, undercutting red shale beneath. The biggest in the state.

“That’s an actual waterfall,” said my wife. “Not a Kansas version of a waterfall.”

Hiking down to the base, a short treacherous trail was embedded with countless glass shards. The river-level rocks were covered with graffiti. But despite the trashed environs, the falls itself was plenty nice and entirely unexpected in America’s 7th flattest state.

Continuing west, the landscape flattened as the Flint Hills gave way to open country. My wife said it looked like we were approaching a distant ocean, not the blue underside of dense clouds. Arriving in Greensburg to visit the World’s Largest Hand-Dug Well, I noticed many torn foundations and grassed-over lots where houses once stood. I got a sinking feeling of déjà vu—even the town’s name seemed familiar.

I learned the reason in the museum. On May 4th, 2007, 95% of Greensburg was destroyed by an EF-5 tornado which killed 12 people. In the aftermath, almost half of the population relocated. Those who stayed rebuilt with the help of strangers, organizations, and relief funds. Feeling slightly ashamed that we came to stare, somewhat comically, at a hole in the ground, I ascended a spiral staircase to an elevated atrium that offered 360-degree views of the rebuilt town.

Since 2007, Greensburg has been progressively rebuilt and now runs entirely on wind energy. Leed’s certified buildings dot the patchy landscape. To the west, a brick and window city hall. To the north, the wood and glass 5.4.7 Arts Center. The original whitewashed planks of Big Well Museum were destroyed and replaced by this new sustainable building. A remarkable feat.

Finally, we descended into the dark well. Before the tornado, the big well was Greensburg’s claim to fame. Completed in 1888, the town’s original water supply is 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide, with walls of fitted stone. The reason for the well’s size? To convert a homestead into a county seat by drawing residents, including those from a competing town, two miles away. Across from the gift shop, there was a map with pins denoting visitors’ origins. While a few pins emerged from far-off places like Tokyo, Sydney, or Anchorage, the vast majority resided within the borders of Kansas. Upon leaving the museum, Tornado sirens howled. Along with an icy wind, the blaring alarm gave us chills before the announcement it was just a test.

Heading west, we crossed the Arkansas River, one I knew well for its rushing headwaters upstream, near the Collegiate Peaks in Colorado. We’d crossed it twice downstream during the past two days. North of Arkansas City and on the outskirts of Wichita, the river was deep, fast, and brown. But this third time, the river trickled like a creek through a scrubby channel. It was a surprising discovery, a river going dry in its middle section, until I recalled we were near the 100th meridian, the longitude that climatically bisects the United States. To the east, moisture and humidity are plentiful. To the west, semi-arid lands at lower elevations receive less than 20 inches of precipitation per year and irrigation is necessary for crops.

Just outside Dodge City, we crossed the Arkansas River for the fourth time. Steel asterisks lined the levees near downtown, flood debris structures resembling the Czech Hedgehogs that guarded the beaches on D-Day. In the dry riverbed, there was a guy walking his dog. We pulled into the enticingly-named Water Sports Campground, only to find it sitting above an in-stream reservoir that looked more like a vegetated meadow with the shallowest of lagoons. On the far side, several docks sat askew on grass. Bicycle tracks weaved through the channel.

Inside the campground office, a man sitting in a plastic chair gestured at the kayaks on my truck roof. “Hope you’re not planning to paddle those boats in the river?” We all chuckled, and I asked him where the water went. “Been dry for twenty years.” Extensive groundwater pumping of the Ogallala Aquifer in eastern Colorado and Western Kansas had suppressed the water table, causing the river to seep underground for miles.

During dinner at a downtown bar & grill, I asked the owner, Ray, about the debris structures. He joked they kept the cowboys and Indians on their own sides of the river. Or maybe for herding cattle to market? Unsure, Ray called to Amos, a stocky man in cowboy hat. Soon, the four of us shared the booth like old pals. Amos explained the structures were installed in the 1980s by the Army Corps of Engineers to catch woody debris during floods. Had it flooded since then? Amos sheepishly shook his head.

Amos pointed at a friend at the bar wearing a purple Kansas State tee-shirt. The man was supposedly a billionaire farmer and fellow KU alum whose plane they’d flown today to a booster event. The farmer grew mostly wheat and milo. When I asked what milo was, Amos seemed surprised and struggled to define before settling on a feed crop. My phone discreetly revealed it as sorghum.

