Sunday morning and the paddles were already in the backseat of my Chevy Cruze, along with the life vest I’d picked up from Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin. They sat on top of four, blue ratchet straps and a pair of very cheap, green pool noodles.
The fact is none of these things had left my car in the week since I’d hauled the blue/green kayak from the mayor’s home in South Hills to my sun-scorched property in Pinch I call Lynchganistan.
My house sits on the side of a hill and overlooks a steep driveway that becomes a wintry death slide after Christmas.
I’d meant to go out on the river with my loaner kayak, but then the days ticked by. I might not have done anything water related at all, if not for Dr. Glenn Goldfarb, a neurologist and paddle sports fan, who invited me to canoe with him on the Elk River near Mink Shoals.
He promised some useful instruction, good equipment and, most importantly, medically trained supervision.
I said yes.
We put in at a place near Mink Shoals. Glenn sent me out in an incredibly light boat that weighed less than my borrowed kayak. It was made of some sort of fiberglass resin, built for racing, and looked as fragile as an eggshell.
It wasn’t, though I tested it often enough swatting my paddle against the sides of it.
Glenn had a second canoe for himself that looked older and was heavier. I felt like he’d given me the Tesla to try out but opted to stick with an old Ford pickup.
To make it easier for me, Glenn told me we’d use double-headed kayak paddles.
“It will be easier for you and you won’t have to worry about a j-stroke.”
A j-stroke is a paddling technique that helps keep your boat straight.
Glenn told me the kayak paddle would allow for easier self-correcting.
At first, sitting in the boat, I wobbled back and forth like a fly marooned on an ice cube, but I figured out my center of gravity and didn’t dump myself into the water.
Glenn and I paddled downstream a bit and then went back up toward Coonskin Park. He tended to keep closer to shore, while I just tried to keep up.
“Think of paddling more with your torso,” he said. “It’s a little like throwing a punch.”
I thought back to what I’d learned from my martial arts classes at Butch Hiles Brazilian Ju Jitsu and it got easier — mostly.
Glenn told me getting out on the river was good exercise for him, easier on the joints than jogging the Boulevard and the scenery was usually better.
“It amazes me that we’re so close to the city and here we are,” the doctor said.
He had a point. We seemed very far away from civilization and barely part of the 21st century.
Glenn’s love affair with canoes and canoe racing went back at least as far as his days as a medical resident in the early 1980s. He told me about some of the friends he’d made and the races he’d taken part in.
He loved getting away from his daily responsibilities and obligations to clear his head on the water.
This had been an important part of his life. He was pleased to share what he loved with me.
The trip upstream was a modest workout. Coming back was easier and faster. In a little under two hours, he said we’d covered roughly four miles.
“You did really well for your first time out,” Glenn said.
Then he told me if I wanted to give it another try, just give him a call.
The pool noodles would not stay on top of my car, but I’d expected that would happen. I put the noodles on the roof and they rolled down the back and over the bumper.
I collected them from the bottom of the driveway.
Thinking I was pretty smart, I grabbed some gift wrap tape from inside the house and stuck the pool noodles to the roof of my car.
Putting the kayak on top of the noodles did not. The boat began to roll the second I took my hand off it.
After a couple of attempts punctuated with more than the usual amount of profanity for a Sunday morning, I put the boat in the yard and moved my car to the road, which was sort of level.
From there, I got the noodles on the roof, the kayak on top of the noodles and the ratchet straps over the whole thing. I tightened the straps and took the boat to the launch behind the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center, where I parked next to a couple of sport utility vehicles overlooking the Elk River.
I got the kayak down, put away the noodles and the straps, slipped on the life jacket, grabbed my paddle and hauled the boat down the steps and the ramp to the river.
Then I was out on the water — alone.
For a couple of minutes, I stayed close to the coliseum and just watched cars pass over the bridge headed west. Then I began paddling in the direction of CAMC Women and Children’s Hospital and the Lottery building.
On my own, I felt exposed and a little paranoid, which was silly. I’m a strong swimmer and was wearing a life jacket. If I’d somehow managed to tip the kayak and sink it, I could just swim to shore — and while the river might not always look fantastic, piranha and sharks have never been seen in the Elk.
The river was quiet, and I was alone with my restless and anxious thoughts. Communing with nature tends to make me fidget, but I paddled on, watched some weird-looking fish dart under my boat and hoped they weren’t being chased by a snake or something.
I came to a homeless encampment. Men sleepily came out of tents, unaware or unconcerned by me. One of them tossed something into the river and I figured this was as good a place as any to turn around.
I started back toward the coliseum and then drifted on by toward the bridge. I tried to relax.
A man walking across spotted me and yelled down, “What you need is some weed.”
He repeated it in case I missed it the first time. I laughed and waved at him.
I’m pretty sure that would have been an awful idea.
When I’d had enough for the day, I took the kayak back to the launch and left the river. The launch made it every easy.
I hauled the boat back to my car, shook out the water, put away my paddle and life jacket and then placed the pool noodles on the roof again.
Carefully, but confidently, I lifted the kayak up off the parking lot and gently sat it on the pool noodles. Then I crouched down to get the straps.
The boat shot off the roof, slid down my windshield, scraped across the hood of my car and came to a rest in the grass under a small tree.
It took me a minute to find both noodles again, but I moved the car and tried again.