It sounded like a good plan.
I would get up early Tuesday morning, paddle out from the public access ramp next to the Columbia Gas Transmission building and head up to the Capitol. At the Capitol, I would take out my phone and shoot a selfie with the sun coming up from behind.
The night before, I loaded Mayor Goodwin’s green and blue kayak on top of my car.
Since I’d started, I’d slowly, but surely found out how to get better at securing and transporting the little boat.
Use two pool noodles to cushion the kayak if you don’t have a rack mounted to the roof.
Drape a towel or a blanket over the noodles to hold them in place (this cuts down on the wind snatching them).
Use ratchet straps to tie the kayak down. Run the straps under the door, not through the windows, which makes it possible to open the car and get in.
With that done, I packed for the following day, got to bed at a reasonable hour and set my alarm. I figured after a cup of coffee, I’d have plenty of time to get to the river and paddle up to where I needed to be at sunrise (approximately 6:40 a.m.).
But by morning, none of that made any sense. I didn’t actually know how long it would take for me to paddle from the boat landing to the Capitol. I figured that was somewhere around a mile.
I can run from the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s parking garage to the Capitol in 13 to 14 minutes, a mile and a half away.
This is nothing to brag about.
I’m not a fast runner. I can live with the teenage cross-country runners blowing past me, but getting smoked by people pushing strollers containing small dogs makes me want to take up knitting.
There was no way I could get to the Capitol in 10 or 15 minutes by kayak. Just to get to where I wanted to be to take a silly selfie, I’d need at least 30 minutes, which meant maybe putting in while it was still dark.
And then there was the morning weather report, which called for fog.
On some mornings running alongside the Kanawha River, I’ve taken it on faith that the river was even there.
While the coffee worked its way through my brain, the idea of setting out on a river I’d never paddled on, in a craft I’d only used three times, in the dark and in the fog, to get a shaky picture with my cell phone lost its appeal.
It just seemed stupid.
And visions of becoming a hood ornament on a coal barge danced in my head.
It was part of some lingering anxiety. I just felt a little spooked.
The reason I’m in Charleston in the first place is because of a public radio announcer named Walt.
Seventeen years ago, I was hired to replace Walt, several months after he’d been fired or quit. I was never entirely sure which happened, only that he’d had run-ins with management.
Anyway, I moved in over a weekend in March of 2003, during a warm spell. While unloading a beat-up couch from a U-Haul truck into a basement apartment, I got a call letting me know that Walt had died.
He’d drowned while kayaking.
Walt had a lot of friends at the station. His wife worked at the front desk. And while nobody blamed me for getting hired, it seemed like an ominous start for me.
While I think Walt died while kayaking down rapids and I’ve gone nowhere yet that could be accused of whitewater, what happened to him hasn’t been far from my mind for weeks, particularly those times when I’ve gone out to paddle alone.
After another sip of coffee, I decided to slow my roll and maybe come back to that. It would be better just to get out on the river in full daylight, see how long it took me to get from point A to point B and whether I’d have any trouble at all.
A couple of friends thought I was overreacting, but I didn’t feel right about setting out that early alone. Instead, I drove my kayak-laden car to the boat launch at noon. By then, there were already a few people out on the river that I could see, including a couple of guys fishing, an older man paddling in a weathered kayak and a trio of teenagers whooping it up on a jet ski.
Literally. I heard them yell “Wooo” a couple of times when they passed by.
After launching the kayak a couple of times from the city’s new launch at the Charleston Coliseum, I thought I might have a harder time getting out on the river, but not really. I had to bring the kayak out to the lip of the launch, where the water was maybe 8 inches deep, before I could sit down in it and scoot out into the river.
Basically, I had to let my ankles get wet.
I headed toward the previously gold dome of the Capitol.
The current of the Kanawha felt a little stronger than what I’d paddled against on the Elk, which — near the Coliseum — seemed gentle and slow.
I had to work a little harder to get to where I was going, but I didn’t have to fight.
To my left, I watched city workers trim the sides of the hill with those remote control lawn mowers that look like killer robots and I saw cars driving along the boulevard. To my right, a couple sat and ate lunch on a bench near the University of Charleston, while others washed windows or took a smoke break from their jobs.
Against the current, I made it to the Capitol in a little over 30 minutes. The trip back, downstream, went much faster, and at no time did I encounter anything larger than a jet ski.
As I was putting my boat away, I talked to another kayaker named John. Retired for several years, he told me he’d been kayaking for decades.
His old boat, some kind of inflatable craft, was patched with what appeared to be duct tape.
“I’ve had it for 20 years,” he said. “It leaks like a sieve and I have to pump it up a lot, but it’s easier for me to get in and out of the water.”
I explained who I was and how this had been my first trip out on the Kanawha, that I’d been worried about running into trouble, like maybe having to deal with a coal barge.
“You don’t have to worry about those that much,” he said.
I nodded and said, “Right. Fewer boats because of the industry.”
He smiled and said, “Well, the barges are pretty big. You can usually see them coming from quite a ways and get out of the way.”