Life is filled with defining moments, and a few weeks ago I had one of my own as I stared down a challenge to kayak the L.A. River with steely determination.
OK, so that’s a bit dramatic.
There wasn’t actually a stare down or determination with any kind of mettle. And it wasn’t so much a challenge as it was a friendly ask from a good friend to join him in an activity that was clearly outside my general purview. I am, after all, the luxury travel guy, which sort of automatically translates to ‘nature is not my natural habitat.' In any case, irrespective of these pesky details, the larger point is that when given the option of spending a perfectly fine Thursday afternoon kayaking down the formerly polluted L.A. River, for some reason I said ‘yes’ (after initially saying ‘no,’ of course).
When Thursday arrived, I met my friend and we headed over to a hot and dusty Home Depot parking lot off the 5 Freeway in Elysian Valley, where we were instructed to leave our cars and board a shuttle to the park. This was but the first of many red flags, given that as a general rule, activities that begin in Home Depot parking lots are so not my thing. After waiting in the lot for about a half-hour, I spied a mother and son duo along with a married couple hovering around the shuttle pick-up area and correctly deduced from their obvious affinity for Teva brand footwear that they would be joining us on the afternoon’s water-based fiesta. (That is merely an observation, by the way. No judgment here.)
When the shuttle arrived, our motley bunch ambled onboard, sat down and exchanged introductions before riding in steamy, un-air-conditioned anticipation for about five minutes to our meeting point. As we disembarked from the shuttle we were met by our guides who were circling six “bicycles." Red flag #2—unbeknownst to me, we were expected to bike 2.5 miles (they told us that it was only 2 miles, but I beg to differ) to the spot where our kayaking trip would begin. Seriously 2.5 miles on a bike is not a big deal normally, but these were those old-fashioned, one-speed beach cruiser bikes, and they required a bit more effort than I had intended to exert, and I’m sure the tires on my bike were not properly inflated, which only made the trip more grievous. But I again soldiered on without a disgruntled word.
I was dripping with sweat and mildly out of breath when we reached our destination and then gathered on a concrete wall alongside the river for kayaking instructions by our tour leader who I’ll call Barry. After waxing on a bit about the cleanup of the L.A. River and regaling us with a scintillating story about a recent sighting of a rarely seen bird eating a fish, Barry led us through a series of exercises designed to familiarize us with the techniques we would need to employ to operate our kayaks successfully. I watched and listened intently. Unfortunately for me, the intensity of my concentration had no direct correlation to my skill with the paddle. I couldn’t follow Barry. My paddle was frequently turned the wrong way. My motions weren’t fluid and, even worse, everything I did seemed to be the opposite of what I was supposed to be doing. Red flag #3—if I couldn’t master the paddle on dry land, what hope did I have of wielding it properly once I was in the water? Oh, the peril!
Now it was time for the first challenge of the afternoon—boarding our kayaks and navigating our way between a couple of rocks at the end of a short stretch of river. I went last because I wanted to watch everyone else and thereby avoid any mistakes they made. Five kayakers, including my friend, all sailed down the river and over the rapids ahead of me without a hitch, so I expected that I would enjoy a similar fate. Why that was my expectation given my aforementioned lack of aptitude for paddling is beyond me, but expect I did.
I dipped one sneaker-clad foot into the water (which already weirded me out, because I hate, hate, hate the feeling of wet shoes and socks) and climbed into my kayak. A lovely German guide who I’ll call Olga assisted me. All was fine up until the point when Olga let go of the kayak and I began to float down the river. Fifteen seconds in, and I was already in trouble. I couldn’t control my kayak or my paddle, and I ended up floating backwards. Somehow I made it between the rocks and over the rapids while facing backwards, still completely out of control. But when a bump on a rock turned me a around and I found myself heading towards the island in the middle of the river, I shrieked with panic, lost control of my kayak, rolled over and ended up submerged in the water before coming back up and grabbing hold of my kayak, which was at that moment as dear to me as life itself.
My spirit was broken, my sunglasses were askew and I was now soaked through with river water. Somewhere, along the way, my paddle ended up in the brush (don’t ask), so while one guide who I’ll call Lou helped steer me and my now upside-down kayak over to a wall where I could brace myself in order to climb back In, Olga gathered up my paddle and returned it to me as my fellow kayakers looked on with a combination of mild horror, genuine pity and utter confusion. Two minutes into the adventure and I had already effectively wiped out. That was Red Flag #4.
Once I was back in the kayak, things didn’t improve much. As everyone else navigated the river with stealth, I continued to lag behind, spinning in circles and bouncing from side to side between the island and the wall as the guides did their darndest to correct my form by shouting instructions to me, though nothing seemed to help much. After about five minutes, Lou, who was assigned to bring up the rear, a position I was holding down firmly, finally said to me with the mildest sense of exasperation, “I’m not sure what you’re doing.” That was Red Flag #5. When someone who is trained to teach novices how to do a task becomes perplexed as to how to even help a student understand what he or she is doing wrong, you might have a problem. I was not encouraged.
At this point, Barry was forced to break from the group and come back to help me. Now, all three instructors—Barry, Olga and Lou—were focused solely on me. You can only imagine what a champion that made me feel like. I eyed the dry land just off to my right longingly, wondering if I shouldn’t just get out right then, but I knew it was too soon to give up. Cursed pride! After about five minutes of coaching from Barry, I had nearly figured out a rhythm of paddling that was by no means good but was at least good enough to keep me afloat. It felt like a monumental achievement, and I thought I just might make this trip work until the next rapids approached.
Find Part Two of 'Rolling on an L.A. River' next week!
Follow Duane Wells on Twitter @theduanewells, on Instagram @therealduanewells, and on his website at theduanewells.com.