Resurrection of a Classic
Paddling the Topo Duo 20 years after its inception
Admittedly, a boulder-choked Class IV high in the Rockies isn’t the best place to test such a craft. It’s better suited, I think, for bigger-volume runs like the South Fork Payette or Snake.
Nevertheless, here we are, peeling out of an eddy into the roaring Box Canyon of Colorado’s Upper Elk. I say “we” because “we’re” in a newly improved Topo Duo from Eskimo. As the current spins us downstream I wonder if this duality is such a good idea.
Each wave crest creates its own horizon line, but we still have to dodge rocks and keep our eye out for wood. Not that I can see beyond the waves anyway. Positioned in the stern, I’m boating by Braille, trying to steal glimpses around the back of Joe’s head to plot a course.
I find solace in two things: We both know how to paddle, and we’re in a craft that has withstood the test of time. Designed by Eskimo’s Edmund Schnappinger in 1987, a boat maligned for causing divorces ironically celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, giving it the longest shelf life of any kayak in the world.
Right now, of course, it’s my own life I’m worrying about. Bam! We nudge a rock, plunge into a hole and both brace on our right.
“Is that a river-wide strainer?” I hear Joe ask.
“Where?” I yell.
“Never mind,” he says. “Passed it.”
I also take comfort in the fact that we’re both in the same proverbial boat. Rather than solely relying on your own often-suspect decision making, you can bounce ideas off a sounding board, just like our craft is bouncing off rocks.
“What do you think?” I ask. “Left of that rock?”
“Sure,” he reaffirms.
I make out an eddy and yell directions. Angling toward shore, we nail a turn as crisp as the early May air and catch our collective breaths.
Paddling whitewater tandem is nothing new–Indians and Voyageurs did so out of necessity in canoes, and the Olympics debuted C-2ing in Ausburg, Germany, in 1972. But tandem whitewater kayaking—leave it to the Germans to come up with this concept–is somewhat of an oddity. Not many other action sports offer this option. You can bike tandem–which gets your legs pumping, if not your adrenaline–but you don’t hear much about two-person surfing, skiing or kite boarding. In most instances it’s hard enough going one-on-one with Mother Nature, let alone adding another human variable.
When applying the concept to whitewater, an inherent problem surfaces like the 133-gallon craft after a plunge: the boat has to be big enough to accommodate two people. While the Duo’s 12-foot-plus hull is paltry for a sea kayak, it’s formidable for maneuvering through mayhem.
Thankfully, I have two other areas of consolation. One, people have done amazing feats in the craft. Eskimo’s Web site shows a high-and-dry Jan Kellner endoing with his buried partner in the bow, and Brett Gleason and Greg TK took one off Oregon’s Celestial Falls not once, but three times. Two, theoretically anyway, tandem paddling should be in my blood; my cousin, Homer, was a World Cup C-2 paddler who narrowly missed the Olympics.
Naturally, I sought his advice before my George Plimpton-like plunge. Unfortunately, his response wasn’t overly encouraging. “You still have to be on the same page with one another, but paddling C-2’s probably easier,” he said. “In a kayak you have to coordinate four moving blades instead of just two.”
I then sought counsel from someone else adept at the art. “Just take it easy,” advised 1992 Olympic C-2 gold medalist Joe Jacobi. “The bow should focus on easy strokes that are simple for the stern to match. Let the bow person read the water while the stern person reads the bow person.”
Armed with such colloquiums, it was time to pony up. First step and stop: rounding up a wingman to join me on the local play run. Who better for a wingman than wingnut Joe, who was raised on Idaho’s North Fork?
On our first peel-out into the Yampa, I learned that it helps to have a partner who paddles. We both leaned downstream in unison, felt the current grab, and made our way toward the C-hole, a hydraulic that regularly throttles crafts half our size. In a show of embellishment, Payette Boy Oregon-tucked his paddle on every wave en route. We soon wouldn’t need such theatrics, and hedged our bet accordingly. In event of a mishap, we agreed to roll on our right after a count to seven. We quickly shortened that to five, and then four, and then hit a practice roll in the eddy next to the hole. Then we freight-lined in.
I didn’t think I could lay on my brace that hard and still remain upright, but we did, with Joe buried ear-deep in the maw (he later said he felt the boat bend in the middle). Then we were spit out to hoots and hollers from shore.
We weren’t so fortunate on round two, flipping instantly. One, two, three, four, I counted. Was that one-thousands or Mississippis? Screw it, I’m rolling. Luckily, Joe’s warped thought process matched mine and we both came up, surprised and beaming. Far from a divorce, the only nagging came when he said I kept hitting him on the head.
On the next flip I stuck with our roll-right plan, only to feel Joe going left. So I followed suit, re-adjusting mid-roll. Then I took the bow and it was payback time as Joe buried me past my nostrils. We saved the best for last, nailing a spin and smorgasbord of sidesurfs before launching into a Hello Houston endo (at least that’s what it felt like–I was gargling the Yampa and couldn’t see a thing).
Play attributes ascertained, next up was testing the boat’s teaching merits, long one of its mainstays. For this, I took my 8-year-old daughter, Brooke, to a mellower stretch upstream. I was confident, but remembered a Duo stint ten years earlier when I’d rolled up with a non-boating friend only to find him MIA. Putting Brooke through the same paces, we knocked off a quick practice roll in the pond and then took to the river. Our first conversations were blissfully perfect, and I was convinced I’d created a kayaking convert for life. “My leg itches,” she said happily. “How do I scratch it? Oh, I’ll just use my other leg like this. I like this skirt thing–no mosquitoes can get inside.”
I was already scripting how I was going to parlay the boat’s teaching attributes into the story when a submerged rock hit our bow. Brooke reflexively leaned upstream, and over we went. Worried about Brooke bailing like my earlier friend, I didn’t even try to roll and instead wet-exited and righted the boat with her still in it. Of course, now I was swimming and she was in the boat. Paddles long gone, I scissor-kicked us to an eddy, the boat and lesson in humility in tow. “Well, you wanted a teaching story,” she sassed as I hoisted her up to the road. “Now you got an embarrassing one.”
Where she was deserving of a chocolate-vanilla twirl ice cream cone afterward, I was deserving of the ensuing tongue-lashing from my spouse, before even making it to a tongue in the river.
I think about my earlier plight with Brooke, and concentrate on Jacobi’s advice about watching your bowmate, as I sit in the eddy with Joe. We still have a few miles to go, and swimming, let alone flipping, would suck. Reminding him about our count-to-four code, I ask if he’s ready. Then working as one, we, the Dynamic Duo of the Elk, peel out into an arc that propels us downstream. I’ve already learned one lesson from the craft with the longest shelf life in history; I don’t need another.