Up the river without a paddle, without a clue

By From page A6 | August 10, 2014

This interloper is making me angry. I left the beach only minutes ago and before you can say “trespass” someone is walking on our land.

This happens pretty often. Our river cabin is across from a campground that belongs to a rafting company. Young buck campers with time on their hands like to challenge themselves by swimming across to our side.

Thanks to forgiving eddy lines and right-to-left momentum of the current, swimming toward our property is easy. Swimming back is harder, especially when water is being released from the dam a couple dozen miles above us, as is the case today.

Conditions are perfect for a ride in an inflatable kayak, however, and my friend Marsha and I had a blast paddling downriver. We’re cleaning up now, driving to the beach to retrieve my deflated kayak.

“Let me out of the car!” I command fiercely. “I want to talk to that man.”

I can feel Marsha hesitate, uncomfortable with my anger, but tactful. “Maybe something is wrong,” she suggests.

I think he’s after my boat, but her idea is worth considering. In the past, I’ve found lost paddlers on our property and helped them out. Curbing my anger, I walk quickly toward the invader, a buff twentysomething in swim trunks, and inquire, “Is something wrong?”

“Yes,” he says.

I don’t want to stereotype, but I’m pretty sure that if he had been a woman, he would have been crying.

“I came across the river,” he says, “but I can’t get back. My friends are over there.”

He gestures toward a group of young men who are gathered on the other side of the river, drinking beer and not paying much attention.

“I can’t swim very well,” he says with a trembling voice that suggests he can hardly swim at all. “I’m from L.A. I don’t know how to get back to my friends.”

By this time, of course, my heart has melted. “I’ll get you across,” I say reassuringly, while thinking to myself, “How?” I’ve already deflated my boat.

The answer is my husband’s fishing boat, an old sea kayak he uses to paddle in low water. He keeps it near the beach, hidden in foliage. I’ve never used it.

“You need a life jacket,” I say, handing him one of ours and starting toward the beach.

“Wait, Marion,” says Marsha. “Don’t you need one, too?”

I’ve been swept up in the young man’s desire to get “home” quickly. Yes, I need a life jacket, too, especially since I’m wearing street clothing. I put it on, pull the sea kayak to the water, and command the young man.

“Get in.”

He fills the whole boat. This craft, called the “Venus,” is meant for one mid-sized person, not one such person plus a 170 lb man. Where am I going to sit? I take the paddle, urge him to move forward and squeeze in behind. The only way I can balance is to wrap my legs around him in a way you wouldn’t expect to do with a complete stranger.

I push off, soon discovering what they say about life guard work: the drowning person responds unhelpfully. This young man is hand-paddling in the wrong direction. We need to move upstream before attempting to cross, so that the river won’t push us right past the campground.

He wants to cross immediately. He’s turning us dangerously downstream into faster current.

How do I stop him?

Suddenly, I see myself as he sees me. I’m a stranger, a woman, retirement age.

“I used to be a river guide,” I announce loudly into his ear. “I’m a kayaker, too. We need to move upriver before we cross. Listen to me.”

I can feel him become more obedient, especially as the current picks up and he feels me paddling hard. We teeter a bit but I summon all my strength and balance.

His friends are finally paying attention, and when we reach them they’re so eager to retrieve their companion that they grab one side of our boat, causing it to flip.

The young man and I fall out, but we can wade to shore. I notice that his buddies have been drinking hard.

This makes me eager to leave, but they’re hanging onto my boat and one of them is pressing me with his idea of what I should do.

“She’s a river guide,” says my young man, trying to rescue his own masculinity by trumpeting my special skills.

Finally, they let me go.

Since then I’ve pondered the lessons from this rescue. Some apply in situations other than the river.

1. Remember that when people see an older woman, they assume fragility. If I want people to know what I can do, I need to tell them.

2. Don’t be too quick to assume evil purpose. Rare is the person who really intends to steal a boat.

3. Wear a life jacket. No one is more stupid than a rescuer who puts herself at risk.

4. Don’t let other people’s panic influence your decisions. I should have asserted myself sooner. I should have said, “Wait. Let’s practice in this tippy boat before we head across the river.” It would have made for a less nerve-wracking ride.

5. Lesson No. 4 would be a good philosophy of life.

— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at [email protected]

Marion Franck

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