Me, a kayak and a river... in truth, it should never have happened. I am, after all, the luxury travel guy, not Bear Grylls. But, alas, happen it did on a warm, sunny afternoon just a few weeks ago. It was pure Man (Me) vs. River (LA).
In spite of the fact that I could scarcely master handling a kayak paddle on dry land, there I stood on the banks of the man-made, concrete river bed that is now generously and lovingly referred to as the Los Angeles River, prepared to step into a kayak and begin a two-hour trek through the wilds of East Los Angeles.
I watched patiently (and with some modicum of scrutiny) as five kayakers sailed effortlessly down the river and over the rapids ahead of me, expecting that I would enjoy a similar fate. Why that was my expectation given my aforementioned lack of aptitude for paddling is beyond me, but such was the case.
Fifteen seconds in and I was already in trouble. I couldn't control my kayak or my paddle and I found myself floating backwards between the rocks and over the rapids. My arms were flailing and my kayak twisted and turned until I eventually bumped into a rock, spun around and ended up heading in the direction of an uninviting looking island in the middle of the river. As you might expect from a landlubber like myself, I shrieked with panic, tipped my kayak over and ended up submerged in the murky waters of the river. A few seconds later I popped back up out of the water with my spirit broken, my knock-off designer sunglasses askew and my ego sorely bruised.
Once I was back in the kayak, things didn't improve much. As everyone else continued to navigate 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 at me to little avail. Eventually, even the exasperated guide assigned to bring up the rear said to me 'I'm not sure what you're doing.' I was not encouraged.
I had barely managed to keep up with the group before I was confronted with the next disturbing obstacle. For this challenge 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. Thanks to some minor miracle, I made it through the passage, but before long I lost control of the kayak again, turned over, fell out, banged my knee and cut my hand open. I was now bleeding. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I wondered. Seriously... I wondered.
I hauled my soaking wet person back into the kayak once more and 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 wet 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.
The final indignity came when, in an obvious acknowledgement of my hopelessness at kayaking, the lead guide decided to make up for lost time by tying a rope to my kayak so that he could "give me a tow" through the most treacherous leg of the adventure. Aside from being humiliating, this turned out be the worst part of the whole adventure because as the guide whipped along in front me, my kayak thrashed around 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 collided with another huge rock and, for the third time, I was tossed face first into the raging waters of the L.A. River.
This time I lay there for a few seconds as the cool water rushed over me. My resolve to see this thing through was nil as I eyed the concrete wall and the walkway above with renewed longing. When I regained my footing and clambered back up, I asked the guide 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 joking. But he wasn't smiling as he stood in the water fidgeting with the rope that connected our kayaks.
"You are kidding right?" I asked, trying to sound as calm as possible.
"Nope I'm not," the guide said without even looking up at me.
Everything just went black and I snapped. There was no way I could take another hour and a half of this.
I told the guides that I didn't care how it happened, but I needed to get off this nightmare of a water ride and after a few incredulous looks and some whispered conversation, they escorted me back to land, hacking a path through the thick brush and greenery of the island to get me through to the other side and back to the bike path. As I brushed past cobweb covered trees and bore the fear of god only knows what jumping across my feet I felt like I was in an episode of Survivor. 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 I can assure you that it is completely authentic.
From there I began the mile and a half walk back to the kayak drop off point. I was still completely drenched and covered with algae and tiny branches as I limped along the bike path with an aching knee, bloody hand and my shoes squishing water at every step. I didn't care that cyclists and passersby 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. I was simply too overjoyed to be back on dry land.
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 ok. Go Ranulph Fiennes and Anthony Bourdain! I got nothin' 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: Adventure 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, kayak and prosper. I wish you well. I will not however be joining your efforts anytime soon.]
For more of Duane's adventures visit his website www.theduanewells.com.