Anatomy of an Avon Descent, 2008


by Amy Gluyas
© 2008 A. Gluyas
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(12 months pre-race) As I watched weary paddlers crossing the finish line of the 2007 Avon Descent I felt a flash of envy. Suddenly I wanted to be one of the people who were staggering exhausted from the water. Although the prize for most seemed small ­ a medal - it was the look that people got when they said that they had finished the Avon Descent that I wanted. It was time to start planning for the 2008 Avon Descent.

(11 months pre-race) Although I am a kayak paddler, I was really unsure about what type of craft to paddle in the Avon Descent. After talking to numerous people about the kayak versus surf ski options, I decided to try out a surf ski on white water. Borrowing a plastic Spirit surf ski from a friend who had finished the 2007 Avon Descent, I decided to see how a surf ski paddled down white water. The verdict ­ absolutely no way in this world was I going to use a surf ski! After 7km of white water I had bruises on every conceivable body surface. And my ego wasn't too happy either. The only thing not bruised was the palms of my hands (and that was only because I was so busy trying not to lose my paddle). It was time to go shopping for a plastic kayak. Or maybe a double kayak ­ if I could find someone to paddle with

(8 _ months pre-race) It was back to a single kayak. My possible doubles partner ­ Brock Ingram ­ had chopped all the fingers of his right hand off in a workplace accident. Surgeons had reattached three fingers, but he wasn't going to be holding a paddle for a while. It seemed more than a little petty to be worrying about the Avon Descent while he was trying to put his life back together, but he offered to help me put together a training program.

(8 months pre-race) My bright green Finn Multisport arrived, just in time for Christmas, and was promptly christened Kermit. It was time to put the play boat away and start putting in the kilometres in a long boat.

(7 months pre-race) Brock worked out a method to strap a paddle to his hand, and we were back to considering a double kayak. Two days later he snapped the tendon in his big finger trying to keep up with everyone on a Saturday morning paddle session, and it was back to a single kayak again.

(6 _ months pre-race) We were back to paddling a double kayak ­ Brock had found a hook that braced off his wrist to enable him to paddle. He was enthusiastic about getting into the training program ­ although I noticed that now he actually had to paddle the sessions they had become a lot easier! We were still in singles, trying to get our fitness up.

(5 months pre-race) Our big red double kayak ­ a Dagger Trinidad ­ arrived. It was stable and easy to paddle, but incredibly wide and heavy. A great boat for touring, I wasn't sure it was the ideal boat for the Avon Descent. It was great for rescuing fellow paddlers when they capsized their K2 in the middle of the Mandurah Inlet though! At least we now had a double and could start working on the vitally important skills of timing and communication.

(3 _ months pre-race) I found the new boat really difficult to paddle, as the width of the boat affected my stroke, and it felt really slow. The heavy load of fitting training around unpredictable shift work left me exhausted and I had a minor meltdown. I took a week off training and tried to find a positive outlook again.

(3 months pre-race) Brock rang up in a state of excitement ­ he had found us a new boat! We ended up with a 515, which later turned out to be the boat almost everyone else was paddling in the Avon Descent! It was a lot narrower and quicker than the Trinidad, but still very stable. Most of the people we trained with still tried to steer us towards a composite boat, but we had decided that this year it was not worth the risk of smashing a boat and not finishing. The new boat helped me to feel excited again, and it was back to training ­ this time being careful not to overtrain and exhaust myself.

(2 _ months pre-race) We went on a Murray Ti Tree run and found it a great learning experience. With me being a little prone to the occasional melt down ("I am using the f*&^ing rudder" was one memorable comment) it was useful to practice steering and controlling the boat in a current around tight obstacles. We were to find that these runs were extremely important to our training program, and made a big difference when we actually did the race. The post-paddle analysis of our skills and decision making helped to build our paddling communication.

