Is It Ever OK to Paddle Alone?

Dear Mountain Mama,

Is it ever okay to paddle alone? I’m a single dad with a full time job. For the first five years of my son’s life I stopped paddling. I picked up golf. Then one day I got to thinking, I’m not a golfer, I’m a kayaker. My time is limited so when I can paddle, I must. Some days that means paddling by myself. My friends sometimes give me grief for paddling alone, and tell me it’s unsafe. But when I get on the water, with or without paddling partners, I feel more alive. The joy paddling gives me makes me a happier, better dad to my son. Do I have your permission to paddle alone?

Lone Paddler

Dear Lone Paddler,

Rivers are dynamic environments, where, in an instant everything can change. Paddling with partners is just good sense. No matter how great of a paddler you are, not one of us is invincible. There’s always a chance that you could get pinned. Or flip, hit a rock, and knock yourself unconscious. It’s impossible to predict all the possible scenarios that another person could step up and provide safety on the river. Besides, it’s nearly always more fun to paddle with people. Despite how difficult it might be to find someone to paddle with you when your schedule permits for some time away, Lone Paddler, it’s important that you try to reach out and find others to join you on the river. So no, Lone Paddler, I can’t give you my permission to paddle alone.

But I also won’t tell you never to paddle alone. Sometimes we are exactly where we’re meant to be. Take my buddy, Mark Divittorio who lives in California. Everyone calls him Devo. On April 4, 2013 he posted on Facebook, “Kyburz this afternoon, anyone? Say two-ish?” I read his post while at work and wished I could paddle with him. Kyburz is one of my favorite stretches of whitewater, a continuous Class IV section on the American River that runs parallel to a Highway 50 in the California Sierras.

I was across the country, working so I couldn’t join him on Kyburz that afternoon. Turns out that neither could anyone else. Devo decided to paddle Kyburz anyway. He’s a solid Class V kayaker who’s been paddling in this area for some twenty years. This stretch of water is only minutes from his front door, and he knows it like the back of his hand.

He paddled Kyburz and just as he reached the take-out he heard a loud thud, then silence, followed by a huge crashing sound. He rushed toward the sound to learn that a SUV had gone careening off the highway, hitting a mile marker and tree before finally landing in the river. What Devo first saw was an SUV on its side in the middle of the river, with three girls sitting on the roof of the SUV. The icy water was rising. Devo acted quickly, taking one girl to shore at a time. The girls begged Devo to go back to help their parents.

The rising river caused the SUV to shift in the water. Devo returned to the SUV. The mom, who was riding in the passenger seat, had managed to get her seatbelt off and had squeezed half her torso out of the smashed sunroof. Her husband, who had been driving, wasn’t so lucky. His legs were caught in between the steering column and the wreckage. His seatbelt was still on, and Devo feared that cutting it would cause his body to slump forward into the still-rising river that now was chest deep on the husband. The wife wrapped her thighs around her husband’s head to keep him from slumping into the water as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Firefighters trained in swiftwater rescue arrived and Devo assisted in rescuing the couple.

The decision to paddle alone is yours alone to make, Lone Paddler. I shudder to think of what would have happened to that family if Devo hadn’t been exactly where he was at that given time. If he had put on just moments later, that SUV might have literally fallen on top of him. If he’d put on later, he might not have reached the family in time. I believe that the events unfolded as they were suppose to that day. Lone Paddler, the decision to paddle is one between you and the river. It depends on the difficulty of the river and your familiarity with the lines. Listen closely and honestly assess your abilities. Beyond that, Lone Paddler, be alert, aware, and prepared to take care of yourself and others on the river.

Mountain Mama

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