Ode to the Ducky

This story featured in the 2012 July issue.

By Eugene Buchanan

Duckies thrive in the Pacific Northwest. I know because I was recently indoctrinated into their clandestine inflatable ranks—and they accepted me as if I were one of their own, with nary a secret handshake.

It happened this winter when, at the end of a heli-access, hut-skiing trip in the North Cascades, my ski buddies concocted an impromptu kayak trip before the 3 p.m. flight out. They used the “kayak trip” label synonymous with hardshell boats, but I knew better. They were staunch Inflatable Kayakers. No matter. The Ducky Tribe had spoken and the Green River Gorge was running.

The ringleader was Jon Corriveaus, a hardsheller-turned-inflatable-kayaker with a crazed Jack Nicholson look. A cardio animal with barrel pumps for lungs, Corriveaus has through-hiked the 240-mile John Muir Trail in 11 days and summited Mt. Rainier 50 times; it was his 6 a.m. call that rallied the troops.

Now 51, and tired of getting throttled while locked in the cockpit of a hardshell, he’s keeping his paddling passion alive in less claustrophobic craft. An evangelist for the IK cause, he’s lured nine other buddies into his foldable craft’s fold, much to the delight of AIRE, the manufacturer most represented by the ragtag group of river-runners. They’re all pushing, if not eclipsing, 50, leaving midlife crises and golf courses in their wakes. While some have previous whitewater experience, others are newbies. Which, of course, is the beauty of the IK: a craft that opens paddling’s doors to everyone, adding training wheels to kayaks and sportiness to rafts. There’s no rolling, no being trapped upside-down (a bonus for middle-aged men with mortgages), and you can store them in an urban garage next to Burleys and kids bikes. They can also carry camping supplies, spelling longer escapes from said family.

Corriveaus’ paddling pranksters are all outfitted to the hilt, equipped with drysuits, drybags and throw ropes. They paddle tandem IKs converted into singles, sitting in the middle so they can carry more gear.

And that they do. Beyond local runs like the Snoqualmie and Roaring River, the group has tackled multi-day northern wilderness classics like Alaska’s Charley, as well as an Alsek epic marked by two days spent dragging boats down a waterless tributary while dodging bullets from trigger-happy Yukonites. At least, that’s the story I heard.

So don’t mess with these guys. The disciples might be clad in drysuits instead of leathers, but they have all the camaraderie of the Hells Angels. They just take to the road to run rivers. And what they lack in tattoos and intimidation, they make up for in fun and enthusiasm.

While they paddle duckys, they’re anything but chickens. I learn this as we drive by the Roaring River, whose log-choked waters they’ve run in flood, onward to the equally manky Green. I’m not overly concerned. A longtime hardsheller, I figure I can handle anything they can. Besides, this isn’t my first IK rodeo. I’ve used duckies for touring in Fiji, river camping trips with my kids, and even a second descent in Northern Alaska’s Brooks Range.

Thanks to those adventures, and a friend back home we affectionately call Ducky Man, I know what these craft are capable of. An accomplished hardsheller and IKer, Ducky Man paddles with the best of us—and carries the chainsaw it comes time to clean wood out of Fish Creek. Corriveaus’ gang has its share of tough guys too, such as Kevin Gogan, a former NFL lineman with a Super Bowl ring. No one’s about to call him a weenie for paddling a ducky. Still, there’s a feeling among some hardshell boaters that inflatable kayakers are lesser members of the tribe.

In all, four of us make the crack-of-dawn trek to the Green. A hardsheller at the put-in tells us about new wood stuck in the Nozzle. We thank him, give him the pinky-finger wave, and shove off. Any performance shortcomings fade as we work our way downstream, high and dry out of the water. More importantly, they’ve gotten us here in the first place, which is all that matters. Yesterday I was skiing through surface-hoar needles; today I’m paddling under the moss-draped needles of giant spruce trees.

Soon we reach the Nozzle, where logs choke the channel like a giant game of Jenga. In a hardshell, I might be concerned. But we simply hop out of our boats and drag them around. In one drop, hard-boat convert John Menaphee flips, but quickly climbs back aboard his IK. No harm, no foul.

At the takeout, Corriveaus helps put the Ducky’s appeal in perspective. “As we get older we’re not as fit as we used to be,” he says. “And we don’t boat all the time anymore. I was getting worked kayaking. But IKs open this world up again.”

With that, he takes off to run shuttle, putt-putting away in a 50-cc motorcycle he can lift in and out of his truck himself. It’s looks a little like a clown bike, but he doesn’t care. It gets the task done. It wouldn’t fit in at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, just as his Ducky would draw a few smirks at Gauley Fest. But that doesn’t bother Corriveaus or his IK cohorts, because they’re more than comfortable in their shells.

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