Tales From the Kayak Graveyard:
Avon Descent 2008
by Erin Hobbs
© 2008 E. Hobbs
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My Avon Descent story began this time last year. A weekend of acting as support crew for Paul and Joel gave me the opportunity to witness the chaos that is the Avon descent. Getting up at 5am at minus 3 degrees Celsius to willingly go paddling in water that is barely warmer than the air, racing with so many other people that the sheer number of kayaks causes you to capsize, and then pushing yourself down white water rapids in which there are more variations on the theme of how-to-get-caught-underwater-and-die than there are positions in a Karma Sutra book, seemed a little bit silly. At the end of the weekend, I thought, "I think I can safely say that this is something I have no inclination to doever."
So, on the second of August 2008, I found myself donning my multi-coloured thermal underwear, booties, and my matching yellow helmet and PFD- a combination that is considered fashionable in only select circles of society. After 3 weeks of heavy rains, we were facing the highest water levels since 1996. The Walyunga gauge had hit 2 metres the night before, and even the most experienced paddlers in our group were hoping for the rain to stop.
On the first day, there weren't too many hurdles to face- at least not for me. After a last minute dash to the car for booties, Paul was in the Kayak and ready to take off to tackle his first hurdle- the Northam Weir. Joel and I ran down to the start line to watch them come through. I could tell by the "Ooohs" and "Ows!" from the hundreds of spectators that things weren't going too well. We got there in time to see the next starting grid go through. The leader slid down the weir before hitting the standing wave at the bottom and toppling into the foam. The next came down, hit his kayak, and he was over too. Then the next came down, and went straight over the first guy's head, which caused him to flip over as well. The crowd went "ooooh!", and one fellow next to me said "this is pure carnage!" But you could tell by the look of glee on his face that he wasn't too upset by it. It was then time for Paul to come down. As he barrelled into the floating pile of kayaks and people at the bottom, he couldn't help but flip over too. We left as Paul was draining his kayak, and someone else near the shore was calling for an ambulance- they'd dislocated their shoulder.
I was doing the next leg of the race, so we jumped in the car to get to the changeover point, Katrine Bridge. Even though this was a very straightforward leg, I was still nervous. I had been having nightmares every night for the last two weeks about drowning. This was not helped by our visit the day before to Alwyn at Finn Kayaks who, after we asked what the water level would be like at this height, said "have you ever been airborne in a kayak?" With that echoing in my mind, I nervously watched the throngs of paddlers porting their boats over the bridge (as the water levels were too high to safely go under) and waited for Paul to arrive. He appeared a short time later, and after a quick rudder adjustment, I was off.
Except for the push and pull of the current, the going was pretty easy. I was slowly taken over by a number of friendly paddlers, who stopped to chat along the way. Very soon, we hit the only major obstacle for me that day- Glen Avon Rapid. With the high water level, it had turned into a standing wave about shoulder height, followed by a series of smaller rough patches and waves. About 60% of people seemed to be making it through. I went a little to the right, ploughed through the larger part of the standing wave, but was rewarded with a much smoother path straight through to the flat water. What a rush! The next 7 or 8 kilometre were uneventful, with only some strong wind gusts to contend with. However, with such a strong current, we were still going fairly fast. Before long, I rounded a corner to hear crowds over the roar of white water. We were at Extracts Weir. As a novice, I was not allowed to go down it. Thankful for the excuse not to have to tackle it, I headed to shore and dragged the kayak (that seemed to have suddenly gained 20 kilos) 100 metres over the grass and back into the water. All the guys were helping each other carry their boats, but none offered me any help- probably because they saw how heavy the kayak was. The crowd thought this wasn't very nice, and cheered me on with many 'go girl's. The rest of the way down I was paddling through foam up to my waist, and I had fun throwing the foam around a bit before heading down some smaller rapids to finish at Toodyay bridge, handing over the timing band to Marieke.
The rest of the way went smoothly, except for getting the car bogged and having to push it through mud that came up to my knees. Marieke and Joel navigated their sections very quickly, and we made the finish line in good time.
