It was late-March and I decided to do it: round up my gear for the first float of the season. Call it a corona kayak — a little chilly and two weeks after the outbreak, but sanctity for my sanity.
And it’d be free of all social shaming. One, it was cold, meaning not many people were stupid enough to be out there; and two, the river was as low as my self-esteem after wearing my bathrobe all week. Plus, I’d do my own bike shuttle, keeping my distance from anyone else whacky enough to be out there.
The decision was rather impromptu; I made it after being cooped inside most of the day. With that came the impromptu logistics like finding all my gear. Let’s see…where did I stash that helmet and spray skirt? Damn, my booties have a spider-web and my underlayer smells a tad manky. Good, here’s the drysuit —damn, the left wrist gasket, the one with duct tape, has set up like concrete. Time for a little 303 Protectant. Might as well put some on the others also. Next up: pull the kayak out of the snow and dump the leaves out. Then grab the paddle from the shed and skull cap.
Now let’s see…how should I run the shuttle, maintaining social protocol? I guess I’ll throw the bike on the rack (oops, gotta find the rack now), leave it at the Depot, then drive up, boat down, and ride back up.
Bike stashed, I finally head out, later than prudent with the sun close to setting. But it would get me fresh air. The streets are eerily empty as I drive up Lincoln Avenue and turn at Walgreens, eyeing the progress of the new affordable housing units. Negotiating the empty round-about, one silver lining of the virus, I turn off on the dirt road to Fetcher Pond, dodging a smattering of different-sized potholes filled with orange, muddy water. They look like the red dots on the country’s COVID-19 maps.
I carry my boat to a short hill leading to the river. Next to me on the bike path lays a man sprawled out on his back wearing Rollerblades. He’s taking a break, he says, before taking the confounded things off.
Like every year’s first outing, it’s tight shoehorning myself into the kayak with my added winter girth. Or maybe it’s that my quads are so honed from skiing. The spray skirt is hard to fasten also; it’s dry with poor elasticity, just like my declining shoulder limberness reaching behind me to put it on.
Once ready, I push off and slide down a ramp of snow into the river, water splashing onto my face. Though I know I’m not supposed to, I brush it off; it’s OK as my hands are protected by my pogies, a mitten attached to the paddle.
Suddenly I’m floating, all the weight of the world off my feet and desk-bound derriere. It’s as if the virus crisis has lifted with me and is also suspended, just like my boat. I’m just part of the river, drifting with it downstream like it has done for millions of years. As such, I’m joined at the hip to Father Time, which we’re all trying to pass until we can get on with our normal lives.
The river is getting on with its own life also, reaching its tentacles into new channels and flooding beaches too shallow to resist. In a way, the river is like the virus, flowing over the landscape and enveloping whatever it can — especially those areas too compromised to contest it. But it’s also analogous to life itself fighting back, a wave of good sweeping across the countryside, drowning out malevolent forces. Then again, all of these thoughts could just be from the hypothermia.
Still, there is much good all around. Countless people are out on the bike path, everyone seeming friendlier than normal, almost appreciative of seeing fellow humans outside. They wave as I float by —even if only because they know I’m well beyond the required social separation. Hands handcuffed by my pogies, I wave back as best I can, a simple flutter of my paddle.
People are walking dogs (or the other way around), riding bikes and pushing canopied strollers in a scene as refreshing as the river itself. Anglers, at least those whose water I don’t disrupt, stop casting to cast a glance my way, raising an index finger in acknowledgement.
Around one bend, a gaggle of ducks takes flight with no need for social estrangement. Around another, I catch an eddy lined by a cauldron of snow. I chip some ice off with my paddle before feeling remorse and letting the river’s art stay. Like the Tibetan monks’ sand mandalas at the library, it will be gone soon enough.
Snow banks line the south, river-left side of the river, while the sun has melted the north side clear, where gangly, beaten-down bushes reemerge from their winter tombs.
Mid-river, I spin and catch my first surf wave of the year. Now, time stands still while everything else passes by — water, sticks and leaves. This, too, is akin to these quarantined times where we all stay in place, or “hunker down,” while watching time pass like the river. A dip of the paddle and I carve off, continuing downstream.
In Brooklyn, I pull over at the riverside house of a friend I haven’t seen since the outbreak began. He and his wife were supposed to leave on a cancelled Grand Canyon trip tomorrow, a ceiling-high stack of beer cases in the garage all they have to show for it. He’s in his woodshop building a dining room table instead.
At Dr. Rich Weiss Park, a family of four waves from the bridge. I tip my paddle in salutation, float under and continue on.
Below Fifth Street I enter a ghost town corridor of bars and restaurants — 609 Yampa, E3, Taco Cabo, Sunpies and finally Aurum. While many offer take-out options — if any offered a riverside window, I’d paddle on up — my strokes echo off their once-bustling decks.
Shortly later I pass Backdoor Sports and the new Yampa is Wild mural, which depicts the river from its source in the Flat Tops 250 miles to its confluence with the Green. It’s the last free-flowing river in the Colorado watershed, and not about to put its operations on hold due to the pandemic.
Below the Howelsen bridge, where still more people wave, I pass the “open” sign for Steamboat Meat & Seafood and Double Z. A lone employee outside Orange Peel Bicycle Service wheels the last tune of the day into storage. Below Soda Creek, which adds its own lifeblood to the Yampa, I take in the odd juxtaposition of this growing life force next to the empty hallways of Bud Werner Memorial Library.
At the C-hole, a family of five throws cobblestones into the river from the beach. The current grabs their offerings and ushers them downstream. I follow the rocks as they bounce along the river bottom under the 13thStreet Bridge and down to the D-hole. There, I take out and retrieve my bike to complete the circle. I head back upstream while the water continues down. I’m going against the current now as so many of us are in these trying times. But I’m glad for the brief chance to go with the flow.