Sunday, July 9, 2017

White-Water Kayaking on the Vltava (Be Safe, Mom!)

I decided to get out of the bustling streets of Prague by going to the lovely medieval town of Cesky Krumlov. And immediately jumped at the idea of rafting down the Vltava which wound its serpentine way around the castle. 

It sounded like a good idea when I booked the day long trip.

 I’m an experienced kayaker after all, having done multiple kayak camping trips with companions and even solo kayaking with alligators in Florida. Plus white water rafting with groups in North Carolina, Tennessee, Costa Rica and Colorado. Easy, right? But never solo white water kayaking. In fact, I don’t do white water kayaking! Rafts bounce and bulge and manage just fine with rocks. Kayaks capsize, get stuck or can down right be fatal. And solo? Dumb! Especially when no one knows who I am or even speaks English.

But rafting sounded like a good idea for this intrepid world traveler Until the morning I signed the legal contract (in Czech) and was told there were no groups for rafts so I’d have to do a solo kayak. And was informed that there were multiple rapids to be negotiated. Fear mounted as the ticket agent patiently pointed out each rapid on the map. When she estimated the trip to be 8 hours but not to worry because they wouldn’t close for 9 hours I said, “Whoa!” I could just hear my children saying, “Be safe, Mom.” So I compromised. A half day trip instead. I figured half a day of hypothermia was better than 8 hours. I might survive.

Usually for kayaking I prepare well in advance, scope out the weather and have multiple dry bags with clothing changes, maps and identification papers. Well, I had to trust their promise of a dry bag but left the stuff I couldn’t afford to get wet back in the hostel. That meant phone and papers.(No pictures, folks..)

I was the only paddler they dumped at the starting point. 

An experienced man was starting further upstream at Rapid 1 and reminded me that when going through the rapids to ,”Paddle like hell!” “OK, I can do this.” I boosted my courage. I remember the three rapids she delineated. Number 4 isn’t too bad but stay to the right. Number 5 is very dangerous, so I decided in advance to portage it. And the number 6 would totally drench me. I was undecided what to do about that one. But only three. Doable.

The day was undeniably beautiful yet intermittent dark clouds threatened rain. And guess who didn’t have her rain gear? (Back in Prague.) Oh well, enjoy the moment. The country side was such a relief from the throngs of tourists. In fact on this Saturday there were no tourists! Just very happy Czechs. In fact as the trip progressed they got happier and happier! Unlike boating in Florida, there were no coolers of beer. But they did drag bottles by rope in the frigid water and one particularly mellow gang was openly passing around a joint. 

Happy. Did I say happy? Occasional river-jams of rafts lashed together, guitar playing and dancing. Underclad children bouncing and wading. Genuine laughing. And all along the river greetings of “Ahoy!”

We passed small cottages that were probably week-end get aways. Lovely gardens. One older woman returned my wave then realizing that I was too a solo older woman blew me a kiss.

It was such a relief to leave the city, beautiful as Cesky Krumlov is. 

Pure nature, aside from the celebratory  Czechs. Tufts of grasses, willow trees and roses draping into the river.  Yellow irises and blue forget-me-nots. Iridescent purple dragon-flies. Muskrat holes in the bank. “All is well,” I thought. Aside from the rapids somewhere up ahead.

As any kayaker knows there is the occasional dilemma of having to pee. The men on the bank had absolutely no qualms about doing it in full view. But scrambling up the bank required tying up the boat to a tree. And the rope attached to the front of the rented kayak was a frayed piece of twine 2 feet long. And the bank was covered in stinging nettles. Nope!

Fortunately several camping grounds dotted the river. Toilets! Yet pulling the kayak up the concrete steps and then trying to lower it again after a rather rude man placed his directly below mine ... Well– just pull yours over his, Kathy, and back into the water…

The inner encouraging dialogue went like this:

 “Ah … sun coming out. I’m not hypothermic yet. No way to stay dry on a sit-on-top kayak with drainage holes in the bottom. Water uncomfortable from the rains. Keep examining your fingernail beds for blue tinge.” (I knew from experience that blue would predate brain fog, having had seriously impaired thinking while swimming the circumference of Pray Lake in Glacier National Park—dumb!)

“Ahh, finally. A sign for rapid number 4. Stay to the right, get lined up, paddle hard … Yikes --no way to paddle through the 5 foot wide sluice! Just holler! Let go! That was fun.”

 More camps. Happier and happier Czechs. 

And then ahead rapid number 5. The really dangerous one.

“Should I portage around this one? But there is absolutely no way to get it up the bluff by myself. They promised a light kayak—I don’t think so! And remember, no rope. Well, the rafting father in front of me with two bouncing children is going to do it so will I. No identification on me (dumb) but what the heck! Yay!! Really Fun! Better that Wet and Wild in Florida.”

After that only one more rapid. Getting colder and wetter but not blue yet. Number 6! Wow! That was terrific and I can let out my held breath. I’m alive. I made it. Almost back at the outfitters…

But what’s this? The map doesn’t show a number 7. Did I go too far? Can’t turn around. What the heck—just do it! And more paddling and then a number 8 closer to the city, tourists gawking.Yes, totally soaked now.

Yes! There is the pink and white building clearly portrayed on the map. I’m home! I can change into dry clothes. I did it!”

When I mentioned to the clerk, who after the fact admits she doesn’t kayak, that a rope would have been useful she shrugged. A little annoyed I mentioned her lack of delineation of rapids 7 and 8. Well, she indulgently turned my map over and pointed them out. Yep, there they were with my written notes—portage around these! Guess I had brain fog after all.

Tired and proud. I survived! 

And celebrated at Café Retro by the river with the tallest glass of steaming mint tea they could provide and a big bowl of risotto with mussels. (When I mentioned how cold I was the waitress offered to bring me a blanket. Maybe the lips were blue?)

Tallying up the relatively expensive day-- $18 for the hostel, $25 for the kayak, and $12 for the meal. And the joy at surviving was worth every cent!

(Postscript – the sign below the rapids warn that missing the arrow and the sluice and thereby going over the dam has been fatal. “If it happens to someone, don’t jump in to save them. Throw them the rope.”  And by the sign? You guessed it – no rope!)

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