That afternoon, we all sat around drinking beer on the lawn of our rental house in Toodyay, watching the sun go down over the river and contemplating all the ways we could possibly get hurt the next day. I decided the worst would be if the Kayak wrapped around a tree underwater before I could get out.
We awoke bright and early at 5am the next morning, trying to get warm in the freezing cold. We were all tense. The water levels had not dropped significantly, so no one was sure what to expect. We arrived at the start, the fog only just beginning to lift as the first paddlers went over the start line. After a quick panic, Paul got in and was off as well. A few kilometres down the valley road, we went past Posselts Ford. The whole thing was covered over with water, and I didn't even recognise it until we were through the gates of the national park. We stopped quickly to check out the Super Chute. It looked okay but seemed to be flipping every paddler over as they went through. We saw Paul on the opposite bank, who'd already tipped over and was draining the kayak. We then headed along the path to see the rest of the rapids. We arrived at Emu falls to see several ambulances. One ambulance officer was tending to a guy with a bandage around his head and chest, while another was helping someone limp up the slope. Not a good sign. In the water, people were falling out everywhere and desperately swimming for the banks while trying to breathe and hold on to their kayaks at the same time. As we were not allowed to stop, I silently hoped Paul would make it down okay before driving on to the next changeover point.
We didn't have to wait too long before Paul came paddling through the timing hoop with a big grin on his face. Very nervously, I took off to the cheers of "Go Fred". The current itself was very strong, and it took a while to get used to the way it pulled the kayak from right to left as it swirled down the valley. The first 15 kilometres were a series of small rapids. Whole groves of ti trees were completely covered in water, creating some bizarre flows that we had to look out for. Once again, I was passed by a number of guys, all slowing down to say hi. I even managed to pass a couple of people before one guy aggressively overtook me, cutting me off my path down the start of Lookout rapid and almost flipping me over. As he did so, he said "it's okay, you're doing really well". The river gods must have heard my silent curse, as he was flipped upside down soon after. I tried not to smile as I paddled past.
On this rapid I got my first real "ti tree experience". I made it through about 50 metres of massive standing waves, to the cheers of the crowd, before I was pushed straight into a grove of thick trees on the edge. I lay there sideways for a bit, trying not to get pulled out of the boat by the current, before some kids came along and helped me out. They also rescued my paddle that I had lost while trying to shield my face from the branches. Thankyou!
I was off again, this time there were no other kayaks around. Before I knew it, I saw a rather large crowd on the right of the bank, cheering. I panicked. I had no idea where I was, I had no idea how to get through and there were no kayakers ahead of me to follow. In a quick decision, I decided that because the crowds were on the right bank, I should go to the right. It was only half way down the rapid that I realised I was at Championships. I quickly got myself into the left channel as it is a little more forgiving than the right. The crowd cheered as I almost flipped over in a hole, but managed to avoid falling out before paddling on.
I was now completely on my own, and a little nervous as I couldn't remember what was coming next. Within what seemed like minutes I could hear a roar in the distance. I didn't realise that Syd's rapid was so close! Too late, I was already on the rapid and couldn't get out now. As I approached the main lead-up rapids, I could see about 20 or 30 rescue crew. They all stood up as I approached and I thought "oh dear". Some of the waves were about as high as my head, and I bounced over them one after the other. I was trying to paddle and brace at the same time, not doing either very successfully. One rescue guy pointed to the right, so I went right, then another pointed left, so I went left and managed to dodge a very unforgiving-looking rock. All that was left was a sharp turn to the right, and straight down the main drop. A branch hung so low I went down the drop with my head on my knees, hoping for the best. At the bottom, I almost flipped over as I put all my strength into the sharp left turn.
The crowd cheered me on as I went down stream, cutting through foam as high as my waist. Before I could do anything, I felt my kayak suddenly lurch to the right, straight into a hole that was covered by foam. I flipped straight over into the cold water. Remembering Paul's story of how a guy had lost his teeth floating upside down, I got out quickly, but lost the paddle. I stuck my head out of the water, only to breathe in foul tasting foam. My legs were being dragged under me while my upper body was being dragged the other way. My PFD felt useless as I struggled to keep my head above water. I was floating very quickly downstream. Luckily, I had kept a hold of the kayak, and was now using it to haul my head out of the water and above the foam- both to breathe and to see where I could get out- before going back under water. As we had been warned this could happen by Alwyn, I knew what was happening, and tried not to panic. I managed to swim onto the bank where the crowd was happily watching me almost drown, grabbing the paddle on the way (that paddle just won't die!). One really nice guy came running to help, and we got the kayak drained. As I had lost all my water earlier, he gave me his bottle before I was off again (thankyou!). Looking back at Syds, I would not have attempted it if I'd seen it beforehand.
