It’s hard to tell who wants me here less: me, or the owner of Kinni Creek Lodge and Outfitters. Things started off well enough: it is a 75-degree sunny day in October, likely the last warm day of the year. Rylee and I are set to go on a three-hour kayaking trip in River Falls, Wisconsin, and I am not nervous. Here was an activity with which I had some familiarity, having paddled my way on hour-long circuits in Minnesota lakes a number of times, usually in a two-person kayak, usually leaving almost all of the work to my rowing partner. I know, of course, that today’s trip will be a bit different. We will be kayaking down a river for a six-mile stretch. But still, I think. Still, there is nothing to worry about.
The first sign of trouble is the row of single-person kayaks arranged on the lodge’s lawn. I see these when we pull into the parking lot, and I turn, squinting and suspicious, to Rylee. “Do you think they will have two-person kayaks, too?” She looks at me, the way I imagine a parent might look at her graceless, musically-talentless child when that child has just asked if he’ll become a famous pop star. “I am sure they will,” she says, equal parts reassurance and pity. I look back at the kayaks. I had dreamed up some rosy pictures of the two of us gliding down a river for three hours—her in the front, rowing, and me in the back, eating the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich I brought, the occasional songbird swooping in to rest on my shoulders. I know now that these things will not be.
We wait, standing with a young married couple, for the owner to come back from shuttling other kayakers to the river. Though they do not know it yet, they will not make it to the river. I would like to say that this is because the trip required a fitness and nature mastery evaluation that only Rylee and I could pass. In truth, it is because their trip started like great voyages into the wilderness always do: they were using a Groupon to pay, had chosen not to print it out beforehand, and were unable to get it to load on the woman’s Android phone.
AFTER THE OWNER RETURNS, Rylee and I fill out safety forms, signing away our right to legal recourse should our adventure take an unexpected turn toward the grim. The owner—a sunburned, blond woman in her 30s—stands by, watching with an unaccountable mixture of impatience and distrust. She neither greets us nor introduces herself. Rylee, who is usually the one to remember to ask these kinds of things, asks, “Is there anything we should know before we go?” The owner pauses. “It’s shallow out there right now, so avoid the shallowest parts.” I pull the next tooth: “How do we know which parts are shallow?” She stares at me. “By knowing how to read the river.” Oh, I think. Of course.
This person, I decide, behaves the way I would behave if a small tour group wearing visors and fanny packs came into my bedroom one morning, woke me up, and asked me to explain my life to them.
We then climb into the owner’s truck, a cart of kayaks and paddles hitched behind it, and ride with her to the head of our trip’s section of the Kinnickinnic River. She parks in a sandy lot just uphill from the river, waits for us to grab our kayaks and paddles, and takes off without another word. Rylee and I carry our kayaks, one at a time, down to the water’s edge. There is no gradual beach, but a foot-tall drop right into the river. We slowly lower one of the kayaks in, and Rylee holds it close to the shore while I climb inside. It’s very smooth until we realize that I am now unavailable to assist her.
From inside my own, I try to hold the other kayak in place while using my paddle as a sort of anchor. She climbs in and immediately starts to drift away from shore, leaving her paddle on land. She reaches out to grab it, and that is when the kayak tips over and she falls in.
Rylee jumps up, soaking wet and hyperventilating. I say, “Slow down, breathe slowly,” which is an easy thing to do when you’re the dry jerk in the dry kayak. But she does slow down, tips her kayak over to drain the water, and hands her paddle to me. She gets back in and I hand the paddle back. I try not to say anything, as though acknowledging what just happened might make her feel even more wet.
IT WAS A MISTAKE to think that my lake kayaking experience counted toward today. The thing about rivers is that they have currents, which I obviously knew but didn’t really recognize as legitimate. When I try to eat my sandwich and stop paddling, my kayak drifts into weeds. I stop and paddle myself into the middle again, then set the paddle down for my sandwich, and am then swept into some protruding branches. I am a hungry human pinball. I choose to find this as funny as I find it frustrating, because all of this occurs when we are just half-an-hour into our trip. Another difference from the lake: there is no end in sight. My acceptance of the open-endedness of our day (and our lives?) fluctuates minute to minute.
Still, the river, though unforgivingly cold—or it looks that way, anyway—and possibly murderous, is beautiful and quiet. Tall trees and grasses on either side border us in. The world could drop off 10 feet from either edge of the river, and I wouldn’t feel surprised. The rapids we encounter are big enough to make me violate the anti-cursing river-etiquette waiver I signed earlier, but small enough to be more fun than fearsome. I am even forced to duck under a few fallen logs, leaning calmly back into my kayak to avoid what would otherwise be the slowest and gentlest decapitation. These things make me feel respectably adventurous, capable, and cool.
But less so the few times when the water becomes so shallow that my kayak comes to a halt atop piles of smooth, shiny rocks, and I have to scoot my butt forward, for several minutes, to edge it back into passable waters. At these points, I wish for a guardrail, a mechanized version of the kayak experience. I wish for a Disneyland ride. I wish for that damn two-person kayak. But my butt gets me going again, each time, and that is something to be proud of, in a way.
We arrive back at the lodge after two-and-a-half hours. “How was it?” asks the owner, who seems surprised to see us again. “Well, I fell in,” says Rylee. “Oh,” she says. The toughest crowd.
Rylee and I walk back to the car, where she takes off her still-soaked pants and drapes them on the back seat.
“I’m glad I was the one to fall in, if it had to be one of us.”
“Me too,” I say. “Me too.”
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.