Nearly 20 years ago I drove six hours and arrived all alone at Sundance Kayak School in southern Oregon for my first lessons in whitewater kayaking. In order not to leave our young children, my husband and I had decided to try this new sport one at a time, I the first summer, he the next.
Stepping into the unfamiliar environment of a nine-day kayaking school, I felt anxious and alone.
I soon encountered Hayden, our lead instructor, who was younger than I by at least 10 years, skinny, bearded, with kind brown eyes. He greeted the prospective kayakers warmly and talked about safety and the skills we would be learning.
Rolling (an important technique to right yourself after capsizing) sounded especially difficult.
At 45, I was the oldest woman in the class. I had whitewater experience as a rafting guide, but that didn’t help me with rolling. We spent five days practicing close to the school, and then packed for a four-day trip on the 40-mile wilderness run of the Rogue River.
I hadn’t yet managed a single, independent roll. The river would be bigger, with real rapids. I felt vulnerable — emotionally and physically.
I needn’t have worried. Whenever a newbie capsized, Hayden or another instructor zoomed to the rescue, like Mom when a toddler stumbles, often righting us with a boat-turning technique called “the hand of God.” (The floundering kayaker does nothing — you don’t even realize a rescuer has come —but suddenly you’re upright.)
The relief I felt being rescued led me to remember the only scientific fact I know about ducklings: They imprint on Mama and follow her anywhere. I began to view Hayden as my mother duck.
My trip began to fill up with small victories — a rock skirted, a rapid successfully run, and a tent I set up alone, for the first time ever, in a downpour.
Although the triumphs were mine, I remember Hayden as part of the story. Maybe he reassured me on the water or praised me after the tent episode. I don’t remember, but I loved Mama Duck more than ever.
When the trip ended, I was sold on kayaking, and for several years, I sent Christmas cards to Hayden, thanking him for my new sport. Eventually I stopped sending cards, but I still thought about him.
A few weeks ago I learned that he would be a guide on our six-day kayak trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The river was going to be especially high this year and Hayden and his wife were coming to help.
I was excited beyond belief. After 20 years, I would reunite with Mama Duck. I told myself he might have gray hair now, but I didn’t believe it.
On the first day I met a tall, dark-haired kayaker whose eyes could have been Hayden’s, but this man was taller than I remembered, and in some way, more reserved. We exchanged greetings. Once we began paddling, the swollen river clamored for my focus and non-stop attention.
I didn’t get much time with Hayden. He was assigned to the advanced boaters, so I only watched his graceful paddling from a distance. I told him I was excited to see him again, but I realized there was no way his memory could have the drama of mine. He doesn’t even teach kayaking anymore, having found better-paying work as a fishing guide.
I wanted to talk to him about what kayaking means in my life.
I wanted to tell him that the feeling I get on the water is primal and totally me, and that I might have missed it without him. I wanted to tell him about all the people I’ve met through kayaking and how it brings me closer to my husband, too.
I wanted him to know that I’m a different person because I kayak, because I take an athletic risk and have learned to be strong in that way. I wanted to tell him that now, at 64, I’m usually the oldest woman in the group, and how remarkable that seems.
I wanted to tell him how being out in nature would never have moved me as it does, if I hadn’t been on water, in water, even under water, and that now, I roll up. I wanted to tell him how I observe rivers, especially my home river, for its rises and falls and the effects of weather and how that leads me to track the animals near the river and the people in the small town up there.
If I hadn’t felt safe in my first lessons, if I hadn’t known that someone would rescue me when my roll failed, if I hadn’t seen Hayden’s bright smile every step of the journey 20 years ago, my passion might not have emerged.
I never managed to say all that to Hayden, but I told him I was his baby duck. That must have been a strange thing to hear from a tall, 64-year-old kayaker in a bulky blue-and-purple drysuit, but I think he understood.
I loved water before he taught me to kayak; now I dance with rivers in an ever-closer embrace.
Marion Franck is a columnist for the Davis Enterprise. She is a part-time resident of El Dorado County.