PADDLEFEST 2011: A REFLECTION ON ERROR, ARROGANCE AND A GOOD TIME

 

By Captain

CINCINNATI − The wisest decision I made at 2011 Paddlefest was to put my wallet and cell phone into a dry bag, which seemed at the time overly cautious, as if I were Monk not Nanook. The most confoundingly stupid decision that I was a party to making came after the whole affair was over, when we propped two canoes across the length of a lawn service trailer and headed to Interstate 75 with both boats unsecured by so much as a rope, bungee or tie-down strap. Luck can be the kindest of companions at such moments.

Do tell. I shall.

First, of the 2,200 or so people aboard canoes and kayaks on the Ohio River for the annual floating festival of molded plastic conveyors of slack human flesh, approximately 2,198 remained upright. I was aboard the exception when it tilted just far enough starboard to dump Bob from the bow and me from stern and both of us into the drink, which is a drink the color of a white chocolate mocha but unfortunately not as sanitary unless the mocha in question has first been left in the hot sun for a week and then mixed with urine and other effluent.

Like just such an ill-imagined mocha, the Ohio River has a feel that is inexplicably sticky and explicably icky. In was nonetheless refreshing on a modestly hot morning in late June and oddly comforting in a calentural sort of way  as the current carried us past the gaze of judgmental gawkers who assumed us incompetent. What the dry in their discountenance didn't grasp was they had robbed themselves an essential experience. Oh, to be lolling along with one hand on a thwart, the other grabbling about for your lost hat, effortlessly lifted by a life vest and remembering the kind words of the officious festival marshal who minutes earlier at the launch was as stern as Nurse Rached when he saw us un-PFD'd. "

Do you have Personal Flotation Devices?" he asked with more inquisition and quisition. "It is a requirement."   He was this close to citing the exact United State Coast Guard code by number and subsection. Then, noticing an unzipped vest, added, "It must be secured." OK, OK, I thought, we'll oblige. But come on.  This isn't the Colorado River pushing through the geological constraints of in the Grand Canyon, churning water like God's own Cuisinart. This is the Lazy Ohio, pushing through Cincinnati with all the excitement of a Saturday night spent worming the Cocker Spaniel.

It should be embarssing to tumble into a river with waves neither  worthy of "The Perfect Storm" nor wind worthy of "Tornado Alley at the Omnimax." Doing so in front of an commonalty of onlookers whose paddling skills pale compared to the estimation of your own should leave you hanging your head like Bill telling Hillary, "Well, honey, I might have done something with a cigar once, but it doesn't mean I love you any less." Somehow, though, our capsize came absent ignominy. I attribute to this to a redemption story.

A year ago, at roughly the same point in the trip, a canoe in our coterie flipped as a result of a nearly identical offense to the immutable laws of motion. That is, one paddler's weight shifted suddenly, the other paddler didn't compensate, the boat rolled past the point of no return. Into the mighty Ohio the leaner and the unleaned were deposited, because, as my tenth grade physics text taught me and Wikipedia confirms, a body subject to a force undergoes an acceleration that is directly proportional to the force. In our case, the force was the smug arrogance cultivated over a year of telling others (always with false emphathy and thinly veiled condemnation of their skills) the story of Mike and John flipping over at Paddlefest 2010. Oh, how pride goes before a fall.

I will never tell the story of Mike and John flipping again without also adding that, well, such misfortune can happen to anyone, no matter the skill level and no matter that conditions are the equivalent of a hot tub with the jets turned off. Still waters run deep -- and especially dangerous to hubris.  Capsizing is just something everyone can expect to experience even if 2,198 other paddlers on June 25, 2011 remained smugly upright. Your turn is coming, people. Do not rest on the laurels of a 2011 season that didn't include your unintended entry into the wet t-shirt contest.

One of the righteous and rightful facts of the Great Capsize of 2011 was that Mike was there to see it. He deserved this opportunity. This year, he was paddling solo after a year of wondering, "Whose fault was it – mine or John's?" and concluding, "John's." That is, unless you were John, in which case, the wondering followed this didactic: "Whose fault was it – mine or Mike's?" and concluding, "Mike's."

