For Those Who Want a Laugh:

Avon Descent 2008


by Karen Staudte
© 2008 K. Staudte
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Once upon a time there was a story to tell about the Avon Descent. In fact, with 700 competitors, there are at least 700 stories. This is my little story, for those of you who want to know.

(The Avon Descent is 130 km of river racing running from Northam downriver to Bayswater, in Perth).

A dear friend of mind challenged me to finish the race about 6 weeks ago. Being a complete white water novice and a sucker who loves a challenge, I thought, "I can do that!". So I entered the race, then read the website's18 week proposed training program. Eighteen weeks!! Hell! With only 6 weeks to go, I had to make up 12 weeks work pretty quickly. So, there I was, out on the river from North Fremantle for 5:30 am and 6 pm, in the dark, with seals, dolphins and other dark shapes gliding past on the river. I ached, I got cold, I got fitter, I started sleeping with a hot water bottle to ease muscles I didn't know I had.

Three weeks pre-race I did a Valley run with 10 friends. That was great fun, wading in thigh deep water in the sunshine, bouncing gently offsmall boulders in my plastic Spirit Ski, paddling through tranquil pools, learning what a 0.5 metre water level was all about. Wobbling through the occasional rapid, this was lovely. Ha, this isn't too hard (fool that I was). It was all good fun.

Two weeks pre-race I did a Valley run. Swirling water, hail, bitter wind, 4 hours of swimming down rapids, uncontrollable violent shivering: this was the river at 1.2 metres and rising fast. Brrrrr, exhilarating, but cold. Murray taught me heaps about rapids, and the training progressed. Soph dropped me off for a few long slow 25-30 km flat water paddles when I knew I needed to let the Valley bruises heal, and my paddle fitness improved.

One week pre-race I did a Valley run- sunshine, staying upright in the rapids, again at about 1.2 metres deep, things were looking up. I was still a total novice but there was hope I could do this, and enjoy it!

Pre-race day: we looked at the rapids. It had been chucking it down all week. The river was unrecognizable. The old blokes were recounting the flood of 1954. The bridges we were to paddle under became surfaces to paddle over. Numbers of 2-2.9 metres were muttered. I looked at Bells and was scared. A lot of the boulders were gone- a metre underwater, just churning and boiling the currents underneath it. The river banks were flooded over- grassy banks were gone, but new paths around the ti trees (which grow in the river) emerged. Some of the river's power was gone- it was disseminated onto the banks, but where it couldn't break free, the current was fierce.

Race day 1- lovely. I fell out after about a minute, crossing Northam Weir, into a log jam of other boats at the bottom of the weir. Refreshed, cooler, and wetter, we paddled on. My paddling buddies, Jon W. and Murray B. were in my start grid, and Jon stayed in sight for most of the first day's 58 km. It was almost flat water, pushed along by a strong current, we just kept paddling for about 4.5 hours, and finished happy, content, with only a few spills and piles up amongst logs in the ti-trees. Muzz was about 10 minutes ahead of Jon and I. The concerns about paddling in a flooded river were almost gone. I looked forward to Day 2's rapids with great excitement.

Day 2: well this is where the story gets good. This was an epic day. All the rest of that stuff was just background. The adrenaline, the fear, the action, this was day 2. It had it all.
It was 2 degrees and foggy at 7 39 am when I started paddling. I saw Jon for 10 seconds that day. Then he was gone in the mist, I was gone in the trees. The water, I discovered, was incredibly cold. Piled up in a jam of water craft in a dead end in a row of ti-trees within 5 minutes of starting the race, I swam and hauled my craft out of never ending channels of vegetation, getting legs caught on submerged tree branches, paddling through tree canopies and bumping off fellow competitors for a critical 10-15 minutes or so, until I was sure I was bloody freezing. Eventually though I was free to carry on, which I did. I reverted to my previously trained "uncontrollable shivering whilst paddling" technique (see Valley Run #2) and I gradually warmed up, the mist lifted off the river, the sun shone through, and I enjoyed my paddling for a while.