Ray, a Puerto Rican transplant, shared photos of a recent trip to the island, where he took his son on a chinchorréo. The word literally describes a hand-fishing net. Figuratively, it was a trip where one tried to catch a lot of different places.

“That’s what we’re doing,” I blurted, sharing photos from our trip.

“I’ll be darned,” said Amos, a native of the state. “I never realized there were waterfalls in Kansas.”


The Destination Kansas! adventure continues in part 2, with:

Maybe I am from France… tourist or local boy?… no disputes about the barbed wire capital… post rocks and mushroom rocks… this salt museum is not no nonsense… Velveeta the female health robot… a symbol of patriotism with a side of cereal grains.

A Day-trip Adventure to the California DMV

I thought I was prepared. I clutched pink slip, smog certificate, and a stack of pre-completed forms like they were permits to climb Everest or descend the Grand Canyon. But I wasn’t expecting this. There were two lines stretching out the door from the DMV office in my hometown. One line was maybe 50 people following the cement-paneled exterior wall and stopping just short of the full parking lot. The other line had hundreds, wrapping around the building, along the sidewalk, and reaching halfway to the nearby above-ground BART station. Add another hundred people and I could see it continuing through the turnstiles, up the escalator, across the platform, and onto the tracks. The imaginary headline: “System down for days due to grieving DMV patrons flinging selves onto third rail.”

Luckily, I was early for my 9:50 AM appointment, which the field office webpage informed me meant only a 2-minute delay compared to an hour for the instructionally-themed no appointment line. But, inside, a sign clearly indicated I must first wait behind the 50 people who also had appointments. I texted my hometown buddy, who was off skiing in Alaska, about the situation.

“What they mean by appointment is there’s no wait to wait in the no-wait line,” replied Cole. “You can walk right in and start waiting immediately.”

Clearly the snow in this photo can’t read. You’re a loose cannon, snow.

Got it. But given the bumbling behavior of arriving appointment holders, it was clear that many did not understand. A friendly employee came out to greet the confused, handing out clipboards with various forms as a peace offering. She explained the appointment line was definitely the faster of the two. Maybe an hour. The non-planning souls without appointments would be here much longer, transitioning from the standing line, through the check-in desk, and to a federal penitentiary—err, seated waiting area. They might never be seen again.

Meanwhile, us fore-thinking appointment holders would also progress to the seated waiting area, but we’d be there for a much shorter time. This discrepancy appeased most appointment holders, who accepted their fate and watched apprehensively each time the non-appointment line lurched forward and ours didn’t.

“This is my third day here,” said the young man behind me. “I think I finally have the right form.”

I hoped I could say the same. I’d studied the online requirements like a topographic map. First, was a smog check. However, since my battery had recently been disconnected for some work, our local mechanic explained I must drive the car 100 miles to reset the internal monitors before testing. They offered this as a service, but I’d save several hundred dollars by doing it myself. He also offered a list of recommended routes through the traffic-intensive Bay Area. I texted Cole to confirm I’d heard right.

“It’s important that before the state determines your car doesn’t emit any extraneous emissions that you first emit 100 miles worth of extraneous emissions inside the state. Welcome home.”

My ’99 truck aced the smog check, which probably had to do with all the studying–I mean, the 100 extraneous miles I was told to drive–right before the emissions test.

Nearing the doorway, I noticed that many non-appointment holders had brought books to occupy themselves while a few were unfolding lawn chairs for a registration-themed tailgating party. Inside, I decided to enjoy my own light reading from around the room. The rotating messages on overhead screens focused on various forms of reduction, including road rage, impatience, and blood pressure. Perhaps a dozen placards explained the complex legal ramifications of threatening DMV staff. A series of signs explored what is and is not allowed regarding children. Do keep them in sight. Don’t place them on high countertops. Do accompany them to the restroom. Don’t leave them in the restroom.

When I reached the check-in desk, the amiable attendant reviewed my forms and asked if I had a completed Verification of Vehicle form. The online instructions had explained that a vehicle owner must obtain this in-person verification from an authorized DMV employee. I decided not to mention that I had come to this very DMV because I’d heard a story, no, a rumor, that this was the place to find authorized DMV employees. Nor did I elaborate that since I don’t live in a DMV—not yet, at least—it wasn’t really physically or temporally possible for me to arrive to the DMV with the completed verification I had come to this DMV to complete. While a time-continuum paradox formed above my head, I simply answered no.