You can assure yourself in this way many times over and still not convince yourself. Paddling solo eliminates the confusion should another capsize occur. John eliminated the confusion another way. He didn't paddle this year.

All of those existential questions aside (are they existential --. or are they more metaphysical? not sure), justice was somehow served by Mike being able to see Bob and I upended. Being a friend of justice, I don't wish to make much of the following fact, but it at least worth a footnote: John and Mike went into the water and their canoe went upside down. Bob and I went into the water and our canoe remained upright. Again, I don't wish to make too much of this but I feel compelled to mention it in the interest of the record. History is served by exactitude and insulted by omission. This also seems a good time to quote Euripides, who said, "Man's most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe." By way, I once had a professor who liked to say that Euripides was not a Greek poet at all but an Italian tailor who was in business with Eumenides, and their cantankerous counsel to customers they disfavored was this DIY saw: "You rippa dese, you menda dese."

Immediately upon entering the river, my thoughts were lucid and logical, and followed this certain path, "Whose fault was it – mine or Bob's?" and concluding perspicuously, "Bob's."

Buoyed by the beneficence of a secured PDF, we floated fetus-like in the womb of the Ohio, bathed in its soup of sewage, lawn fertilizers, agri-chemicals, petroleum-infested road run-off and acid rain, an apparent perfect Petri for Escherichia coli and perhaps nontyphoidal Salmonella. So my next line of thought was, "I need a high dose of broad spectrum antibiotics."

I will admit that for a moment I thought about denying the capsize, Never happened. Forget that.  There are pictures. Laughing inappropriately and with his smart phone in hand (doesn't the man own a dry bag? ) our Patio Boy companion, Dave, recorded the factual and actual. "These are going straight to the Patio Boys website, baby!"  he said in that bullhorn of a voice of his.paddlefest2011

I have some advice to those to follow in our follow in our footsteps or wake or whatever it should be called. My advice is simply, dont' sweat it. I worried pointlessly, as I can prove.  To wit:

Blame: Why waste timeand thought on a settled matter. It was Bob's fault. End of story.

Infection: As any casual consumer of 21st century news is aware, an American waterway such as the Ohio already has – by virtue of the service it provides to the many metropolitan sanitation districts that don't quite clean their discharge to bottled water standards -- an abundance of dissolved pharmaceuticals, compliments of what we flush into our toilets. Bob and I needed only to swallow a couple of mouthfuls of the Ohio to be sufficiently immunized against all threats except humiliation.

Denial:  You'll find incontrovertible evidence on Facebook, where Dave posted his Kodak moments. You will note in the photos a hand reaching up on the starboard side. It looks creepily like a promo for "Deliverance." That's Bob's hand. Make of it what you will. Imagine banjo music as you do.

My  misaligned priorities created  distraction. Instead of fretting over fault or disease or reputation,  should have been thinking about my hat.

This wasn't just any hat. It was a yellow, vintage LaTourell's hat. They were never sold in stores, and they are no longer sold at LaTourell's, the fine little family outfitter outside of Ely, Minnesota, where you can have your canoe ferried to Ontario's Prairie Portage, the entrance to the magnificent Quetico Provincial Park, which is to canoeists what the Gardens is to Celtics fans, what Augusta is to golfers, what a three-way is to prudish Cincinnatians who aren't talking about HBO's sex fetish but about how to prepare what is locally labeled chili even if Texans don't get it. No big deal. Texans don't get a lot of things.

This was a bright yellow hat, visible across a wilderness lake at a mile or more. However, once it sunk three inches into the Ohio, it disappeared never to be seen again. I shall miss it, and hope that LaTourell's will sell them again someday. This hat had just the right feel to his canvas and just the right combination of structure and lack of structure to its structure, if you know what I mean. Later in the day, on the Public Landing where Paddlefest ends, my daughter Sarah (fresh from running the Hyde Park Blast) was conversing with Dave's daughter Erin, when the hat was mentioned. "He lost that hat! Oh no!" Sarah reportedly said. When Erin retold this story later, she added, "That hat must be legendary in the Neikirk family." Well, it is now.

