Travel: Paddling the Deerfield River

The neoprene squeezes the air out of my lungs. Then I wiggle the lifejacket over all my gear and the last of the air is pushed from my lungs. I don't remember it being this tight. Or maybe the freshman 15 is real after all.

I'm standing, paddle in my hand, boat by my side, at the top of the Dryway, a four kilometre section of Class III and IV rapids in the Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains, hills by B.C. standards. The river snakes through the lush hills, pieces of rusted metal from the condemned factory dot the rapids. Both banks are steep, overgrown and rocky; the only way out is through the whitewater.

I squeeze into my boat and splash into the water. This early in the east coast’s spring makes sure the water is still ice cold, an instant ice cream headache awaits any paddler who ends up upside down.

The first few rapids are warmups, wave trains with rocks sticking their tops above the surface, threatening to knock over the rusty paddler. Even though I haven't been on a river since the end of last summer I stay upright, for now.

The first challenge is Split Hair, an “S” shaped rapid with an undercut rock in the centre. Following my brother’s blue speckled boat, I punch several small waves above the dangerous rock before diving my kayak down the tongue that hugs the right side of the rock. I paddle hard to pick up speed and tuck to push through the foam pile at the bottom of the slide, narrowly avoiding the dangerous rock. The rest of the rapid is straightforward; keep paddling and punch all the holes, hard.

One of the best parts of paddling is the quiet moments in between the adrenaline fuelled rapids. Leaning back in the boat, tucking your hands into your PFD (personal flotation device, paddler-speak for a lifejacket) and enjoying the unique view from the river. Green mountains dominate the skyline, hugging the river. The sun is warm but the snow-runoff water is cold, cooling the whole canyon. The river is far enough from the access to road so that the only sounds are the trickling tributaries, flowing river, raging rapids and bird songs. The occasional kayaker’s scream of delight or terror pierces the calm, but only adds to the growing excitement that builds on the flat water between rapids.

As we let the current pull us further and further down stream, the crux rapid approaches, filling our ears with the roar of the never-relenting river. The rapid, named Dragon’s Tooth after the tooth shaped rock in the centre of the rapid that is a must-avoid. Hitting the Tooth means a ice-cold dunking in the river, the possibility of getting pinned and a guaranteed line through Rodeo hole, a sticky hole that enjoys sending kayaks end over end until the paddler is forced the bail and swim the rest of the rapid. But the most dangerous part of the Tooth is the rapid directly after it, a rock filled rapid named Labyrinth, that promises a beating if you don't nail the twisty line between its many jagged rocks.

My line of choice is aptly named the Death Slot. Staying river right, I have to punch two small, curling waves before catching an eddy just above the Tooth. From here, I have to eddy out, turning 180 degrees on a point, fitting the rivers desire to push me left, over the Tooth. Then, picking up speed, I need to manoeuvre into a tiny slot that passes next to the Tooth and avoid hitting the giant rock to the right.

With adrenaline forcing shallow, panicked breaths, I paddle my boat into the current above the rapid. I push hard to the right, splashing into the eddy above the Slot. Then, with all my strength, I dig my blades into the boiling water of the rapid, turn as quickly as I can and dive into the slot. Frigid water smacks my face and chest, threatening to push me over but then it’s all over. I'm safe, below the Tooth.

My dad chooses an alternative line. He is hoping to run the river on the left, dancing between waves and holes, sliding just left of the Tooth before paddling hard right to avoid Rodeo hole.

His plan goes wrong when a curling wave tips him over and he is sent directly over the Tooth. Several failed roll attempts later and a massive hit in Rodeo Hole and he is swimming, a swarm of boats converging to fish him and his gear out of the river as fast as possible. But some coughed up water and a little blood later, everyone is back in their boats and we paddle the final rapid without further mishap.

The afternoon is spent on the lower, class I-II rapids, teaching a friend to kayak for the first time. After, we drive to camp, set up and enjoy a well deserved, calorie-filled dinner. The evening is only dampened by the camp-fire ban.

Massachusetts, due a dry spring and a low humidity is under a fire watch. Coupled with the reservoir that feeds the Deerfield River’s low water levels that threaten to prevent more paddling this summer, we can't help but face the fact that the sport is dependent on a healthy Earth. With rivers being damned and polluted and summers becoming hotter and drier, it is a reality that the worlds rivers are dying. I know the whole hippy, save-the-earth lecture is boring and overused but it doesn't make it any less true, or necessary.

With thoughts of rivers and white water in our minds, we all crawl our sore bodies into our tents and fall asleep, ready for another day of paddling tomorrow.