When you're cold you fall off more often. Which makes you cold. I feel off a lot. I hardly recognized the valley, in its river-swollen state, but it was great. Until Emu Falls- I'm guessing that's what it was.

I came around a big left hand bend and got swept into an eddy pool with 8 other craft. And fell off. I got back on, paddled into the river, got swept back into the eddy and fell off. This was so much fun I did it a third time!! Absolutely frozen, I paddled hard, got into the main stream, turned right, and was knocked off my boat and drifted towards the top of a rapid with a big cliff overhead with lots of spectators on top, I think it was Emu Falls.

A rescue guy threw a rope at me, said "grab that, let go of your boat". With reflexes like a cat, I grabbed it. Safe! "Ha!", said the river, it swept me over the edge, the rope was ripped out of my hand, and I was tumbling down the rapid, emerging for a split second to gasp for breath. Then I was held underwater. And held there. Hmmm, I thought, spit me out, I'd like to breathe. Hmm, I thought, a moment later, I'd really like to breathe. Hmmm I thought, another moment later, I really need to breathe. F#@&K I thought, I didn't know I could still hold my breathe this long. Gasp!! Eventually I got to breathe. I was somewhere downstream, I caught hold of a tree and just hung there, gasping for breath. A rescue craft was nudging my ski at me, and I still had my paddle so I climbed back on and carried on. (I reverted to my uncontrollable shivering technique once again- and tried to eat something, but my belly was full of cold river water which made me quite nauseous for about the next 45 minutes).

The rest of the valley was lovely, sunny, relaxing, exhilarating, thawing, until Championships Rapid. Which I sailed down, got caught in the big stopper waves in the bottom, climbed back on, went to paddle off, and realized my paddle had snapped off a blade!!!! Bugger. Being the luckiest creature around, Paul Dowling paddled past at that moment, I yelled to him "Paul, spare paddle???" and he happily gave me his. He seemed to think I was uncontrollably shivering and mildly incoherent, (which I was) but I was used to that, after 4 hours. The adrenaline was flowing, it was not far to go, fortune was smiling on me, I paddled on.

The new paddle was a bit tricksy ( I use an offset paddle) I was just getting to know it when I hit Syds rapids, perhaps 10 minutes later. The gentle pool at the top of Syds, where you align your boat for a good run at the rapids, was a seething, boiling, wave pool. Following a well-established trend for the day, I fell off. Once again someone threw me a line, not wanting me to go over the waterfall. Cool! My ski carried on, I clambered onto safer ground, and walked down the rapid edge. I saw my ski disappear between two other unattended craft in a wake of foam and river current around the bend and out of site. I jumped in the river, swam to the opposite bank, emerging 100 metres downstream, and went ski hunting. Where was it??

I looked, I called, I went downstream to Walyunga about 2km away, I searched, I failed to find. And that's where it all ended. Ten minutes from the end of the rapids. 95 km into the race with only 4 km of white water to go. I was so close, and yet so unable to finish. I could see at least 10 other unattended skis in the ti-trees , caught up in the river debris.

I wish now I'd swum the river again to hunt for it. At the time I didn't even think of it. I guess I was too stuffed. It had been an epic day but I'd run out of go. Next time I'll sit on the bank for a while, gain strength, and then jump back in. But I've got a lot to learn about this paddling thing.

It was an amazing day. Amazing.

That night, when I went to bed, I could still feel the water rushing over me. Again and again I got felt myself get sucked under, dragged, buffeted, pulled at by the current. Except that I was being dragged under the blankets, off the pillow!!! Completely weird sensation. Clearly the river had left a lasting memory on my body and my brain.

A huge thanks to Brendan, for support crewing for me, Jon, for talking me into it, Muzz, for training with me, John T, for his helmet, Sean, for fixing my rudder, Muzz and Soph for their PFDs, Tanya and Mark for looking after me at Walyunga, Paul D for the spare paddle and a huge congratulations to everyone who did finish ­ you're all FANTASTIC!

And a final grateful thanks to whoever pulled my dearly beloved dark green spirit ski #921 out of the river (where it was wrapped around a tree) and left it at the top car-park at Walyunga. We are happily re-united, if a little warped J.

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