Upon instruction, I moved my vehicle to the verification lane and all went smoothly until the inspector discovered an issue. Because the unladen weight of my pick-up was not listed on the Missouri title I was surrendering, there was a chance that I would be asked for a weighmaster certificate at my next counter stop. Just a chance, like intermittent rain showers, he explained. So, I returned inside to discover that the attendant had gone on break. I received an ID number and went to the seated waiting area, where a non-appointment family of four had recently learned that they would likely not be seen before the office closed. Instead, the whole family was offered a no-wait appointment for the following week.

A favorite observation from my day-trip to the DMV: all the street parking had a one-hour time limit, which was roughly 1/4 the time I spent with an appointment.

When my number was called, nearly all was completed with ease including my payment. But without a certified weight, I was unable to receive new plates. Instead, I was given a handwritten note that would allow me to return to the no-wait appointment line should I obtain a weight certificate in the next few hours. In the meantime, this latest employee was required to list an estimated weight, which she entered as 3500 pounds.

My mechanic gave me a tip that there was a weighmaster at the north Berkeley recycling center, so off I went and soon I was driving onto the scale. The employee glanced inside the cab.

“Oh, they want the truck entirely empty,” he said.

I looked at the few items on the passenger seat. “I can wear the two shirts,” I offered, like a person traveling without luggage on a plane. “And I’ll just toss the tools in my backpack and hold it.”

The employee was unconvinced. He pointed to a parking spot and said I needed to unload everything onto the asphalt and then drive back onto the scale. So, I made a big production of removing about 10 pounds from my truck, while jamming the other 20 pounds under the seats. The weight came out as 3520 pounds.

Next time I’m showing up to the scales in this thing.

Four hours after my DMV day trip began, I was back in the no-wait appointment line, which only had a ten minute wait this time. From the check-in counter, I returned to the seated waiting area. This time I noticed a caution sign explaining that self-immolation is strongly discouraged. Finally, I reached the counter of a sixth employee I’d met that day. The hours seemed to have worn on her, the remarkable friendliness I’d noticed among the staff replaced by fatigue. But all my forms were accounted for. My many fees were paid. I’d reached the Hilary Step or the Grand Wash Cliffs. I received my plates within an anticlimactic hot minute.

I burst outside into the brightness of daylight, full of hope and imagination. My vision blotted out. Was the adventure really over? I half-expected to be funneled to one final station for a radiogenic injection—just makes the blood glow and helps the crash scene investigators in the unfortunate event of. Upon insertion of the needle, all would go blank and I’d wake up in a room filled with documents. Wires—mostly telephone cords from the 1980s—running in and out of my body. Disembodied voices asking me questions about wait-times, certifications, and fee schedules.

I texted Cole: “I think I am the DMV now. If you ever need a no-wait appointment, just let me know, and I will totally hook you up.”

My vehicle showing its age after my adventure at the DMV.

A Poison Ivy Junkie with an Adventure Problem

I have a complicated relationship with spring. Love the lengthening evenings. The bleak landscapes of winter exploding into yellows, purples, and greens. But when the woods start leafing out along trails and riverbanks, my adventures morph into technical slalom courses through encroaching vegetation.

On my mountain bike, I whiz past brush at 20 miles per hour, trying to catalog and not crash. Leaves of three, let ‘em be. I squint at technicolor blurs, lean too far over, skid out, nearly face-plant into the very foliage I’m scrutinizing. How’s that for irony? One of these days, I should try squeezing my brakes.

Not everyone grows up surrounded by poison ivy. Don’t get cocky, mushroom.

Hiking my kayak to the river, it’s a miracle I don’t break my clavicle come every bloom. With boat on my shoulder, I duck vines that seem scarier than a forest of hanging rattlesnakes. Dodge shoots and tendrils as if I’m jousting with an oncoming knight. Weave between saplings like cone drill hallucinations.

My friends nearly crash their bikes or drop their kayaks while watching, fixated on this spectacle. Sometimes they ask if I’ve caught spring fever. Or worse. Do I need a lift to the nearest psychiatric hospital?