(Five weeks pre-race) "If the water level is less than 1m at Walyunga I'm not paddling." I listened to the other (experienced) Avon paddlers and winced. After spending twelve months getting ready for this Avon Descent, I wasn't sure I wanted to walk away but having helped drag our great big blue double kayak across numerous sand bars between Northam and Toodyay during a recent race, I wasn't sure I wanted to paddle at less than 1m either. Rain dances practiced, prayers said and small furry animals sacrificed to the rain gods, Brock and I decided to wait and see what the weather would bring.

(Five days pre-race) "I think we've split a seam! Quick, paddle to the bank!" Not the sort of comment you want to be shouting in the middle of a rapid, on your first ever valley run, 26km from the car, five days prior to the Avon Descent. To get out and discover that you have torn the front off your plastic kayak does not make the day look any brighter. Chris hopped out of his single for a look, and Brock and I poked our fingers through the hole at the front of the boat. Twenty minutes later, sarcastic comments, sulking and meltdowns over, we pulled a large dry bag over the front of the boat and started paddling down the river with fingers and toes crossed. Unbelievably, the jury rig got us all the way to the car. We even paddled down Syd's and Bells Rapids with no major problems. Of course, we were going to need to do something about that hole in the nose before the Avon Descent started (Big thanks to the guys at Canoeing Down Under, who fixed the nose in two days with a seriously strong patch).

(One day pre-race) "I think the river might be 3 metres at Walyunga!" Oh great. I thought we weren't going to have enough water? Where did all of this rain come from? Driving up to Northam to drop off the boat, and looking at the swollen river surging through the valley next to us, I tried desperately not to freak myself out. Stopping at Extracts Weir, we decided it would be easier to paddle down it than portage around. I guess there's not many years where that is the case! We left our big patched kayak sitting on the bank at the start next to more than twenty other 515s and headed back to Cobblers Pool to try and forget about the morning.

(One hour pre-race) Paddlers, support crews and spectators swirled nervously through Northam. Engines fired up in the background as I stared nervously at the boat. We were paddling how far? 133km? Am I insane? Brock quietly handed me the timing belt to put on my wrist, neglecting to mention that it had nearly been left behind. Our support crew had decided not to tell me anything that might make me any more nervous.

(One minute pre-race) "Hey you, stop paddling!" yelled the race official. "We're in that grid, not this one!" I yelled back. A momentary pause and the official nodded his head and let us through. I took a deep breath and got ready for the start.

(Day 1- Race Start) A loud noise and we're off! Paddling hard, sprinting at the front, with a couple of other boats going the same speed. As we hit Northam Weir I realised we had missed sliding off the side of the weir by about 30 cm. Way too close, but no time to think about it, keep paddling, hit the rooster tail at the bottom, brace, punch through all of the flotsam and jetsam (boats, people and paddles) pick up the wake of the next fastest boat and concentrate. I see nothing but the tail of the boat in front of us all the way to Katrine Bridge.

As we leap back into the boat after portaging Katrine Bridge, I look out for the 515 that we had glued ourselves to for the last 16km. No sign of them, so we charge on towards Extracts Weir. We look out for Glenn Avon Rapid, almost no sign of it except a handful of standing waves. We punch through them with no problems and Extracts Weir is in front of us before we have time to blink. We've picked up a handful of wash riders, including a friend of ours in a Multisport, Paul Dowling a.k.a. juffles. As we dither in a long row of paddlers trying to get the right line down the Weir Paul says "If you're not going, I am!" We head down what I think is the right line. As our nose shoots out over the rock, I realise it is not the right line. As we paddle and brace at the bottom of the bumpy ride, Paul slides up next to us and unintentionally smacks into us with the nose of his boat. I make a mental note that that was not a line to repeat down that rapid.

