Adventure stories need to start with someone intent on having an ordinary day. Sure, you can begin a trip with the idea of doing something crazy, but no matter how amazing the results, they end up being travelogues, a mere telling of a set of events.
Our kayaking trip was planned as a routine trip up the Willamette from the public boat ramps under the Abernathy Bridge to Willamette Falls, a trip we had done a few weeks before. It was close to sunset, but the light lingers on in late summer so we were not worried about being on the river after dark. The one thing we changed was switching Faelan from Cyn’s kayak to mine. We did this because they were not a good match on the first trip. Cynthia has more patience for a lot of things, but the occasional paddle coming back towards her head and almost clocking her was not one of them. I am a somewhat stronger paddler than she is, so I could also keep up even with a passenger who does not paddle much at all.
We made it to the Oregon City Bridge without any issues. It’s a beautiful cement arch that contrasts with the very utilitarian Abernathy further downstream. Faelan likes to cycle over it with me on her bike trailer, though that is a trip that requires balance and patience as she can sometimes lean the bike in a way that makes the ride shaky on the narrow sidewalks. We crossed over the channel to the side near the Willamette Locks to continue upstream.
We were now between the two paper mills that bracket the falls. The one on the Oregon City side is shut down and awaiting demolition and the one on the West Linn side should join it. It turns out that one of the most beautiful sites in Oregon is sandwiched between two crumbling piles of industrial wreckage that can best be described as Stalinist. Many of the buildings there have not received a coat of paint since the Truman administration and have corroded fixtures whose only purpose now is to drip rusty water into the river as it flows past. The best part of the mill is a vast wall with arched channels cut out of it through which water comes streaming out of the darkness and into the Willamette. It looks like something from Lord of the Rings, maybe a channel flowing out of Moria. Faelan was just as fascinated as I was with the largest of the channels, which has spiderwebs across the top of the opening that doubled-down on the haunted quality of the thing.
As I said, the mill on the West Linn side is functioning. That day it had its auxiliary water spouts open, spilling water into a narrow side channel that is normally quiet. There was now a flow of water coming out of that channel that rivaled the falls themselves. I wanted to paddle into the flow like I had done at the Falls previously and shoot down the river in the current. I took stock of the flow and its turbulence, I set my entry point, and completely mistimed our turn. The turbulence tilted us to the right and the current caught the side of the inflatable kayak. We went over immediately.
There was no moment of asking myself what happened or wondering what to do next. Kids help with that. My first thought was to swim immediately to Faelan and get a hold of her. She sputtered a bit as the water splashed her face but the life jacket did its job and kept her head out of the water. But she was 4½ years old in the river and needed an adult to hold on to.
The kayak was now behind me but I had my paddle in my hand and grabbed hers as I reached her. I knew she would clutch me and pull me down a bit, but I had my life jacket on and was prepared for it. I held her close to me and had her face right up to mine. “That was crazy, wasn’t it?” I said as we spun around. I could see our kayak, now stuck in an eddy away from the current, fall behind us at a fast pace as we drifted down the river together. I said that to her because I could see that she was shocked and surprised, but had not quite reached a tipping point where she had to decide between panicking or not. Framing it as a crazy adventure on the river would give her a scaffold to form around her experience. She never did panic, so my idea and her inherent strengths took hold. Dad and daughter were drifting down the river with two paddles but no kayak.
She did start to wonder about what was going to happen next. She wasn’t the only one. I could see Cyn paddle towards us, but I shouted for her to grab the kayak. She had the right idea, prioritize the kid and husband in the water (in that order), but I thought we were okay and shouted for her to grab the boat and bring it to us. We’ve been together eight years now, and I could tell her eyes were rolling from where I was almost a quarter mile downriver. But she took me at my word and started the process of bringing our kayak with her.
