Rolling on the Susquehanna River

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Susan Myerov, Program Director

It happens: sometimes outdoor adventures don’t go as smoothly as you’d hoped. They can be frustrating and physically punishing. At times they can be downright harrowing.

A recent paddling trip turned out to be one of those experiences for me — but to my surprise, I came away even more convinced that spending time on the water is worthwhile, even when things don’t go as expected. I don’t often write about experiences leaving me humiliated, but nevertheless, I volunteered to write this blog to reflect on my kayaking adventure, provide some lessons learned, and describe how I found inspiration from a humbling ride on the river.

I was excited to participate in my first kayaking experience on one of Pennsylvania’s signature rivers. As part of the Wilkes-Barre River Fest, there were a series of paddles planned, beginning with a late afternoon journey from West Pittston to Nesbitt Park along the Susquehanna River. I wasn’t new to kayaking and had no qualms about a longer journey or my ability to stay afloat. I had already had the embarrassing experience of tipping over a kayak in a very calm bay. I was adamant that would not happen ever again. However, kayaking in a large flotilla for a four-mile river journey was a new experience. I had assumed (ok, lesson one…never assume anything) I would be in a tandem kayak with my PEC colleague and much more experienced kayaker, Janet Sweeney. However, the only kayaks available to the group were singles, with the few tandems only for adults with small children. So, I’m a rather small person and in reasonably good health, I wasn’t concerned and selected a 10-foot boat.

The first indication that I might have some difficulties occurred way before we even boarded our kayaks. The first order of business is to get your personal flotation device (PFD for those in the know). We had requested a small person size, but just like the tandem kayaks, there were none for me, so I was strapped into a regular sized PFD. I kept pulling on the straps to tighten it but didn’t really seem to be as snug as it should have been, but it was on and I’m a good swimmer.  I didn’t think it really mattered. (Lesson #2 – Make sure you have a PFD that is fitted properly…more on that later).

There were outstanding guides who provided the pre-paddle safety information. I was clear: stay with the group, follow the lead on where to be in the river, stay away from the middle of the river near bridges. All that seemed reasonable. I had my distress whistle just in case…only for emergencies.

We set off. Immediately I fell behind the main group. I was just trying to remember how to use the paddle and how to sit properly. My PFD kept riding up and hitting me in my chin. It was a very warm day, and I remember being really thirsty. I made sure to have my water-bottle accessible and used it often. I could tell I would have trouble keeping up with the group and felt bad that I was holding my colleagues back, who were trying to stay with me. It seemed like the harder I paddled the more I was falling behind. It wasn’t like paddling in a bay. I learned that the river was running low that day, so there was very little current. I thought that would be good, but it really made it more difficult to move forward. I was starting to get cranky.

We continued our downstream paddle passing small islands in the center and under several bridges. Along the way, I was getting increasingly behind the pack and more and more cranky. The river guides and more experienced paddlers came to my aid on several occasions trying to correct my form and noticed that both my seat and PFD were not positioned correctly which contributed to my struggles. Each time I would stop, a kind and patient river guide made adjustments. I was grateful for the help and advice, as it did make it more comfortable, but the adjustments caused more delay, and I was beyond cranky at that point. I was actually glad no one was close to me; I was whining a lot.

I kept paddling, taking frequent water breaks, (which required me to stop), and trying to catch up. In some areas I was able to advance quickly, while in other places I barely moved. I was convinced I had an evil kayak. As soon as I made some progress, the boat would start to turn in the wrong direction, I’d correct, but it seemed to happen so many times. I felt like I had paddled twice as much with all of the directional changes. Someone later commented that my small size and weight might have made things harder as my boat would have sat higher in the water and require more upper body strength of which I now understand that I have slim to none.

Many excuses kept surfacing in my mind to justify why I was so behind the group. I kept thinking that I would never do this again. But there were so many positives on this trip. It was amazing to be able to view both riverbanks, the flora and fauna and the levy system designed to protect the City of Wilkes-Barre from flooding. I learned about the 1959 Knox Coal Mine  Disaster, and we were able to see the area where huge amounts of debris (coal cars, railroad ties, hay, rocks, dirt etc..)  were used to plug a 150-foot-wide hole which allowed billions of gallons of river water to enter the mine tunnels, resulting in 12 deaths. The site was eventually capped in concrete. Each river has unique stories, I was learning about this one from a relatively short segment.

As I made my slow progress towards the final bridge, I started to feel better. We were told to keep to the right bank and stay away from the center. Since I was far behind, I didn’t start making my way to the right bank until the current created by the bridge had caught me. I desperately paddled to move to the right, but my evil kayak had other ideas and I was pulled through the center of the bridge. The reason we were told to avoid this was due to the unpredictability of the currents. I was completely turned around, rocking back and forth, and trying not to panic. I was so close to the end of the ride yet couldn’t get myself going in the right direction. I was physically exhausted. I could feel the anxiety building, but then remembered to just calm down. I pulled my paddle up and closed my eyes to help me stay calm and focused. I then heard the river guide holler at me to paddle backwards. Really? That’s all I have to do? Ok, I did that and to my great relief turned myself around and made it to calmer waters and then in a few minutes to the take-out point at Nesbitt Park.

I don’t have any great inspirational message, just a practical one. Be prepared, check your equipment, and don’t panic. I got out of the boat and remember someone asking me, one and done? I probably shook my head up and down in agreement, but after a few days, some rest and added perspective, I would do that again – even the same exact ride just to prove that I can enjoy myself, keep up with the rest and take in all of the gifts our rivers provide. Although I can’t say I had the best experience, I was thrilled that with everything happening, I never fell out, never stopped moving (even if in circles) and just kept rolling along.