We paddle across to find our support crew. Our support crew gives us a racing change ­ I chug down a Sustagen and our drink bladders are re-filled. We decide we probably won't use the next support stop, but will wait to refuel until the finish. As we sprint out into the current another 515 comes in to find their support crew. It is the boat we wash rode from Katrine ­ this means we are the first double plastic at the moment! We push on hard.

One thing about starting at the back of the race, it means you can spend the whole first day overtaking people. This is fine on a wide, open stretch of river, but we get pushed sideways into a bush just before the start of the Ti Trees and I use a very rude word. The guy in front of us had angled sideways about 5 metres to smack us into the bush. Plus I'm getting a little tired and my shoulders hurt. As we come into the trees I angle left. I'd spent much of the night before consulting a large number of people about the options at high water. They had all agreed that left was the go. We continue to overtake people wherever we can, and find that all the practice on the Murray River has made a huge difference to our manoeuvring abilities. We still don't make many friends as we race on towards the finish. Suddenly we find ourselves in a pool in the middle of the river and I angle right. We drop back onto the river just above the finish line, missing Leatherhead Rapid completely. We sprint towards the finish, and nearly miss the eddy at the finish line. It feels great to get out of the boat, but my brain has shut down. Our support crew run around, and Brock helps put the boat away as I time the gap between us and the next plastic double. Over three and a half minutes! We hobble up to the car and I get driven up to the camp while Brock walks. I have a blister the size of an apple on my left foot and my right leg is badly strained. I can't believe we finished first today ­ maybe we did do the right sort of training!

Just before we go to bed Rosco shows a playboating video on the projector to the whole camp. It is amazing footage, and as I listen to everyone Ooh and ah I wonder why I'm doing this crazy race instead of paddling real boats.

(Day 2) It is a cold and foggy morning, just the sort of day to get up early, put on damp clothes and paddle 70-odd kilometres down white water. Yep, I'm in a positive mood this morning. I'm not hungry, and I force myself to get some breakfast down. I help Mum to pack up, and well before the start we have everything ready to go. Brock and I had a great race yesterday, and came in 99th overall. Not bad for a double plastic. This means our start is relatively early. In the fog, it is hard to see or hear, and we are late for our start. Not that it matters, as we have caught the other boats off our start within a hundred metres. We can see maybe 50 metres ahead of us, but still pick reasonable lines through the trees. We get caught behind someone once, but are near the front of the road block and push through as soon as we can slide our nose past. Once again we make no friends in the Ti Trees, but hear later that many paddlers behind us got caught for long periods of time, and/or fell in. A swim this early makes it very hard to stay warm, and causes a lot of people to pull out.

At the bottom of the Ti Trees the water is so high there is no sign of Possaults Ford, just a huddle of cars and people on the riverbank. I know this means we are close to the Super chute, and I warn Brock to be ready. As we come around the corner of Super chute I paddle hard and Brock braces. We bounce through some huge waves and snatch a glance at the carnage around the base of the rapid. I spot Joe and Sam's double ski on the bank and call out to them. They had let go of their paddles when they swam and are trying to sort themselves out. We are too far past them to help, so head on down the river.

From the Super chute on the river is full of white water. The rapids are so different from our valley run (done at 1.5m) that I can't really remember anything useful. I do remember the beginning of Emu Falls, which doesn't help when Brock stops paddling halfway down the Washing Machine to start pumping out the boat. I scream at him, and he starts paddling properly again just soon enough to avert disaster. It's a close thing, and I eye the boats and people littered along the bank, thankful that we are not joining them. Although if I don't start picking good lines down the rapids I think we really will swim. I haven't picked a good line yet. Remembering that the rapid that pulled the front off our boat is around here somewhere, I watch paddlers ahead of us carefully in the hope that they know the chicken chutes on the big rapids. I follow one paddler left into some Ti Trees and come out under Moondyne Rapid. This is the one that smashed us up, and I am just as happy to miss it today and concentrate on the next big challenge, Syd's rapid.