At least my wallet and cell phone were safely in the dry bag, which, in a another rare abundance of aforethought, I had fastened to a thwart, so that – in the unlikely event of a capsize – I would still be able to buy a beer and call home.

One important addition to this story. Not everyone who saw us flip was not amused. At lesat one witness was wide-eyed scared. Mike's granddaughter Ella had come along for the ride with her parents, mum Katie and dad Other Mike. Ella is  school-agde now and a big sister who commands the respect of her little brothers, so she isn't the kind of girl who would show fear unless she sensed a real and present danger. She'd been assured by her parents there was nothing to fear but feart itself but her parents also believe in the Easter bunny. Katie reports of her daughter, the terrified child who was in a boat for the first time: "She was already nervous but a capsized captain clutching our canoe just inches away from her nearly did her in." Wisely, her parents paddled away, keeping their distance from captain and his dangerous crew of one.

Now, back to being in the water.

Wet, hatless and infected with who knows what, I took my seat  aboard the boat and and instructed Bob on keeping his posterior centered and his hips loose at all times so as to adjust insinctively to canoeing's dictim to rock but never roll. We paddled forth into the teaming mass of humanity, some of whom were smoking cigarettes and others of whom were texting while paddling. Isn't that illegal?   An inveterate eavesdropping, I heard one kayaker tell  another, "There are some Cheetos in the front hatch and some beef jerky in the other if you get hungry," which was necessary cargo, I presume, because 8.2 miles in a downstream current with no wake is so grueling that calories cannot be counted they can only be consumed. Does that sound arrogant? I hope not, because I believe what my father told me. "The chicken always comes home to roost," he warned. So I know that if I do not take back those insulting descriptions I am predestined to capsize during 2012 Paddlefest as Cheeto-eaters watch with unsuppressed laughter, flicking Marlboro  ashes over their decks. Comeuppance is a bitch.

What next? It was uneventful to the end, and Paddlefest is a beautiful sight. It is something to see 2,200 people in canoes and kayaks wandering aimlessly down an urban river and sending a message to policymakers in the state capitols and in Washington: Clean up this river! We disapprove of its use as an open sewer, even if, Pogo-like, we have met the polluter and he is us. We feel bad about that, and would appreciate enforcement of existing water quality laws and perhaps the propagation of new ones so that our children's children's Paddlefest many years from now will be down a river into which a bright yellow hat can be seen even as it sinks to the bottom, where it might settle not beside a collection of Diet Coke cans, auto parts and bent, rusty lawn chairs, but instead upon a bed of glacial gravel that is the river's geological heritage and upon which native species might spawn.

My child's child, Madeline, stood on the Purple People Bridge and yelled out, "Captain! Captain!" as Bob and I paddled beneath. For her benefit, and those of her generation, let us not only imagine a cleaner river but let us make it happen. Pete Seeger did it for the Hudson. Why not us?

Our after-fest was mostly conversation and a couple of hotdogs, along with an admiring tour of the hulls. A handmade strip kayak was impressive as was a high-end graphic model, tarted up with a red blazes against its elegant black. A Weh-no-nah Jensen in forest green with wood trim impressed me. Like your favorite jeans, it was worn just enough to look loved and used without looking shabby. Mike's solo hull stood out among a sea of Old Town tandems and a few too many Coleman's for a canoe snob.

Soon enough, it was time to go – and it was at this point that our day's second error occurred.

There are many wonderful things to say about Paddlefest, and together the constitute a sufficient body of benefit to negate the right to nitpick Were I to nitpick, I might quetion why the traffic flow of parking vehicles passed directly through port-a-potty egress and ingress. Was someone trying to kill someone?  Maybe the traffic flow designer was once victimized as he or she waited patiently and properly in line as his or her bladder bordered on explosion, only to be waylayed by somone who broke line. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – or a woman denied her turn to tinkle.

Everything else at Paddlefest was perfect. Well, almost everything. There were a couple micro dang-its: .

