It took about 5 minutes in the Salmon River for me to start worrying that my husband and I had drastically overestimated our capacity for teamwork.
Water — gallons of icy Idaho water — was dumping over my head, into my mouth and eyes, up my nose and onto the floor of our inflatable kayak, or “duckie.” Boulders were popping up in the river as if from nowhere. The duckie lurched toward a rock as Craig, who was sitting behind me and couldn’t see, kept paddling toward it with all his might.
Powerless over our direction from the front of the boat, I tried to tell him to help steer us around the hazard. But all that came out was a spluttery, “Uhhh. Uhhhhhh.”
As we bonked into the boulder and got spun around to approach a Class III rapid backward, I recalled my friend Debbie’s affectionate nickname for tandem duckies while she watched us inflate ours at the put-in:
We emerged from the rapid — generously named Piece Of Cake — breathless and cold and a bit shaken. This was supposed to be a 4-hour river trip and we had only just begun. How much harder would it get?
I thought paddling with Craig would be reassuring, but tandem duckie travel actually added to the sense of unpredictability. We had floated together only once previously; before that, I always had sole control of my boat. I never had to give directions to anybody — or be surprised by someone else’s choices. If I wanted to turn, I turned.
In the duckie, Craig and I were at each other’s mercy. I couldn’t steer; he couldn’t see. He needed me to communicate, and I needed him to act. Failure on either side created a frustrating, scary feeling of helplessness.
Craig agreed to focus on steering. I agreed to shout commands over the sound of the river as far in advance as possible. Even in slower sections, we started looking far ahead to plan out our way around obstacles.
By the time we got to the next Class III, a rapid called The Narrows, we had found our groove. I had gotten into the habit of pre-narrating our course in a constant holler, and Craig made sure the boat responded to my directions. We dodged around rocks and whooped and cheered as water blasted into our faces.
After The Narrows, I turned around for high fives — just in time for our duckie to get stuck on a low boulder. I muttered swears as we scootched our butts sideways over the rock, now with more than twice my weight on board. Surely this was not MY fault. I never got stuck on the rocks when I paddled alone.
But it was my fault. Failure to observe, failure to communicate. Point, stern; penalty, bow.
There is no use comparing tandem and solo paddling. It’s a different set of skills and challenges and rewards. I got to feel in control of my path when I was alone, but there was no thrill in successfully coordinating maneuvers in rapid succession. I didn’t get stuck on rocks, but I also had no one to high-five.
After we freed ourselves, we caught up with our friends — most of them former professional guides — in their raft.
“You guys still married?” one of them asked jokingly.
“Yeah,” we said, still inexpert paddlers but now a better team.