Lessons Learned: Colorado River Trip Report
Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right Isaac? Well, on the river every action has an equal and opposite reaction, unless it is an incorrect action. Incorrect actions – ranging from naive boo boos to giant setbacks caused by arrogance – have unequal and catastrophic reactions that tend to really mess everything up.
Luckily for us, we have been working hard to learn from all of our unequal and catastrophic reactions as a means of making sure they don’t happen again. As rookies in the sport, mistakes are going to happen. So what we let the footballs get a little deflated. As long as we learn from our laundry list of canoe rules that we have been building up over the last five months, our emotional and physical success on the water should be inflated to a full 13 pounds per square inch. Roger Goodell would be proud!
In planning our 56 mile Colorado River trip from the north side of LaGrange to Columbus, we took more of a racing mindset as compared to our usual vacation/leisurely paddle trip attitude. The 56 miles on the Colorado River represented roughly 1/5 of the distance we would be paddling in the Texas Water Safari. While the math lines up just about as good as Tom Brady’s Deflategate story, we figured completing these 56 miles in one day would give us a good ballpark of what it would take to complete 260 miles over four consecutive 65 mile days.
In order for us to endure this Super Bowl of a paddle trip in front of us, we were going to need to actually learn from our past mistakes that Mother Nature – our NFL Commissioner – has tried to teach us through strict fines, forfeited draft picks, and tough times on the water. Unlike Bill, Tom, and the rest of the Patriots, we were dead set on making right with the river instead of continuing to poke the sleeping bull and enter the gray area of NFL rules.
It’s my newfound opinion that the day’s pace and the eventual outcome of the day is set in the first couple hours of paddling. This is when morale is high, arms are fresh, and the option to slack off begins to flirt with you and boy is she pretty!
As we’ve learned from past trip preparations, it’s seems insignificant to sleep in for an extra 15 minutes or take some extra time eating breakfast. When you first get on the water, it’s easy to get distracted and set the GoPro up for taking pictures. Because it is early on in the trip, there is no urgency to keep pace or speed up. After all, we have 12+ more hours to make up any lost time. Like Aaron Rodgers, we R-E-L-A-X.
Knowing the ease at which we usually let time slip away in the mornings, we tried to create this sense of urgency as early as Friday night when preparing for the 56 miles on the Colorado River. Uncharacteristically, we had all of our gear prepared and organized at the hotel early enough to scout the put-in ramp at Plum Park and still get plenty of rest. Believe it or not, this was the first time we had ever pre-scouted a launch point before launching. This ended up saving us at least a 30 minutes of getting lost on the road, finding the launch, and maneuvering our gear down to the water in the dark.
After scouting the launch point and settling in at the hotel with a couple of Coors Light tall boys, we decided to wake up early for a potential predawn launch. This wasn’t going to be our typical ‘start paddling at first light’ predawn launch that slowly drags on until 30 minutes after sunrise. We set our alarms for 4:30 AM and were on the river and in the water by 5:30 AM giving us roughly 90 minutes of paddling in the dark as a head start on our longest single day paddling trip yet.
Catching the Sunrise
For late December, the weather was delightfully warm to start the journey. After another long Texas winter – cue grunts from less fortunate northerners – I was dying to paddle in shorts again. When our alarms sounded, we stepped out into the 70-degree weather featuring a north wind that was going to do it’s best to push us as hard as it could downriver! The weather was perfect. It was so good that the only way I knew I wasn’t dreaming was the stench of lite beer on my breath and crumbs stuck in my beard from that one gas station corn dog that I had for dinner the night before.
With a good headlamp on Philip at the bow, we had a pretty good idea of all of our surroundings while paddling. Mostly, we were stealing free time in our battle against daylight because every mile paddled before daylight was one less mile we have to paddle in the fixed amount of sunlight that we were given. We did it! Aggressively early launch: check!
As the sun began to come up over our left shoulders, the fog took over. So much for a beautiful central Texas sunrise and magazine-esque action photos we were looking forward to…
Hitting the Weather’s Curveball
It was hard to complain about the fog when the weather was so warm. However, we knew the perfect conditions were not going to stay. There was a curveball of a front coming through around 11 AM that would bring a shift of heavy rain and temperatures in the low 40’s.
Instead of looking at the ballpark weather reports from generic weather sources, we learned from past experiences to always keep an eye on detailed weather reports down to the hour. It didn’t stop at hourly updates, either. We paid attention to the wind speeds, cloud cover, rain chances, and temperature instead of just trusting the little icon of the smiling sun or frowning cloud.
