Life is filled with defining moments and few weeks ago I had one of my own as I stared down a challenge to kayak the L.A. River with steely determination.
Okay, so that’s a bit dramatic.
There wasn’t actually a stare down or determination with any kind of mettle. And it wasn’t so much a challenge as it was a friendly ask from a good friend to join him in an activity that was clearly outside my general purview. I am, after all, the luxury travel guy which sort of automatically translates to ‘nature is not my natural habitat’. In any case, irrespective of these pesky details, the larger point is that when given the option of spending a perfectly fine Thursday afternoon kayaking down the formerly polluted L.A. River, for some reason I said ‘yes’ (after initially saying ‘no’ of course).
When Thursday arrived, I met my friend and we headed over to a hot and dusty Home Depot parking lot off the 5 Freeway in Elysian Valley where we were instructed to leave our cars and board a shuttle to the park. This was but the first of many red flags given that, as a general rule, activities that begin in Home Depot parking lots are so not my thing. After waiting in the lot for about a half hour, I spied a mother and son duo along with a married couple, hovering around the shuttle pick-up area and correctly deduced from their obvious affinity for Teva brand footwear that they would be joining us on the afternoon’s water-based fiesta based upon. (That is merely an observation by the way. No judgment here.)
When the shuttle arrived, our motley bunch ambled onboard, sat down, and exchanged introductions before riding in steamy, un-air-conditioned anticipation for about five minutes to our meeting point. As we disembarked from the shuttle we were met by our guides who were circling six “bicycles”. Red flag #2 – unbeknownst to me we were expected to bike 2.5 miles (they told us that it was only 2 miles but I beg to differ) to the spot where our kayaking trip would begin. Seriously 2.5 miles on a bike is not a big deal normally but these were those old-fashioned, one speed beach cruiser bikes and they required a bit more effort than I had intended to exert and I’m sure the tires on my bike were not properly inflated which only made the trip more grievous. But I again soldiered on without a disgruntled word.
I was dripping with sweat and mildly out of breath when we reached our destination and then gathered on a concrete wall alongside the river for kayaking instructions by our tour leader who I’ll call Barry. After waxing on a bit about the cleanup of the L.A. River and regaling us with a scintillating story about a recent sighting of a rarely seen bird eating a fish, Barry led us through a series of exercises designed to familiarize us with the techniques we would need to employ to operate our kayaks successfully. I watched and listened intently. Unfortunately for me the intensity of my concentration had no direct correlation to my skill with the paddle. I couldn’t follow Barry. My paddle was frequently turned the wrong way. My motions weren’t fluid and, even worse, everything I did seemed to be the opposite of what I was supposed to be doing. Red flag #3 – if I couldn’t master the paddle on dry land, what hope did I have of wielding it properly once I was in the water? Oh the peril!
Now it was time for the first challenge of the afternoon – boarding our kayaks and navigating our way between a couple of rocks at the end of a short stretch of river. I went last because I wanted to watch everyone else and thereby avoid any mistakes they made. Five kayakers including my friend all sailed down the river and over the rapids ahead of me without a hitch, so I expected that I would enjoy a similar fate. Why that was my expectation given my aforementioned lack of aptitude for paddling is beyond me but expect I did.
I dipped one sneaker clad foot into the water (which already weirded me out because I hate, hate, hate the feeling of wet shoes and socks) and climbed into my kayak. A lovely German guide who I’ll call Olga assisted me. All was fine up until the point when Olga let go of the kayak and I began to float down the river. 15 seconds in and I was already in trouble. I couldn’t control my kayak or my paddle and I ended up floating backwards. Somehow I made it between the rocks and over the rapids while facing backwards, still completely out of control. But when a bump on a rock turned me a around and I found myself heading towards the island in the middle of the river, I shrieked with panic, lost control of my kayak, rolled over and ended up submerged in the water before coming back up and grabbing hold of my kayak which was at that moment as dear to me as life itself.
My spirit was broken, my sunglasses were askew and I was now soaked through with river water. Somewhere, along the way, my paddle ended up in the brush (don’t ask), so while one guide who I’ll call Lou helped steer me and my now upside down kayak over to a wall where I could brace myself in order to climb back In, Olga gathered up my paddle and returned it to me as my fellow kayakers looked on with a combination of mild horror, genuine pity and utter confusion. Two minutes into the adventure and I had already effectively wiped out. That was Red Flag #4.
Once I was back in the kayak, things didn’t improve much. As everyone else navigated the river with stealth, I continued to lag behind, spinning in circles and bouncing from side to side between the island and the wall as the guides did their darndest to correct my form by shouting instructions to me though nothing seemed to help much. After about five minutes, Lou, who was assigned to bring up the rear, a position I was holding down firmly, finally said to me with the mildest sense of exasperation, “I’m not sure what you’re doing.” That was Red Flag #5. When someone who is trained to teach novices how to do a task becomes perplexed as to how to even help a student understand what he or she is doing wrong, you might have a problem. I was not encouraged.
At this point, Barry was forced break from the group and come back to help me. Now, all three instructors – Barry, Olga and Lou – were focused solely on me. You can only imagine what a champion that made me feel like. I eyed the dry land just off to my right longingly, wondering if I shouldn’t just get out right then, but I knew it was too soon to give up. Cursed pride! After about five minutes of coaching from Barry, I had nearly figured out a rhythm of paddling that was by no means good, but it was at least good enough to keep me afloat. It felt like a monumental achievement and I thought I just might make this trip work until the next rapids approached.