Faelan’s chief concern was otters. She wondered if they would swim up and nibble her. I wasn’t worried about sea otters, but I knew that sea lions frequented the area in other parts of the year. There were none in the area that I could tell, based on our slow paddle upriver. We would have definitely seen one as we came up. “Don’t worry, the otters will only nibble me since I am so much bigger than you.” The whole rest of the time I told her how brave she was and how she was so good on the adventure. She also joined me in wondering, out loud, what was happening upriver.
I saw that Cyn was struggling to make any progress with the second kayak. It was difficult for her to get both kayaks into the current and start the process of picking us up since she did not have a tow rope. It was just as frustrating on my end watching her difficulties as every second pulled us further away. I thought she could have held the kayak in back of her and gotten Teagan to paddle up front, but she had a better idea. Since they were out of the turbulent water, she had Teagan climb aboard my newly upright kayak and had her paddle downstream alone.
At that point, a large fish jumped out of the water near us. It wasn’t a surprise; small fish had been jumping here and there, indicating that a larger fish was chasing them, but it was startling since we were floating downriver without a boat. For half a second I thought “sea lion,” but that was my water-soaked paranoia and I dismissed it right away. Sea lions seldom show aggression towards humans, anyway. On top of it, there are exactly zero fish in that river that would be a concern for us, but it did remind me that we were drifting almost as fast as Cyn and Teagan could paddle and that it would make catching up to us a lot harder.
Faelan didn’t really notice the jumping, but she said what I had been thinking. “Let’s swim to shore.” With that, I started kicking to the rocky riverbank using the scissor kick I learned in lifeguard training. There was no paddling with my hands since I had a tight hold on Faelan and our paddles. We made it to shore after a few minutes and sat tiredly on a rock in the shadow of an abandoned mill building.
Looking upriver, I could see Cyn and Teagan making steady progress. I laughed because Teagan had asked to spend time paddling on her own and now she was getting a crash course. I knew she was loving it. Faelan and I sat by the shore. She was alternating between wanting to be held because she was cold and exploring the shore we were on. In other words, she was just as mercurial as ever. One of her nicknames, her Viking one, is Quicksilver. It’s a lot less common than Little Bug but is so very apt.
Soon Cyn and Teagan came around the bend to pick us up. Cyn took a turn telling Faelan what a hero she was for being so brave in the water and I told Teagan the same for her daring rescue of her family. That cemented the outlook on our adventure. It could have been fear or a dislike of anything kayak-related, but instead, it was a story of both my girls growing a lot in a short period of time.
Cyn took Faelan in her kayak and headed downstream. I had to convince Teagan, who discovered an outlet pipe with an awesome echo when you shouted into it, that it was time to paddle home. At that point, I was feeling my first pang of guilt. I tipped my youngest child into the river and was worrying about her developing a water phobia after this (despite her continued bravery). I also realized I lost my eyeglasses in the river. I was just about to start a very fuzzy week. Teagan turned to say to me “I totally wanted to try what you tried.” This was not an effort to comfort me; she was just stating her opinion of what I had attempted. But it did end up comforting me a lot. We spent the rest of the trip back talking about her first time paddling alone and I could hear Cyn deconstructing the events with Faelan on their kayak.
We were almost at the docks when Cyn told me that she had also wanted to try entering the current but had held off after seeing our mishap. That was yet another comfort. She went up to back our car down the ramp to make loading the kayaks easier. My fears of a water phobia were allayed by the fact that I had to work really hard to get them out of the water at the base of the ramp. It was a real struggle to get my little heroes out of the water.
We made it home with a short stop at McDonald’s for an extra meal. The girls ate before we started, but we figured the extra fuel was needed and the Happy Meal prize deserved. We made it home and plunked them into the tub. More water, I know, but we had to wash the Willamette River off of them. I made them medals out of special sparkling paper to mark the occasion. Faelan’s reaction was to put it in a special cup where she can put all of her future medals. She fully expects unexpected events in her future. I have to agree with her.