Morning turned to early afternoon with no signs of the weather turning yet, so we kept paddling in our summer clothes while our waders and jackets were packed away. We knew it would happen eventually, but our aggressive optimism and the euphoria of paddling in warm weather again seemed to keep whispering in our ears that the weather change would occur much later that we initially expected. Everything was going to be alright.
Well, the rain galloped in faster than Seabiscuit down the backstretch and chaos ensued. We were unprepared. You know, the numbers never really look like much, but I’m here to tell you that a 30+ degree temperature drop in the cold rain is nothing to mess around with. Like most of the lessons I’ve learned on the water that we were trying to correct today, I learned this the hard way as we got drenched by the seemingly instant rainstorm and swirling winter winds.
Shorts and a light jacket didn’t feel so good now! It took us longer than it should have to pull over and put on our waders and jackets. Yeah, we were the amateurs that put on their waders and jackets over their soaked clothes after it had started raining. Why we spent that extra time enjoying the warm weather and not bracing for the storm, I have no idea. Sweating in uncomfortable waders for the first 6 hours would have been much better than getting our base layers soaked before reaching the halfway point.
Giving Back to the River
Other than the weather change, things were going great. To be honest, the cold became manageable and eventually insignificant. The pressure we put on speeding up in the morning was starting to pay off. Approaching the halfway point, we were 20+ miles in and we were keeping a good pace to finish right around dusk. Yes, this is later than we originally planned on paddling. We’re used to that! Behind schedule is my middle name.
It’s now a battle to stay close enough to on pace. Plus, at this halfway point we had paddled further than most of our prior trip’s total distances. When tackling a task that big, we figured it was ok to be a little behind schedule.
Through a pre-lunch stretch of paddling, we busted out a couple more miles letting the tunes of The Dirty River Boys and Blackberry Smoke push us through our growling stomachs and cotton dry mouths. Staying mentally entertained while your body becomes physically fatigued has been a problem for us in the past. On this maiden voyage of our new EcoXGear BT speaker, music and recorded trivia podcasts were welcomed distractions.
As soon as we hit the bank for lunch, I punished a bottle of orange Gatorade and a snack size bag of Cheetos like I was Ray Rice riding down the elevator to the casino lobby.
All I could think about for the last couple hours was this tiny bag of Cheetos. Don’t get me wrong; I love a good nutritious snack on the water. However, some cheat snacks will do wonders for your enthusiasm.
It didn’t take more than 20 minutes after halftime for the announcement of my first complaint to christen the trip.
My knees hit the inner chines, and I threw my upper body over the starboard gunwale. Up came the bright orange fish chum over the deck of the stern. Like a bad friend and good bowman, Philip kept paddling as I proceeded to channel my inner demon and give my bright orange Gatorade and Cheeto cocktail back to the river for the next 10 minutes.
Being that vulnerable so far from any remote level of comfort was not a good feeling. Luckily, it passed. While not tax deductible, my contribution to the river was good in the sense that it was short lived, and it taught us both a valuable lesson in River Nutrition 101. A couple of laughs and unsuccessful attempts to steer the GoPro in my direction later, we were back on track. All that laid ahead of us was 20 miles of familiar river.
Thankfully, we’ve paddled this stretch before. The familiarity of what lies ahead of us on the river was comforting. No map can do justice to how just long the long stretches are just like no mileage indicator gives you a true deep down sense of how much effort is left on the trip. Even when the tough stretches came, we had a slight idea of what it took to power though them. When dusk came, we were ok.
While I would have preferred finishing earlier or talking the sun into staying up for another hour or two, we had adequate lighting thanks to some School of Hard Knocks classes earlier in the year. Also, we knew how to navigate river depths in the relative darkness because we’ve done it before.
While we planned on being finished by now, things could have been worse when dusk turned to dark.
Sure, we finished about an hour later than we would have preferred. But we finished. In the grand scheme of things, 56 miles in one day is nothing to write home about. If only we could get out of these wet clothes and into the warm car, we could finally accept this as a definite step in the right direction. It was a hell of an accomplishment at our level of experience. It was a notch on our belt that was giving us the confidence to plan bigger and badder trips shortly.
Maybe we will continue the pattern of learning from past lessons in our planning of the next trip. The correction of our past mistakes seems to have worked well on this trip. So, maybe the next trip isn’t 100 miles through the Grand Canyon or 80 miles down the swirling whitewater of the Buffalo River. Maybe we should take this slow and move from a completed 56-mile day to a planned 65 or 70-mile day on calm water.
Distance: 56 Miles | Average MPH: 4.2 MPH | Canoe: Buffalo Canoe 14‘ Standard Tandem