While mountain biking, just a hint of plant life can chase me from my intended line. I snap my front wheel away from hero dirt toward gritty washboard. Chattering and grinding until my teeth fall out. I hug reckless cliff lines. Plunge over veggie-free ledges that could break the bike frame. In tight spots, I let all but a finger go free of the handlebars and thrust an arm forward, like I’m diving into a swimming pool. On riverside trails, after coming through a tree tunnel, I’ve more than once considered going full-teenage boy and riding off the cliff into the water.

“Am I being paranoid, or does it look like that forest is going to jump on us?”

No matter how hard I try, I end up looking like a red and white patchwork quilt. Itchy tattoos span my arms and legs, like a drunk guy inked me on an ATV. Outbreaks reach body parts that don’t seem geographically possible, long-shot expeditions to far-off lands. I mean, it’s not like I’m wearing a tasteful but backless riding jersey under my hydration pack. Am I an exhibitionist who doesn’t realize it, because I thought my upper thighs were safely covered by my biking shorts? Attention all foot fetishists, I must be riding barefoot because even the tops of my feet have seen bumps.

Like an epidemiologist, I’ve learned to follow the vectors. Ivy –> gloves –> nervous ticks. From my temples, I wipe away sweat and leave urushiol oil. My stubbly jaw line? I believe they call that the thinker’s rash. Ear, nose, and throat? Check, check, check. What’s next, a hand print on my forehead after realizing all this is preventable?

Don’t look left or right and maybe the p.i. won’t realize you’re here?

Sometimes while zipping around on my mountain bike, I wish I was just hiking instead. (Sacrilege, I know. Feel free to forward all judgments.) When I walk through blooming woods in spring, it’s one step at a time, cautiously navigating trails like tiptoeing along a building ledge. I shimmy around suspect bushes, limbo under downed tentacles, lift fronds with an appropriated branch. But, still, it happens. Some friends say, why do you keep going out? That is a good question. Hmmm. Well, moving on, I think even if I locked myself in a padded room, I could probably still break out with ivy. I’ve picked my poison.

Over the years, I have entertained plenty of countermeasures. Who says I can’t wear an expedition dry-suit when it’s 80-degrees? Some people enjoy heat stroke. Why not mountain bike in coveralls and turtleneck sweater like an 80s après ski outfit? To stop myself from touching my face, boxing gloves are worth considering. And I’m intrigued by the potential of beekeeper suits.

But, for now, you’ll find me before and after—ok, also during—a trip, slathering myself in Tecnu poison ivy soap. I’m the one in the parking lot, lubing up like I’m gonna jump into a vegetable oil wrestling pit. Yes, I receive occasional concerned looks from passersby. I worry they’re calling police about the perverted adventurer taking a bandanna shower behind a truck.

Seeing the wife walk through this gauntlet: 1) note heart palpitations. 2) cue Christopher Nolan orchestral score.  3) scream, “Get out of there!”

But I quickly escape. I push off in my kayak down the river, rinsing myself with helmet-fulls of water. Other times, I hop on my bike and take to the trails. Ignoring one itch to satisfy another. Luckily, I remain at large to this day.





Photo log: the lead paddling shot is at Skull Bluff on the Buffalo National River and the canoe shot is Big Piney Creek in Arkansas–information about both can be found by clicking the links to Canoe & Kayak stories or in the guidebook Paddling the Ozarks; the two mtn biking pics are from an upcoming Adventure Cyclist Magazine feature about bike-packing through Pisgah National Forest; the backpacking photo is in the Great Balsam Mountains off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Hey, FALL! As it turns out, I’m really glad you’re here. Poison ivy, you are SO dead.

No Going Home on California’s North Fork American?

“I’m sorry,” read the text. “I just don’t feel comfortable with you joining us. We don’t know your skills.”

I re-read the message denying my application to join a weekend run on the class IV Chamberlain section of the North Fork American. My shoulders slumped and I sniffed under my arm. Was it me? Did I smell funkier than other boaters?

And what about my skills? I’d met the texting paddler, Maria, at a warm-up weekend on class II Cache Creek earlier that spring. Not to toot my own horn, but I thought my skills matched up just fine with their group.

One of their other North Fork paddlers about my age had thrown down a pretty cool rock splat, so I’d taken up the challenge and nailed my own in the same spot. I found out downstream that he’d only accidently hit the rock. We had a good-spirited laugh about it, and spent the rest of the day lining up boofs on the fun ledgy run. I thought I was an automatic invite for his group’s class IV season.

