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As I shot over another wave and straight toward the flat wall of rock, I relaxed to let the current do the same for me. It didn't. The bow of the boat hit the rock squarely, then bounced off and spun to the left. I kept going straight and barely had time to use my paddle to brace against the boulder and push myself away from it. I was in the water then, sucked under it, tumbling along head over heels, absolutely powerless. I had the presence of mind not to fight it. There was a feeling of rushing speed, a roaring in my ears, and, even as it happened, I remembered what it had been like when I surfed in Hawaii as a boy and was wiped out by large waves. The river, though, seemed more powerful and relentless than those waves had ever been.
When it finally spit me out, David was there, and he hauled me into his boat. Downstream, Rob had grabbed my boat, and Reider had picked up my badly bent paddle.
Within a couple of minutes I was back in my own boat with a straightened paddle, and we were on our way again. And by then I was actually glad to have been tumbled about by the river. Nothing much worse was likely to happen to me, and I had come through it shaken and chilled, but perfectly healthy. Somehow, the end result of it all was that I felt neither fear of the river nor confidence in my abilities, but, instead, a calm respect for the river and satisfaction in the knowledge that, if necessary, my companions were capable of using their expertise to compensate for my lack of it.
The rest of the trip went very well. Pinball Canyon was the highlight of the first day—a long, narrow stretch where the powerful current zigs and zags among a series of large boulders. I felt like a spring-driven ball as I bounced my way through it, nothing but white water on all sides, the churning roar of the river in my ears. I have no idea how it happened, but I made it and felt good about the fact, as if I had accomplished something significant—something like reaching a mountain peak, or finishing a long run, but without the physical discomfort that inevitably goes with those endeavors.
On Tuesday the rapids were separated by longer stretches of calm water, but they were also somewhat more difficult. The major challenge we faced was called Double Drop, about halfway through the day. I survived it, too, but barely. Two-thirds of the way down I plowed into a barely submerged rock and shot off to the side at a dangerous angle, then hit a wave that half-filled the boat, but once through the wave the current straightened me out again and, low in the water and paddling hard, I slogged the rest of the way through. After that, the afternoon seemed easy.
Two days on the river gave me a new concept of the sport, and a tolerance for it, too. We had covered nearly 30 miles of river. Out there between 10 and four—certainly the most pleasant hours for river-running, usually, the least productive for fishing—we had passed only two anglers, both late on the second day, and we hadn't interfered with either of them. Clearly, with some common sense and compromise the two sports can coexist.
The experience also taught me a lot about the North Umpqua. In fact, I think I learned as much about the river in two days in a kayak as I had through the previous 15 years of walking its banks, wading its shallows and casting into its riffles, slicks and pools. Now the river is whole for me, not just a disjointed series of spots where fish happen to hold, and I understand something about its unyielding power, which must be somewhere very near the heart of unspoiled nature.
The River Roam people have decided to restrict trips on the North Umpqua to those who have had previous white-water experience. I hope to go again, assuming they think I qualify.