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Flipping out at the Whitewater Park

My mind was racing. Is everyone OK? Where is my boat? Is it damaged? Did it sink? Did I have everything tied down properly? My cell phone, did I lose it?

Clearly where I chose to go over the falls was not the best place. As the Ouachita River forced me downstream, my mind raced with all the things that could go terribly wrong.

A few moments before, I scoped out the rock ledge where the water makes about a two-foot drop. My hands sweated as I gripped my paddle. It all looked terrifying. I was in the lead with three of my family members behind. They were watching me, the leader, to see where to go over the falls. The only problem is I don’t have a lot of experience with whitewater. I might have more than they do, but it’s very limited.

I looked for the “V” and went over. Then I stalled, and then the back end of my boat swung around putting me sideways in the surf. The next moment I was underwater. But just before I sank, I noticed Noah, my nephew, had met the same fate.

Then I began to process what had happened.

A racing mind is a symptom of panic. Don’t panic. Slow down to go fast. So I began to answer my mind’s frantic questions one at a time.

After my head came back to the surface I looked around to see Noah floating downstream. I yelled to make sure he was OK. He was.

Where’s my paddle? It the lightest thing not tied to the boat so it can get swept away quicker. It was right in front of me so I grabbed it.

Where’s my boat? I looked around not seeing it anywhere. Then the panic came back. Where is my boat!? Did I lose it? Go slow to go fast, I told myself. It’s just a boat. It’s not a person.

I made a full 180-degree turn, facing upstream as the river pushed me swiftly down. By doing that, I put myself in a dangerous position. If you have a spill in rapids, you’re supposed to put yourself in a seated position, feet pointing downstream.

This position is safest because as the water forces you against rocks, you can use your feet to bounce off of them or divert your path around them.

I did not see myself ending up here at the beginning of the day.

The day began like many of our other family adventures. My brother, Jacob, had just bought a kayak and was ready to test it out on some rapids. He also wanted his wife, Katie, to get a taste for kayaking in the hopes that she too would love it.

Katie had paddled around the lakeshore with my sister and me once on a family camping trip, but that was the extent of her kayaking experience.

As the four of us put on our life jackets and organized our snacks and drinks in the boat, Noah and I instructed Katie on a few tips about paddling.

We launched our boats below Remmel Dam and began the easy float down to the Whitewater Park in Malvern. This float is commonly known as Remmel to Rockport.

After hitting a tree and flipping the week before on what I thought was a lazy river float, I learned my lesson and tied everything to the boat.

Having floated Remmel to Rockport many times, I know the river fairly well and didn’t expect to flip.

But I didn’t expect to flip the week before either. As we approached the first set of rapids, I warned Katie that they were coming up. But I also told her they were easy to navigate and not to worry. It was the falls at the end of the float where we need to worry, I told her.

A little more than halfway there are some fun class I rapids that can be avoided if needed. But I wanted to practice my skills. I told Katie and Jacob they didn’t have to follow me, but I wanted to have some fun.

Remmel to Rockport

After successfully making it through the rapids I turned back to see that Jacob and Katie were both going over the rapids. I loved that they were having fun and enjoying the river.

At the end of the float, the Ouachita River gets wide and slow. But you can’t let your guard down because then you come up on the Whitewater Park with the big drop.

As we neared the falls, Noah took off his glasses and put them in his watertight box. He told me he couldn’t see that well, but didn’t want to lose his glasses. He may not be able to make out the best place to go over, but he could follow me.

Well, I led him astray.

The last time I floated Remmel to Rockport as I went over the falls, a whitewater kayaker playing in the surf said, “No! Not there!” That time, I successfully made it without flipping. My sister was with me, and she went a little more to my right.

So on this family kayaking trip, where I was the leader, I decided to go more toward the right or middle of the river. However, I was wrong.

After I flipped and flowed backward down the river, I spotted my boat about half-submerged in the rapids.

I swam hard and was able to grab it. My brother came up to me on his kayak, paddle thrust at me, frantically asking if I was OK and what he needed to do.

“Grab my boat!” I yelled, quickly realizing that was a dumb idea. He couldn’t paddle and drag a boat at the same time.

“Here take the important stuff from my boat,” I said handing him my cell phone and dry bag. I grabbed the handle of his boat with one hand and the handle of my half-sunken boat and told him to paddle us to shore.

I knew I didn’t make it easy for him so I kicked hard to help ease the burden. Then I caught a glimpse of Noah’s purple kayak going swiftly past the take out. My sister-in-law quickly following in her boat.

Jacob was able to haul me and my boat to shore as Katie and Noah quickly moved downstream chasing after his boat. Jacob then took off in his boat to assist them.

Not able to sit still while others needed help, I secured my boat to the bank and dove in the river after them. I finally caught up with them about 100 yards downstream and we were able to get all the boats to shore.

I voted we bail out of the river there and haul the boats up the steep embankment. But Jacob thought we could all walk them back upstream to the boat ramp.

With Jacob in the middle of his boat and Noah’s boat with Noah at the back of his boat and me at the back of Jacob’s boat, we all began walking the boats back upstream.

Katie realized she couldn’t help much and proceeded to paddle upstream.

I will never know how she was able to do that. She must have arms of steal. Not too shabby for a first-time kayaker. I just hope she doesn’t hate it now!

The current proved to be too strong to walk and Noah and I bailed out and swam to the bank, where we climbed the embankment and walked back to where my boat was.

But Jacob pushed on and walked the two boats upstream. In the processes, his river shoes took a beating and split in half by the time he reached the boat ramp.

Back on dry land, we all had a good laugh at our misadventure. Katie promised she had fun and would love to go kayaking again, just without the upstream paddling. I was thrilled all four of us wore our life jackets the entire time. It was a good reminder of how you never know when you find yourself in deep swift water and you should always be prepared for that.

In the end, the only casualty was my hat and Jacob’s shoes.

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