Speaking of blowing into brass instruments—could it be my breath? I huffed into my open palm. A hint of IPA, a smidge of garlic, and something tangy, like cilantro mixed with bruised pride.

The old bridge at Iowa Hill put-in for the North Fork American River.

It was late-June of the epic 2017 Sierra whitewater season, and things hadn’t gone as hoped. After quitting my teaching job in December, I’d taken an extended road trip across the West, including a few months in California after moving away 11 years ago. I’d see old friends, run rivers of my youth, and catch some new personal firsts. But magazine and book work kept me busier than planned, including taking me to Utah (I know, rough, right?) where I survived Cataract Canyon at 35k and floated instant classic Muddy Creek. Now I was back in CA for a final week and North Fork flows were dropping. First world paddler problems, sure, but still a bummer.

For months, I’d reached out for paddling partners, but many old friends had moved away—economic refugees of high-cost California. Those who stayed were busy with jobs and families, or they seemed a bit hesitant at paddling highwater runs after years of low-volume bump-and-grind. In March, I was graciously invited by Greg, a transplanted Ozarks friend, to the Kings River. But the group democratically canceled due to rain. Um, rain? We’re already in the water, people! I wondered if the real fear was a potential high-water spike.

Then, in April, I’d tossed out the idea of a reunion run at our old stomping ground, the South Fork American. My buddy Sanch—an understandably cautious and responsible family man, these days—responded that we should each toss out our cut-off levels. I said, 6000 cfs. He said, 2000. So, we diverted to the awesome East Fork Carson and had a blast. But now, months later, I was starting to feel a bit frustrated with the prevailing reticence. How could I go home if no one would open the door and let me in?

Like a Bond villain, I rubbed my hands together while considering all the possible responses to Maria’s uninviting text. Using colorful language, I could list the comparable and harder rivers I’d done since moving away. In individual texts. At one-hour intervals. Until I was either a) reinvited or b) threatened with a restraining order.

Entering Slaughter’s Sluice

Instead, I went to the South Fork. I needed to quit sulking and step it out by either joining strangers or gathering courage for a highwater solo. I took my mountain bike for a morning ride up from Skunk Hollow on the new (to me) South Fork American River Trail. Riding along a terrace, I saw familiar waves rising and falling through the hard-rock gorge for the first-time in a decade. At Cronan Ranch, I zipped along the trail Sanch and I once hiked out after trying to kayak down at fish flows. I detoured to the old company lunch spot on Bacchi land where us dirt bags flirted with paying customer’s daughters. I saw the iconic lollipop tree rising in the distance. It was nice to be back.

In the parking lot, I shrugged off a few cold shoulders and bought passage on the shuttle. While loading, a friendly woman about twenty years my senior suggested I join her. Jill was the lone kayaker on a raft trip, and she was nervous having not paddled the level—5500 cfs—in a dozen or so years. It didn’t help that at put-in, there was an official going from group to group, interrogating.

“It’s a high flow today. Just want to make sure you should be out here?”

Should you be out here? I considered saying. This isn’t Turnback Canyon. It’s still class III, dude.

Instead, I just smiled and nodded. Now, I understand the importance of caution during a highwater year, but judging from the equipment present—dry-tops, oar frames, and more sunscreen than an all-inclusive resort—these weren’t yahoos but experienced paddlers. Perhaps a little rusty and appropriately apprehensive. I’m not certain psyching them out was the right approach. One group re-rolled their raft and drove home.

On a Saturday in late June—a time that I recall the river being one long line of rafts and kayaks stretching up and down river—we practically had the South Fork to ourselves. Sure, the level was a bit rowdy, especially in the wave trains of the Haystacks. But all of us, kayaks and rafts, hit everything straight down the middle, giggling like school kids. Great run, no issues.

At take-out, I sent a friendly reply text to Maria. I understood they’d had many low-water years, and I was having a hard time working my way back into the paddling scene. Chamberlain was a serious run, but within my abilities. I’d done it many times over a decade before.

Within an hour, Maria replied: “Sounds like you know the run better than us 😉 You should come!”

