“¿Estás bien? Are you okay?” the kayaker asked me as I entered the eddy clinging to the rock walls.
I realized that my face was set in a grimace. “Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just my first time in a kayak on this river.”
“I could tell. Your paddling is fine, but your face gives you away. You should relax, and smile.” With that he paddled off, and I was left to ponder what I knew to be true.
I had arrived the day before in San Rafael (part of the province of Mendoza, Argentina), and had immediately set out to see the Atuel River in a ducky—being a new kayaker with an inconsistent roll, I like to know what I am getting into before committing to a hard-shell. The commercial section of the Atuel is a beautiful six-mile stretch of Class II river with warm water, wave trains, and gorgeous views of the surrounding canyon. Willow trees and campsites line the river, and on the weekends the air is filled with the glorious aroma of asado (barbecue). Because the river trips are so short, and the rafting companies so many, there is a constant stream of trailers and buses going to and from the take-out, as well as friendly kayakers happy to go for a paddle.
Having ascertained that the river contained no boat-swallowing holes, nasty undercuts or other disagreeable features, I knew I had to give it a try. Luckily, the two amazing ladies Sophie and Denise were not only responsible for running our campsite, they are also both solid paddlers, and they were able to lend me the boat that I needed. (N.B.: I owe a big gracias to my boyfriend, Matías, who introduced us). I felt nervous, but also determined, and once I was in the kayak with the spray skirt on I knew there would be no turning back. Or much looking back, for that matter, because on that first day I was entirely focused on paddling myself into stability and doing everything that I could to stay upright. When we got to the take-out I felt a huge sense of relief—my first day in a kayak on the Atuel River, and no carnage! It was only on the bus ride back that I began to feel that the trip had actually been fun—in the moment I had been so concentrated on making it down the river that I had forgotten to enjoy myself.
As the days went by and I kept paddling, the balance slowly shifted. I became more comfortable in the kayak itself, feeling its reaction and improving my paddling technique through helpful tips. I also got to know the river and learned to anticipate the rapids, so that instead of paddling for survival I was making more of the moves that I intended. One day I became unbalanced while entering an eddy, flipped, and when I went for a roll I found myself upright again! It felt like the satisfaction of joining together two pieces of a puzzle: the hours of roll practice and the roll itself in (a little) action. While I was still on edge at times, there were also moments when I was able to relax and appreciate the sensation of the boat in the water.
Now I’m in the colorful mango-strewn town of Jalcomulco, situated on the banks of the rocky Pescados River, in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. I’ve been down in a ducky a few times and the other day had my first opportunity in a kayak. When I pushed off from shore my heart was pumping but I felt an overall sense of calm, and as I paddled to join up with my friends I knew that I was smiling.
Sarah “Sarita” Kay learned to kayak with Cali Collective in Summer 2015 on the South Fork American. Since then she’s been charging hard on any kind of water in any craft she can find. Keep an eye out for this one!
All images and words copyright California Women’s Watersport Collective 2016. All rights reserved.