Everything changes and ends.
Our journey began nearly 6 months ago in the midst of long, cold, and lonely winter. We generated light on the sixth day of every week by committing to paddling together every Saturday. It seemed as though every run was along snow lined banks, and each put in a long seal launch into icy waters. Grown men acting like boys, going tubing on a raft, laughing, the cold winter wasn’t so cold anymore. In time we were rewarded with spring.
The days became longer and the darkness slowly began to slip away.
Race season. Pain, commitment, organization, personal sacrifice.
Yet the laughter was rich, the interactions more congruent, the memories entrenched.
Flat-water training began 3 months ago. In the last month, the snow lined banks were replaced with dirty asphalt often only an inch from our nose as we hammered out push ups, and the clear streams now served as a reward for paddling on the murky Willamette.
Three times a week. This was a period of growth.
We rolled into Idaho for the United States Rafting Association National Championships knowing that we had already experienced a remarkable season. The goal was to paddle hard and do our best, and the boys did not disappoint.
Things don’t always go according to plan.
The slalom course at Lower Otter’s Slide on the North Fork of the Payette had 4 upriver gates which included very difficult ferries. Our practice went okay, now we would have two timed runs and the best times of the two would determine placing. Our exuberant yet inexperienced crew exploded out of the starting area and nearly missed gate 1, a hard left turn to an upriver gate. Rattled, I miscalled the move through gate 2 and we missed gate 3 which snowballed into confusion and the rest of the run was completed in shock and despair.
A Nationals level format consists of a slalom, sprint, and downriver. We were one heat into 3 days of racing and were already faced with not even placing. All that work….our backs were now against the wall. Other teams compounded the pressure by having solid runs. My crew looked at me for direction, I fought back the fear and returned a confident stare. We went for a run. Sweat was familiar.
Solemnly, we settled into position at the starting area, a glance downstream revealed the left bank to be lined with spectators and the difficult gates dangling amongst the fast water. 3-2-1 the boat lurched off the bank and we set the line to gate 1. Conservatively we slid slightly downstream before charging back up and through this upriver gate. Ferrying out into the current we deftly backed through gate 2 and headed to 3 which was yet another upriver gate. Cleaning 3 we spun around and charged for 4, we were on line and our confidence increased with each millisecond. We nailed 4, snuck through 5, and attacked 6, coming out hot at the perfect angle for the big pour-over which hid the consecutive upriver gates of 7 and 8. The boat landed sideways off the pour-over in line and centered for gate 7, we could now hear the crowd. Fighting upriver through 7 we spun around in the current and set up for 8 which was quickly negotiated before heading back across the river to the finish.
We nailed it. Failure merely establishes a setting to evolve and succeed. With the trust we had established in each other, the boys pushed through. Our shouts and hugs following the second slalom run will never be forgotten. Many of us could not remember the last time we had felt such joy, Rasta equated the feeling to the birth of his son Ryder.
The sprint consisted of about 300 meters of Class I and flat-water before entering a huge breaking wave which guarded the entrance to Staircase Rapid, a long Class IV on the South Fork of the Payette. Again we had an excellent start and held a fast line as we barreled into the entrance of Staircase. The entrance wave surged on the boat momentarily burying us as we careened downstream towards two big holes. We recovered and sprinted towards the finish. A good run but we knew we could do better. I glanced at the times, we were just a few seconds out of first and tied for second.
The second run was more exciting. We were faster coming into Staircase and on line for possibly winning or getting second when the entrance wave slapped us silly. Onlookers would say the line and angle were good, our bow left getting blown out of the boat would indicate it wasn’t good enough. Our right side continued paddling and steering while the left pulled our swimmer back in and got re-situated. Given all this we were only 4 seconds slower than our first run. We finished day 2 tied for 3rd place.
Downriver, 4.5 miles
Our fitness and passion on this weekend was unmatched. Technique and experience, the two variables that separated us from the top 2 teams, Behind the 8 Ball (1st) and Team Colorado (2nd) would again be the determining factors in the downriver discipline. Our timing was slightly off, and my guiding technique not quite up to snuff in a world class race situation. Our lines were all good, however at this level it is much more than that. Fortunately, I know what to fix. 8 Ball has paddled together for 8 years, Team CO 3, ORT? We have had this particular crew together for 4 weeks, only 3 were the same from last year. We have gotten better every year. The 2008 National event marked the first time we even had 1st and 2nd place in sight. The gap will continue to close.
The 2008 season was a resounding success. It wasn’t just all the wins and good times. As a group we also experienced pain, loss, spirituality, fear, love, and mostly acceptance.
Dad’s saying, “That’s my son” when they otherwise do not feel comfortable sharing their feelings.
Feeling good even after defeat.
“That was as great a feeling as the birth of my son”.
“I will never forget your efforts here today, my hope is that these friendships last forever”.
ORT, we are more than just a rafting team.
There was no regret after stowing all the gear one last time.
Each man went home with a smile, walking quietly into that good night.