We put on the next morning. But something nagged at me as I readied my boat riverside by the old Iowa Hill bridge. I felt a bit dishonest through omission. Thing is, I did know Chamberlain very well, and I definitely felt qualified to kayak it. But back in the old days, I was primarily a raft guide. A back injury at the end of my first season guiding and kayaking—a ruptured disc—had caused nasty sciatic pain when I crammed into a kayak. Thus, for four years in my early 20s, I preferred the upright position of guiding, rowing, or R2ing. I’d been through Chamberlain probably 30 times, but I never actually kayaked it. This would be a personal first—after a long 16-year wait. But all the jittery vibes I was getting on my home turf had me worried if I came clean, I’d get the door slammed shut again. I’d just have to hope for good lines and keep my own jitters a secret.

Chamberlain Falls

I started out near the back, but after Airplane Turn, I inched toward the front. I boofed the entrance to Slaughter’s Sluice, eddy hopped with the others toward the falls. I passed the nemesis rock I once hit broadside while guiding a raft. A commercial crew—who had lied about previous paddling experience—froze up and stopped paddling.

That crazy story? I went through all five stages of grief trying to get the raft around that rock. First, I denied it was happening and didn’t square the bow. Then I shouted angrily. Then, I tried to bargain with them—for the love of god, guys, please look forward and paddle. Gonna say depression set in when I called the high-side? And as we clambered up the tube, I accepted my first commercial wrap had finally happened—until boat #2 impacted and turned my first wrap into my first flip.

It was a cluster from there. Swimmers getting pulled from the water. Me on top of an upside down raft. Sanch hurling a paddle to me from thirty feet, like an Olympic javelin toss. Me catching it like Excalibur and chasing a passenger over the falls. No one got a tip that day.

I believe we used to call this one Grand Slalom, while some raft guides called it Rip, Wrap, and Flip.

But over a decade later, I felt a little more confident once I kayaked past my nemesis rock. I dropped Chamberlain first and set up for pics. Felt ever better leading through Bogus, and then I followed Maria through Staircase. We surfed waves and holes. Laughed and chatted like old friends, talked about future trips together.

At take-out, I met up with Greg, my transplanted Ozark friend. He had opted to join a much larger group and run the class II float from Shirttail down to Lake Clementine. Him and the others asked how it went. When I shared our success, they said they wished they’d come along.

Now, my qualifiers. First, I love floating and I would never belittle the activity. Many of my favorite runs are on step-it-down rivers that I do regularly. I wrote a whole guidebook about floating in the Ozarks. And I am all for safety in paddling—I think many of my boating buddies would agree, I am normally pretty cautious about stepping up to hard runs.

But, at the same time, as committed paddlers we often benefit from seeking a balance between easier and harder runs. If we never do harder runs, but we’re capable, we’re missing out on some amazing opportunities. If we psych ourselves out, or let those milling around the put-in convince us we shouldn’t be there, we will soon slip in our abilities. If we don’t challenge ourselves, push ourselves, grow our skills—especially during drier years in a place like California—then when flows kick back in during a highwater year, we won’t be ready, physically or mentally for the season to come. Eventually, no one will be paddling some of our finest runs, and that’s a shame. Sometimes, we need to shake off the jitters and give things a chance. Wear a wetsuit or drysuit on the South Fork at highwater. If you swim, keep your chin high and swim to shore. Get back in your boat and try again. Practice your roll in Folsom Lake—it’s piss warm down there. Rinse, rinse, and repeat until a) you have an ear infection, or b) you feel comfortable enough to step up to something harder. Yes, there are hazards in paddling—at every water level—and we can mitigate those hazards through improving our skills and frequent practice.

Over beers at take-out, I pulled Greg aside to share what I’d kept to myself all day.

“That was my first kayak run on Chamberlain,” I said. “I hope to come back next season. You should run it if you feel comfortable.”

“I think I might,” said Greg, raising his eyebrows. “But first run? Really. How did it feel?”

“It felt good,” I said. “It felt like coming home.”

The scout at Bogus Thunder, the old hangout spot.

Why Do We Paddle So Much?

Sometimes the question you answer isn’t the one you were asked.

Posted on Categories lessons

Paddling Forest Park in St. Louis

The confession? Turns out it was illegal. The lesson? Prepare to get trolled. Please click the image or link below.

Just a Hunk of Plastic

A lesson learned during some carnage on Richland Creek in Arkansas. (Though it wasn’t actually my swim–I was framed!)

Posted on Categories mishaps