• Beer lines: When you charge $6 for a beer, you should have more than two beer booths. It should not take longer to buy a beer than it takes to drink a beer. This was a deal God made with man when he first revealed what water, malt, hops and yeast could become under the right conditions. This, by the way, was the information first provided to Moses and constitutes the sum total of the knowledge lost by Mel Brooks when he dropped one of the three tablets and quickly regrouped, reporting the Lord had given unto his people ten, not fifteen, commandments. "Oy!" Mr. Brooks exclaimed, as he lost for all time the divine recipe for beer. Ever since, mortals have had to experiment with the basic ingredients and preparations, only occasionally approximating Eternal Exactitude, as God's ale might have been known. Guinness comes close.

• Chili no dogs: If you are going to sell cheese coneys from a Gold Star Chili booth, don't leave off the hotdog and don't argue about it. This, you would think, would be obvious but apparently not to the post-paddle booth that perpetrated this offense. "Hey," a bewildered Bob said to the man who made his chili dog dogless, "you left the hotdog off my coney." "No I didn't. That's a chili cheese sandwich, like you ordered." That was a cheap imitation of cheese coney is what that was.  Dear Paddlefest, when you decide who not to invite back next year..

• Hurry up and wait: The system for picking up your canoe or kayak after the show is a rat maze with borders invisible to both the drivers who are expected not to stray from within the maze and pedestrians who are expected to not stray inside the maze. This was worse even than the port-a-potty grid. Naturally, we avoided it – and this is where our final trouble began.

Our paddle pack included me, Bob, Dave, Mike, Katie, Ella, Other Mike and, finally, Kevin, who shamelessly paddled a pink kayak as people stared. "Breast cancer awareness,' he explained when asked.  Borrowed from his daughter was the truth but so what? If the man is comfortable in pink, let him be. 

To avoid riding the Paddlefest shuttle (driven by Evel Knievel), Kevin had parked his Jeep at the route's end and he hustled Dave back to Coney Island --  the old amusement park that serves as the staging area for Paddelfest's start --  to pick up his SUV and the trailer we used to bring our boats to Paddlefest. So far, so good. Dave called and instructed us bring our two boats and Kevin's kayak up to the street so could avoid the rat maze. On the street, we loaded with the precision of a NASCAR pit crew. Fast, efficient, perfect. Until, somewhere between Fort Wright and Crescent Springs on Interstate 75, Dave glances into the review mirror and has the look of someone in a Stephen Spielberg movie getting the first glimpse aliens. "Oh my God! We've lost a canoe."

Sure enough, the trailer was empty and about 200 yards back on the side of the interstate was a canoe, looking to all the world as if it had been off-loaded and put aside next to guardrail to await pickup and dlivery.

Who is to say how many of our friends and neighbor saw us Saturday midday walking from the SUV to the canoe, as if it were just a normal weekend and we'd come out to the interstate to pick up the canoe that someone had left on the side of the road for us. Having capsized before a much larger and more critical audience earlier in the day, this was nothing. Besides, the canoe gods had taken great care of us. Grace is about gifts undeserved, and we did not deserve to find our canoe and it content, four not-to-cheap bent shaft paddles, undamaged.

I only ask you to imagine the horror of what might have benn had the canoe flown into traffic, causing speeding cars to dodge and careen. The day before, a man who ran out of gas on the I-75 bridge was knocked into the Ohio and killed by a car that failed to notice him and adjust. So you'll understand when I tell you that a 17-foot boat would have just wreaked havoc havoc had it done anything other than what it did, which was to sail somewhat elegantly off the back of the trailer and float on air to a gentle landing on the roadside A Parachute Adams never letter more softly, more precisely in the right spot.

We reloaded, secured the boat and drove away, as unapologetic as a cat that just knocked over a glass a red white on a white carpet. Like the cat, we knew we'd screwed up. Unlike the cat, we promise to do better next time, come Paddlefest 2012. As as for those who have suggest the Captain should have a new trail name, I remind you that Flipper and all of Tursiops truncatus are known for their intelligence. Our performance on June 25, 2011, may be disqualifying.