|Dread at the Narrows|
We pitched our tents on the green field just above the entrance to the Narrows. We were four mature men ... well, some might say three elderly and one younger ... each in his own boat, running the Nepisiguit River in New Brunswick.
The Narrows is a cleft between perpendicular cliffs through which the river rushes over rocks in heaving waves, dropping steeply and sharply before the river slows in the headpond of Grand Falls dam. We were on our third day of our descent of this isolated stream, and decided not to attempt the descent of the gorge at this hour of the late afternoon.
From our campsite, we could see where the water leapt over and around boulders as its blue-green waters entered the canyon. The horizon line denied us a glimpse into the inner maw of the drop. We knew that the stream was studded with rocks, each tossing up its own wave train as the current bucked and broke against them in random chaos.
I kept thinking that once we entered the Narrows the next morning, we would only have microseconds to twitch our canoes left or right to skirt a rock or line up for a gap in the swells. Even after Hal and Aaron scaled partly up one side of the gorge walls to look for a suitable avenue through the drop, we knew that once our boats entered the rock garden at the entrance, all bets on running a pre-determined “safe” line were off.
We were committed to the run. Yes, there was a portage trail, but it was on the other side of the river. If we chose to use it, we would have had to huck our boats and gear up a steep hill, then on a path along the gorge's rim, and camp high over the river. It was too late in the day for that type of strenuous endeavor.
The rush of the rapid in its confines entertained us all that evening and resonated in our sleep that night, reminding us that it was waiting, that we had a rendez-vous with it early the next day.
As we rose and decamped the next morning, we felt nervous anticipation tinged with dread. Butterflies in our bellies. What was I doing here and why was I taking this unnecessary risk?
Aaron was the first to climb into his canoe. He hovered mid-stream, scanning the mouth to discern the point of entry which would give him the best line down the rapid.
I wasn't worried about Aaron, he is a talented paddler and always shows good judgement. We watched him until his image dropped out of sight down into the canyon.
Laurie went next. He was paddling a large, heavy older boat, which was sluggish and difficult to manouver. He had previously voiced apprehension and muted pessimism last evening over his chances in the gorge. Hal and I watched him float down in his barge until just the white of his hat showed above the water, then it was gone and it was my turn to drop in.
Any visions I was entertaining of gracefully negotiating an elegant descent were dashed as I entered the chaotic rock garden. I worked my paddle at a furious rate, struggling to keep my boat straight lest it turn broadside to the curling waves. Decisions were made by my arms and wrists, by muscle-memory, with only moments to act as waves reared up and flashed by on all sides. Then one last huge boil, then my boat dipped down into the souse-hole behind the final ledge of the canyon, and into the calm waters of the pool.
Hal entered the calm pool mere seconds after me. We all heaved a sigh of relief, high-fives all around. Then we set to bailing the water out of our canoes, and began the slow paddle into the still waters behind the Grand Falls dam.
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