Before we make it to Syd's Rapid there are a number of huge standing waves, swirling eddies and enormous rocks to navigate. We have picked up a wash rider who follows us down the valley. It gives us someone to talk to, and when we come out of each rapid we look around to see if he is still there. The top of Syd's comes before I am really ready, and I try to head left to avoid the right channel. We bounce over numerous rocks before angling right again, and I yell instructions to Brock on a rock by rock basis ­ "Left, Right, Duck!" There is an enormous tree branch reaching down into the best line. We both duck under it and reach the bottom safely. I am still yelling, worried about the current at the bottom, when a huge yell of "Go Amy!!" comes from the sidelines. It gives me a real boost, and after navigating the broken boats drifting along the river we pull hard for Bells rapid, and our support crew.

We hear Bell's rapid before we see it, the loudspeakers and people yelling together with the roar of a lot of white water. I am quietly confident, as I spent most of last year playing on Bell's, and it's normally one of my favourite rapids. We have used the chicken chute enough times to line it up from the top, and that's what we head for as we sweep around the corner. As we come through I look ahead and my confidence deserts me ­ normally there are a number of rapids with small pools separated by large rocky islands. All of the rocks are covered, and I can't work out where to navigate. I go for my standard fall back ­ when in doubt point downstream and paddle like a demon. With some amazing bracing from Brock we stay upright, even when I think we've lost it and are going in. As he starts to rejoice I yell at him ­ we haven't finished yet! We have one more rapid to get to our support crew. I feel guilty almost straight away, I must be getting tired.

When we find our support crew we leap out of the boat and empty the water we have collected in the boat, as well as anything else that might get in the way (air bags, spare paddle). They do another racing change on our drink bladders and send us off again. It is time for the last slog ­ the dreaded 30km of flat water.

The 33 km to the finish line is not as featureless as some people think ­ there are still some Ti Trees and tight bends to navigate before the river opens out. We pick up a long trail of wash riders, and keep some of them all the way to the finish. One support crew stop just after Sandalford gives us enough sugar to keep going, and one of my friends has raced down to yell congratulations a few kilometres from the finish line. It boosts us on, and I only have one moment of major grumpiness, when Brock wants me to go around a single paddler rather than wash ride him. In the end, I decide he's right, and we push on past the single paddler. As we come around the corner at Ascot Kayak Club I hear them announcing the names of the people paddling past, including us! The announcer pronounces my last name correctly, which is very unusual, but any musing on this topic is wiped out of my mind by the sight of the "last bridge." Brock and I shout, and dig deep. Not far to go.

As we come around the corner and I spot the Garratt Road Bridge I am not sure it is real. I ask Brock, and he teases me about it being a different bridge before I yell at him (again). My sense of humour appears to have been left behind as I focus on getting across the line. As we cross it I get a wrap-around grin and Brock pumps his fist in the air. We have finished, are the first double plastic, and have beaten the course record. As we stumble out of the boat the roving camera guy grabs me for a short interview. I try not to sound like a complete idiot ­ I've never been interviewed before, and this was not the time I would have chosen to have me looking (more) like an idiot on a twelve foot screen. I see my Mum and Dad and grin again, before limping up towards dry clothes, food and a chance to stop, breathe and digest what we had achieved.

(Thoughts after the finish) Both Brock and I were very happy with all that we achieved. It was a really big year, with a lot of ups and downs, and just by finishing we had accomplished a lot. To win our category and claim a course record was fantastic, and I really enjoyed the fact that as a mixed double we had won the open class. Not a bad race for a female novice and a guy coming back from a serious injury! Our preparation was really good, and all of the long paddles and practice races meant that on the day I wasn't panicked ­ it was just another race. Apart from a strained knee and hamstring (which kept me out of the water for two weeks) we had no major race-caused injuries, and our teamwork (apart from my minor meltdowns) was really good. Now I can say I have finished an Avon Descent, but I think I'd like to finish another one maybe next year!

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