It was one of those glorious late-winter afternoons that felt like a mid-spring day—bright blue sky, comforter clouds, and water dripping from our paddles like inverted candelabras. It was our fourth lap of the day, cutting a good clip across a pool on our home river, the Saint, when my buddy Kev glanced over with a thoughtful grin and asked his question:
"Why do we paddle so much?"
Now, normally Kev's questions are more practical, such as "Where we stoppin' for dinner?" "Who's that chick?" "Do we have time for another lap?" "Has anyone seen Hudson in the last 45 minutes?" "Shit, are we out of beer?"
So, I welcomed this introspective interlude, inhaled contemplatively like a professor in the movies, and leaned back into my proverbial leather thinking chair—I mean back-band.
"You know, Kevin," I began. "I think about this all the time. Maybe we paddle so much just to feel the paddle in our hands, the blades slipping into the water, the boat moving across the river?"
Kev raised an eyebrow curiously, so I continued.
"Or maybe we paddle so much to feel the tendons in our forearms tightening after long days on the water. To feel our elbows strain from use. Our shoulders burning with each stroke. Obliques twisting from rotations. Thighs lifting against braces. Toes pressing against the hull."
Kev shrugged ponderously, so I went on.
"Or maybe we like feeling the power of our strokes when we turn the paddle a full 90 and dig? Or to feel that balancing point, when ferrying, where water skims under the hull without snagging an edge? Or the choppy bounce of plastic when we rock splat and slide? Or the bow of our playboats slicing into flatwater when we do a cartwheel?"
I dropped a hip, grabbed current with my paddle, stopped the blade, and flipped my stern into the air. Then I flopped over forward and floated upside down. Water filled my sinuses as I rolled up with fog in my eyes. Kev laughed. "You mean like this?" he said, executing a perfect double cartwheel.
"Yeah, something like that," I grumbled, shaking water from my ears. Kev grinned and nodded for me to continue.
"Or maybe we paddle so much to feel the power the river has? Like when we peel out and the current grabs our bow and throws us downstream. Or when we skid into an eddy and stern squirt to a stop. When we surf a wave and reach that perfect equilibrium, where we can raise our paddle in the air and stay there for days. Or spinning 360 as the foam pile rushes against our backs. Or when we drop an edge and flip and get flushed?"
Kev raised an eyebrow. "You dissing my window shade?"
"Or maybe we paddle so much because we love the challenge? Picking a line through a boulder garden. Scoping out a rooster tail kicking up like Old Faithful and giving it a wide berth? Timing our approach to a ledge, planting our blade, and launching the most perfect boof. Air underneath, landing at 45 into a moving chute, flaring the blade with a flick of the wrist and launching another drop on autopilot."
Kev looked at me. "You've been hitting the Cheoah without me."
"Or maybe we paddle so much just to gear up and have a purpose? Slipping into our dry suits and gaskets like circus contortionists. Slapping our PFD just to make sure it's there. Untangling our helmet straps like the rope in our throw bag. Or forgetting our pogies, again, and trying to convince ourselves, and everyone else, that we don't need pogies that day. "
"Haven't seen my pogies in weeks," muttered Kev, eyeballing his fingers. "I may have nerve damage."
"Or maybe we paddle so much because we secretly love the notoriety? The way passersby on shore clap even when we have the worst line imaginable. Or how our nonboating friends finally join a trip and say they now get why we're always out of town. Or how the local girls seem to glance over slyly when we roll back up."
Kev shook his head. "See, I'm just not convinced these girls really exist. Where are they? I am always looking."
Look harder, I thought, but just shrugged.
"Or maybe we paddle so much for the camaraderie? Pulling into an eddy where a dozen friends forget they're waiting to surf and instead end up talking for half an hour. Or a big group sunning ourselves on warm granite. Having a beer at the take-out and catching up on life since the last time the flow was up. Or hearing the chants, "Bootie! Bootie! Bootie!" and noticing some hikers watching stricken as we put the heel of a sandy shoe to our mouths and let flow the most disgusting brew imaginable. Then watching those hikers gag and hurry off into the woods."
"Don't you always run the shuttle when it's your turn for a bootie beer?"
I pointed out a bald eagle conveniently perched up ahead.
"Or maybe we paddle so much for the places it takes us and the things we see? Disappearing into a desert river canyon for weeks with friends. Feeling the bedrock walls rise up around us. Seeing big horn sheep trotting amid barrel cactuses. Or mountains rising into the sky framed by redwoods along the banks. Watching waterfalls tumble from overhead or sitting in hot springs by riverside. Stumbling across old cabins long abandoned or witnessing a bear cub drinking from an eddy. Following the sun as it sets behind a distant peak. The sky turning to a black quilt with pin pricks of light. And listening to the current rush onward into morning."
Kev was grinning ear-to-ear with a slightly mocking look he gets when messing with me.
"What?" I said, feeling self-conscious about once again going—what my friends call—full Bezemek.
"That's all really cool," said Kev. "But I just meant why do we paddle so much, as in, why don't we ever float? Like, take a break."
My face suddenly felt quite hot. I nodded in an affected way, took off my helmet, dipped it in the river, and poured water over my head. "You're right," I said. "We can just float."
And so we floated downstream, through the pool, as the water rustled and the birds chirped.
Read more by Mike Bezemek, who writes and photographs Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters for C&K, a paddling series about “stepping down” the intensity and “stepping out” the experience. He also authors Bull on Tap for Bull: Men’s Fiction, a series of satirical reviews of “shitty” beer, which are linked to on his website mikebezemek.com. The guidebook Paddling the Ozarks, for Falcon Guides, will be out May 1st, 2017.