I was standing on the dock behind the Charleston Coliseum & Convention Center, watching Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin splash around in a kayak and wondering how this was going to turn into a news conference for the new launch when the mayor shouted up from the water that I needed one of these — a kayak.
“I’ll let you have one,” she said. “You could learn how to do this.”
I shrugged, but thought, “Maybe.”
The subject of spending a month on the river has come up more than once over the past few years, but I’d always sort of glossed over the subject.
I’d been in boats and kayaks before. I’d grown up near the New River in Giles County, Virginia.
My father had spent I don’t know how many hours fishing, boating and trapping on that river when I was in elementary and middle school.
Because a good father wants to at least try to show his son what he knows, Dad brought me along on some of those trips.
I wasn’t great in a boat. I tended to squirm, attracted bugs like I’d been rolled in powdered sugar and I complained — a lot.
I wasn’t great at fishing and never took much of an interest in trapping weird rodents for fun and profit, though I understood the money from the pelts helped supplement the income of a couple of young high school teachers with three kids, two clunky vehicles and a mortgage.
Dad loved being on the river. I think he liked it for the same reasons he enjoyed tramping through the woods or running long distances. It was a way to get away from people.
Before I was 10, with his own hands my father had built two rough-looking boats out of plywood and fiberglass sealant. They floated, for sure, though I think they might have been a little tricky to control in the water for some reason.
I remember once taking one of those boats over some rough water around dark, with really just the distant lights from the highway to see by.
“Paddle like your life depends on it,” Dad told me.
I don’t think he’d been joking.
After junior high, the number of times I was in something like a personal watercraft, excluding theme park log rides and duck-shaped paddle boats, totaled just one: four years ago at Sutton Lake.
It was a pretty good day. I goofed around in a kayak for an hour while my date got around on a paddle board.
I’d ended the day with a nasty sunburn on my inner thigh, but I think we got nachos on the way home.
Readers have been suggesting I take a month and explore paddle sports for years. Maybe I could get into a kayak or a canoe and just see how far it would take me? What if I tried whitewater rafting or got on a water scooter?
These were all great ideas, but nobody was actually offering the use of equipment, helping me get trained up or paying for me to take a trip — and I have no real budget. Mostly, I rely on the kindness of strangers and whatever change I find in my couch cushions to get the job done.
The state Division of Tourism did call me up once to see if I wanted to go whitewater rafting as part of some marketing or press thing. If I remember correctly, they reached out on a Monday afternoon and I had to be there Tuesday morning. It was nice that they thought of me, but a little random. They told me I could bring a photographer.
Respectfully, I declined. It might have interfered with my Netflix schedule or maybe I had other work. I don’t remember much about the offer except that it was weird to invite me out on such short notice. Usually lunch plans for me take a couple of weeks to hammer out.
But I was interested in exploring rivers and being on the water more.
I have friends who are or who have been very much part of the river culture. They’ve been rafting guides. Most of them have great stories about facing choppy water, nearly drowning and then drinking like vikings at the end of the day. A few have tried to get me to get out on the river once or twice, but nothing has panned out.
Some of these friends have told me that with warm weather and a deadly, infectious pandemic, the rivers have been teeming with new people out enjoying the sunshine, the water and plenty of good ol’ fashioned social distancing.
While they’ve generally been happy to see more people on the river, at least one, Courtney, expressed some concern. She told me that with the warm weather, a lot of people have gone out and bought kayaks and paddle boards (yay stimulus checks!), “and no one knows what the hell they’re doing.”
There are rules to getting out with a paddle, apparently. There are best practices, ways to be safer and I needed a PFD (personal flotation device).
What was that going to cost me, I wondered.
Before I could even get started, I needed to make sure I could handle all of this, that I could even transport a kayak to the river. Most of the people I’d seen hauling some kind of boat either have a trailer, a truck or a vehicle with a good-sized roof — like a Jeep or a station wagon.
I drive a Chevy Cruze, which is pretty great on gas, has satellite radio and seats that will warm your butt on a cold winter’s morning. But it’s a smaller car. How was I going to pull off hauling a kayak and what was that going to cost me?
Looking for answers, I went to Dick’s Sporting Goods in South Charleston, where they had a colorful selection of new kayaks for about 350 bucks. I don’t think the paddles were included.
A life jacket would run me about $45, but I couldn’t find anything that would help me fit the kayak on top of my car. There was a kit that could be added to a vehicle that had rails on the roof, like a sport utility vehicle or a station wagon.
A clerk saw me wandering around and asked if I needed any help. I explained my problem.
“Yeah. My kids have cars like that. They’re really nice, but not very big,” she said.
I could probably find some way to make the kit work for the kayak, she said, “or you could just go get yourself a couple of pool noodles and cut them in half. You put the noodles on top of your car and your kayak on top of the noodles. Use a ratchet strap to hold everything down.”
It sounded like a good fix and pretty cheap, but I wanted to do the right thing. Since the idea came from a store employee, I wanted to buy from the store.
“Do you have any pool noodles?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said.
I shrugged, picked up a bag of gummy bears instead and bought two pool noodles at the Target up the hill.