This story is featured in the August 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.
Words: Eugene Buchanan
Illustration: Aaron McKinney
The Facebook notice was serendipitous. It came from my college friend Jim Grossman and contained a link to an old black-and-white movie. The headline read: "Shoot Rapids on Skis! Water walkers defy whirlpools in new sport!"
I clicked on it, leading me to an 80-year-old Universal Newspaper Newsreel footage from Enns, Austria, of wacko Europeans hunched over like Quasimodo running rapids atop floating skis. Their hands held giant paddles, which offered little semblance of control.
"I've seen those before," Jim commented. "I remember you had to be good at the limbo to get your roll … "
Others on the thread chimed in, including long-time kayakers Jim Snyder and Charlie MacArthur. That's the beauty of paddling. Even these wily veterans embrace new ways to get downstream. Snyder famously pioneered squirt-boating, and his brother Jeff invented "striding," a unique form of standup inflatable kayaking using a long double-bladed paddle. For MacArthur, who runs the Aspen Kayak Academy, it's now standup paddling. They're not afraid to try new things, which is why they took up paddling in the first place.
A week later, that cryptic footage was still stuck in my mind. I had gotten a pair of Ski Yaks 15 years ago when some crazed Canadian abandoned perhaps the only pair on the continent. Shaped like mini-catamaran hulls, the dual runners were plastic instead of the Austrians' canvas, with tiny cockpits for your feet. Inside were bear trap-like bindings, with horseshoe-shaped metal handles clamping a piece of rubber over your foot. The result: a telemark-ski position that lets your heel lift to glide across the water.
As for the limbo move, the inventor could actually roll up after the inevitable crash, using a series of contorted movements that only a greedy orthopedic surgeon would endorse. He'd wrestle one pontoon over the other, wrench his body around and then muscle up off the back decks. Impressive, I guess, but I knew the Ski Yaks would never catch on. I also knew that no one wanted them back, and there was room for more toys in the crawlspace under my house. That's how the quirky twin hulls ended up in my possession.
Inevitably, my wife made me get rid of them. Like the servant tasked with killing Sleepy Beauty, I couldn't bear the thought, so I took them to a friend's paddling shop. They festered there for 15 years until a renovation unearthed them about the time that Grossman posted about the relics on Facebook. Our local Yampa River Festival's five-mile downriver race was scheduled for the very next day. It was time.
I'm not the only one thinking "what the heck?" when I show up to the race, threading through canoes, Topo-duos, wildwater boats, and kayaks. The only racers I don't literally look down on are the SUPers, a distant relative.
The good news: There's no one else in the Ski Yak class, guaranteeing me a podium spot. The bad: accidental spread eagles, groin pulls and banging your head on rocks while trapped in bindings you're not sure release.
At first, I have no intention of finishing. Cross-country skiing out of the pond start and into the river, my first thought is simply to make it down the flats to the next pond. En route, I learn that I can edge the hulls somewhat, which, when combined with a telemark turn and paddle sweep, resembles steering. The other racers leave me in the dust, but my confidence rises. I opt to continue past the pond to the park above the course's main rapids.
It's here, however, that my luck wears out. Though the Austrians gave us the Ski Yaks—not to mention Mozart, Freud and Schwarzenegger—I don't have young Arnold's quads. Locked in the same isometric pose for 30 minutes, my legs are quivering like slabs of Jell-O. The only remedy is to lean over at the waist and try to transfer a bit of the weight to my knuckles.
Nevertheless, I opt to continue on, bypassing a hydraulic by detouring through a side channel. I can pull over at the paddling shop, consigning the Ski Yaks to another long sleep. But the shop isn't far from the end, and I decide to keep going and punch the main hole for a dramatic finishing flourish.
I do so in fine Lindsey Vonn fashion in front of onlookers cheering on shore. They don't care if I'm in a carbon-fiber downriver boat or an inflatable alligator; they see me swallowing pride and having a good time—not on the scoreboard (my 46 minute, 9 second time is well off the winning wildwater mark of 27:01), but on the river.
As well-wishers high-five me on shore after finishing my personal Hahnenkamm, I realize that the Austrians and my Facebook buddies alike have helped me re-discover what I like so much about paddling in the first place: It's all about having fun on the river, no matter what craft you're in. You could even say it's for people of all walks.