For this challenge Barry explained that we would have to navigate an even narrower space between two rocks and then immediately ‘rudder right’ (whatever that meant). Again, I went last, hoping to identify any pitfalls beforehand and again everyone went ahead of me with no problems whatsoever. When my turn came, however, the winning streak came to a close. Through some miracle, I made it through the passage but that’s where the good news ended. I had barely crossed the threshold of the rapids before my arms were flailing and I was moving wildly out of control over the rocks. Of course I finally hit one of those said rocks, turned over, fell out of the kayak again, banged my knee and cut my hand open. I was now bleeding. Red Flag #6. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I wondered. Seriously…I wondered.
Barry and Lou helped me get my soaking wet person back into the kayak yet again and I drifted on to meet the other kayakers, whose earlier pity had now given way to words of support like “you’re looking better” and “you’re doing fine”. Of course I knew they were lying. I understood perfectly well that I looked utterly ridiculous sitting there dripping water from my helmeted head to the tips of my now ruined sneakers, while they were all perfectly dry and looking as breezy as they did at the beginning of the journey. What was I doing here? This was not luxurious!
A calm patch of river followed and I was able keep up well enough for another 10 or 15 minutes but, yep you guessed it… it wasn’t long before the most challenging rapids yet came into view. Barry again launched into his instruction for crossing the latest natural obstacle but this time around I looked at Lou, who must have seen the sheer terror in my eyes because without me saying a word he offered to walk me across the next waterbound hurdle. I, of course agreed, without hesitation. This did not however turn out to be the panacea that I had hoped it to be. Walking through rapids with slick uneven rocks proved to be almost as perilous as my attempts at maneuvering a kayak across them.
As I stumbled across the algae covered stones, water rushed between my legs and into my sneakers and I thought, “In what world is this fun?” My wandering thoughts ended when I saw the veritable obstacle course or stones and rocks that lay ahead on the next length of river. Imagine taking a driving test after maybe two driving lessons and then being asked to drive backwards in and out of about twenty traffic cones for about 2000 feet and you’ll understand about one-tenth the level of anxiety I felt. Surprisingly, however, I braved it. I was totally and disastrously unsuccessful right out of the gate, but I really, really tried.
Once again Barry was forced to assist me but this time he brought along the big guns. Coming to terms with my hopelessness, Barry attached a rope to my kayak so that he could “give me a tow” through this treacherous leg of the adventure. Aside from being humiliating, this turned out be the worst part of the whole adventure because as Barry whipped along in front me, my kayak twisted and turned erratically behind him, hitting and getting stuck on more rocks than before. I had no control and so, as you might expect, ten minutes into this leg, my kayak hit a huge rock and, for the third time, I was thrown from the kayak into the raging waters.
This time I lay there for a few seconds as the cool water rushed over me. My resolve to see this thing through was at an all-time low. Once again I eyed the wall and the walkway above. When I regained my footing and clambered back up, I asked Barry if we were nearly at the end of our trek. He replied, “No, we’re only about a quarter of the way through.” I laughed, because I was certain that he must be kidding. But Barry wasn’t smiling as he fidgeted with the rope that connected our kayaks.
“You are kidding right?” I asked, trying to sound as calm as possible.
“Nope I’m not,” Barry said without even looking up at me.
That was it. I had snapped. There was no way I could take another hour and a half of this.
“I’d like to walk the rest of the way,” I said.
“Over this whole part?” Barry asked eyeing the river.
“No all the way to the end of the course,” I replied flatly.
Barry and Lou looked at me somewhat incredulously before conferencing between themselves. I later learned that no one had ever asked to get off this wild and crazy water ride before, so this was a bit new to them. Lou eventually came back grabbed my kayak and told me to follow him as he stashed my kayak on the island that divides the river. Lou powered through the thick brush and greenery of the island to get me through to the other side and back to the bike path. I felt like I was in an episode of Survivor as I brushed past cobweb covered trees and felt god only knows what jump across my feet. I couldn’t see what was in front of me or what was behind me. I couldn’t see where I was stepping or what I was stepping in. I didn’t even want to think of what was on that island…I just wanted to get to the other side. I wanted out. I wanted to be free of the L.A. River forever. This may sound a trifle melodramatic since dry land was never beyond my eyesight but it is completely authentic.
When we got to the other side, Lou told me to walk up the wall to the bike path and then to walk about a mile and a half to the kayak drop off point. I thanked him, shook his hand and began the happiest mile and a half walk of my life. I was still completely drenched and covered with algae and tiny branches as I limped along the bike path with my shoes squishing water at every step, but I was overjoyed to be back on dry land. I didn’t care that cyclists and other people on the path looked at me like I was a homeless person or that small children seemed to recoil in fear at the sight of me. In fact I was almost oblivious to the stares because my mind was elsewhere.
On that quiet, solemn walk I came to understand that the last few hours had been a defining moment for me. I realized for the first time that in travel, as in life, you have to know who you are. Who I am is a luxury travel writer. Who I am not is an adventure travel writer. And that’s okay. Go Bear Grylls and Anthony Bourdain! I got nuthin’ but love for ya’. However for my part I’ll stick to elegant pursuits in controlled environments. I’ve found my lane and I’m going to stay in it from now on.
[Note: Nature lovers and L.A. River clean up supporters do not hate me or barrage me with negative comments. I am not begrudging you the river. I support you. Go forth and prosper. I wish you well. I will not however be joining your efforts anytime soon.]]
Follow Duane on Twitter @theduanewells on Instagram @therealduanewells and on his website at www.theduanewells.com.