I kept going, nerves thoroughly rattled. The next section was still and quiet, only the sound of birds and my paddle hitting the water. I was paddling to the left of a large grove of ti trees, when I spotted a blue ski stuck in a tree. No one was around. I kept going and spotted another ski to the right that had bent in half, then a paddle nearby. Again, I looked around for people, only to realise that while there was no one around, there was kayak and kayak stuck in the trees. I lost count after about 20, but there were many more than that. Most of these boats must have been abandoned after their owners fell out at Syds. About 100 metres later, I came across a guy struggling in the trees. He'd tried to go to the right, but tipped out at the end of the channel. I helped him find a paddle and saw him get on the boat before I continued on through the debris. It was incredibly eerie. Although I knew the kayaks' owners would be fine, it was this scene that really got my nerves rattling.
I was starting to shake as I continued through the Walyunga rapids. The water was flowing so fast there was no longer an eddy at the pool at the car park. I got a few cheers as I went through. I was starting to get really freaked out because I was on my own and was now unsure of how to get through the rest safely, if I fell out now, there would be no one close who could help. I knew Bells was coming, and I couldn't stop shaking from the cold and adrenaline. Even though I had been down it twice before without falling out, the high water levels had turned it into a completely different rapid. In order to calm myself down, I decided to go down the chicken chute that Paul and I had seen on Friday afternoon.
In no time, I came out from the trees to see hundreds of people standing on the bridge and on both sides of the river. I headed straight for the right hand chicken chute, but got stuck in a tree. I got out to pull the boat around, but ended up getting stuck under the bridge! I flipped over, but was stuck inside the kayak as I couldn't find the ball to rip off the deck. I ended up forcing my way out, but kept trying to surface underneath the boat. I put my feet on the river floor to force my way out of the water, only to have them get caught on a rock. I half fell over forwards, bruising my shins. I tried to stand up but realised I couldn't feel my right foot. So I just watched as my boat drifted toward the rapid. Someone on the bank realised something was wrong, and they asked if I was alright. However, Paul had already jumped in the water, shoes and all, to help me get out. I started getting the feeling back into my foot, but I think I'd rather not have felt it. It didn't seem too badly damaged, so I went back out for the boat. I drained it out on a little island, before sitting in an eddy to put the deck back on. The rescue crew told me that the chicken chute was a dead end anyway, and my only choice was to walk over the bridge, or to paddle back out into the main rapid. So, after a few deep breaths, I paddled out into the main current, went straight through the waves, narrowly missed some holes, and managed to pull out of it just in time to get through the timing hoop to hand the timing band over to Marieke. In the end, I had done most of Bells rapids anyway, and would probably have been better off if I'd just gone down the main drop.
I didn't realise until I got out that I was still shaking, and it wasn't just the cold that was causing it. It took me a good half an hour to let the adrenaline subside and feel calm again. At the first aid station at Sandalford winery, I got some ice on my shin. Unfortunately, it worked so well that my leg doesn't look too bad now, so I don't even have a decent injury to show off.
At the finish line, we joined up with everyone else from our group who had finished. Syds was declared the hardest rapid because of the technical difficulty in such high water, but Bells was a close contender. We swapped war stories over beer before heading home to watch the news coverage of the event.
In all, we came 307th out of 486 entrants who started the race, in a time of 12 hours 13 minutes and 04 seconds. Only 355 entrants ended the race, with 131 pulling out due to fatigue, injury or damaged or lost kayaks. In all, it was a very satisfying race to finish, particularly as we are unlikely to have another year of such high rainfall right before a race. The weekend was great fun, and we can't wait to do it again next year.
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