For all those of you who have asked about the disappearance of my grittygal blog, I apologize. It has been a long haul this year. I promise, however, to return to the blog with renewed vigor. Thanks for sticking with me.
The Hulahula was littered with rocks and boulders and long sections of big, ice-cold rapids. As the bowman, my job was to read the river and pick the best route. Occasionally, I had time to study it, to calmly choose our line through the rapids. But most of the time, I was forced to make split-second decisions, paddle hard, and pray to the river gods that our canoe would make it through without spilling.
Between rapid runs, my dad liked to lay his paddle across the gunwales, sit back, and admire the scenery.
“Aidan,” he’d say, “Just enjoy this. You may never see anything like it again.” He’d pause and then he’d add for emphasis, “No really, Aidan. This is it. This is one of the last great wildernesses left. Just relax and soak it up.”
Relax and soak it up, I’d mutter to myself. My dad had learned to trust me and my ability to read the river, but from my perspective, he had forgotten what was like to be in the driver’s seat.
On our fourth day, my dad was dreamily watching the mountains when I yelled out, “Boulder garden!”
His reverie came to a screeching halt. “Eddy out!” he yelled.
Downriver was a section of water teeming with rapids and angry looking rocks.
“No way,” I said. “We can’t make it.”
“What do you suggest then,” he said tensely, without a sliver of bliss left in his voice.
Lining our canoe wasn’t an option. The rock walls were too steep and the current too strong.
I bit my lip. The river was divided into three channels. On the right, the water surged toward a cliff in a long wave train and then dropped off a ledge into a bowl of roiling water. In the middle, three large boulders rose up. The spaces between them were too small to squeeze a canoe through. On the left, the water was fast and as rocky as a scree field.
“What do you think, Aidan?” my dad asked.
“The right,” I said, hesitantly.
“Yup,” he answered. “Looks like our only option. Let the current take us up to the wall and kick us out. Then draw the canoe hard left and miss that bowl. There’s a smaller drop to the left, but I think we can survive that one.”
I bit my lip again. I didn’t like his choice of words.
“You got this, Aidan,” he said, patting me on the back. “If we take this right, we’ll be okay.”
“And if we don’t?” I asked.
“Be confident,” he said. “Bold and confident.”
I studied our line along the right wall.
“Take your time,” he said. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Now,” I answered. I knew the more I thought about it, the more frightened I’d get.
We peeled out and entered the wave train, the water heaping over the bow and flooding into my spray skirt. I could hardly see, but knew we were just inches from the wall. When the wave kicked us out, I yelled, “Left! Left!” but the boat wasn’t turning. I was certain we were going to dump. Then, suddenly, the boat moved. We’d missed the drop-off. When we pitched into the second one, I felt the bow of the canoe porpoise. It dove, came back up, and I emerged from a wall of water. Then I saw it, a boulder dead-ahead. I drew the canoe left, but could tell by the way the boat moved that my dad hadn’t seen it yet.
“Boulder!” I yelled. I felt the back end of the boat bump the rock. But that was it. A bump and not a collision. Ahead I saw an eddy just downstream.
“Eddy out,” I shouted.
When we turned the canoe into the eddy’s calm water, I felt my muscles slacken. We’d made it. After inspecting the canoe, we realized that we’d cracked a crossrib, but that could be fixed.
“Holy shit,” my dad said, relieved.
We had eight to ten days ahead of us. The Hulahula has a pretty sounding name, but by the end of our trip, by the time we reached the Arctic Ocean, tired, battered and shaken, we’d chosen a cruder phrase to describe the river. Pronounced not as three words, but one, an expression of reverence and deference: HulaF’nHula.