Sunday, April 27, 2008

Half Baked on the Suncook

Three weeks ago we still had several feet of snow, but it was melting. The rivers were running high and fast, and it looked like it was going to last for a while. The email came along from my friend Rick. The message was simple and direct:

Awaken explorers of the northeast: How about April 26th … for a trip down the Suncook from Pittsfield to Webster Park in Epsom.

Not owning a canoe myself, it took me a bit of networking, but pretty soon I had secured a watercraft and set aside the time on my calendar. I was really looking forward to it. When the water is running high the Suncook river has some very nice stretches of whitewater. These are places where most of the year the river picks its way through piles of rocks, but with the spring snowmelt (or several days of heavy rain) the water flows strongly over top with lots of lovely haystacks, hydraulics, and ledge drops to play in. I was looking forward to resurrecting some of my old whitewater skills, and adding some new ones.

Who knew we would have three weeks of almost record breaking warm and dry weather? Especially after the winter from which we have just emerged? The snow melted fast. So fast, in fact, that when Rick did a little scouting on Friday he found that the water levels had dropped so much that we couldn’t do the run we had planned. It would have meant carrying the canoes over the rocks for some pretty significant stretches. But, the time had been set aside on the calendar, the boats had been cleaned up and prepped, the gear hauled out of storage, and most of all, the river was still there. We simply shifted the focus of our trip. We moved our route north, putting in at Center Barnstead and taking out in Pittsfield. It was no longer about whitewater, but instead, it was about a couple of guys hanging out on the river on a beautiful spring day. We were OK with that.

So we met about 10:30 at Rick’s house. It was Rick, Ken (a neighbor whom I already knew), Dave (who I had met on a 4 day trip St. Croix River in Maine two years ago), and Don (a new acquaintance from town). Between us were 2 canoes and 3 kayaks. I switched at the last minute, and opted for a 14 foot flatwater kayak. I am well accustomed to the canoe. I generally prefer it as a very utilitarian craft that is very flexible in use. I prefer a river canoe with no keel so that it is more maneuverable in tight spaces and shallow water. Even so, I thought this might be a good opportunity to get some kayak experience, so when the kayak was offered, I took advantage of it.

After some time spent managing the logistics of boat hauling and car shuttling we finally found ourselves on the river just before noon. The day was bright and warm with a fulsome blue sky and a light breeze backing around from the east, an indicator of some less clement weather heading for us the next day. We took our time working our way down the river. We would occasionally clump together to converse, then when the thread of conversation grew thin, the group would break apart. There were side forays into inlets and much conversation about various landmarks and terrain. The river meanders (as rivers tend to do in hilly New Hampshire) right through our hometown, but for most of us, this was the first time we had seen these places from the riverine viewpoint. For most of our route we shadowed the old railbed for the old Blueberry Express, the informal name for the Suncook Valley Railroad, that ran from Hooksett to Center Barnstead between 1869 and 1952.

We passed by one particularly fascinating lakefront property, full of all manner of water toys including a zip line over the river, and a floating motorized picnic table. Obviously these people know how to really enjoy a river, not just look at it.

Upon reaching the Valley Dam, just east of the Barnstead Parade (so called as it is the parade ground where militia would drill during the days of the revolution) we carried the boats around. It was here that my choice of kayak would come to haunt me. Although Don had given me some basic instruction on the proper method of entering and exiting a kayak, I had only paid minimal attention. I had been distracted by some sunning turtles, and so reached the put-in after the others had already gotten out an walked across to scout the river below the dam. I’m used to a canoe, where all that is required to exit the craft is a little care, but no acrobatics. With a kayak, it is not so much that you ride in it, as that you wear it. Remembering that Don suggested that the method involves sitting up on the top of the shell, and then stepping off, that is what I started doing. Apparently his entire lecture on using the paddle for stablilization was completely lost on me.

It is a fascinating thing – the difference it makes when the center of gravity of a small watercraft is shifted upward just a few inches.

If someone had been there to see it, I’m sure that they would have enjoyed it. By the time I did manage to make it to shore, my right arm was soaked to above the elbow, and both feet. My right leg was dampened well up may thigh. It was good for a laugh and I did chuckle heartily. Even so, it was a lovely warm day, I was wearing synthetics that I knew would dry quickly, and there as no harm done. A few minutes additional instruction, this time including a demonstration rather than just a lecture, turned the whole event into a valuable lesson.

We spent a few minutes playing around in the riffles below the dam. Dave demonstrated his poling technique, using his 11 foot pole to maneuver his canoe up and around the rocks and rapids. I found this powerfully inspiring. The sight of a man STANDING up in a canoe, calmly and purposefully making his way through the water is rousing to the spirit. It was just so manly that I had to admire the skill, and I purposed there and then that I will make just such a pole and some down here to practice myself. Poling is a skill that few own these days, but it just so reeks of that certain Maine Guide coolness that I would love to obtain it, if not master it.

The section below the dam contained a few more riffles and rocks, but nothing major. We continued along without major incident until about a half mile from our take out location.

Coming around a bend we heard the distinct sound of voices and the clanking of metal on metal –someone was having a party and horseshoes were involved. As we got closer, we were spotted by the group. It was a sizeable group, maybe 20 people, in a backyard high up on a bank above the river. As soon as they spotted us, the cry went up. “Hey Heidi! Canoers! Invite them in!” Then a woman’s voice, “Hey, come on up. We’ve got hard cider! And Beer. And food! Come on up. You are welcome to join us!”

It didn’t take us too very long to decide that we should take these nice people up on their invitation. I managed to extract myself from the kayak, this time without mishap, and we clambered up the steep river bank to be met at the top by Karl, who was distinctive for two reasons. First, he has a magnificent moustache, bordering on mutton chops. Second, he held in his hands a wine bottle that was full of home made hard apple cider.

By way of background, you should know that I am extraordinarily fond of cider. I really enjoy a well crafted beer, but I love cider. It is available bottled, but you have to look for it. One of my favorite brewpubs, The Great Dane, in Madison WI offers a very fine dry cider. They have exceptional beer, but I will often pass up the brew for the cider and be glad I did. I have been considering fermenting my own cider for a few years, but haven’t made the leap yet.

It seems that the owners of the house are friends with the owner of a local orchard. Last fall, someone paid the orchard to store a 50 gallon barrel of fermenting cider. The cider has been ready for some time, but the owner of the barrel failed to claim it. What do you do with 50 gallons of hard cider? Why, find someone to drink it, of course! Hence the party and warm hospitality for happy voyageurs. The cider had been decanted into various vessels including a number of used wine bottles and plastic jugs that were sitting in iced tubs. Heidi, the hostess, would walk around with a pitcher to fill the cups while others ate and talked or played horeshoes, or called surprised boaters in with their siren song.

Did I mention that I have a particular fondness for cider? It didn’t take me long to take charge of a wine bottle full. It was quite good, not very sweet, but without the tartness of some bottled ciders – especially those made with granny smith apples. It was a lovely clear honey gold color and went down smooth and easy. This was where my second adventure of the day began to take shape.

Cider does indeed go down easy. This particular cider, being essentially home brewed, did not have a controlled alcohol content. And, I had not stopped to think, before partaking of a generous portion, that I had not eaten since 10:00 that morning. It was now some 5 hours later, and I was hungry and thirsty. Before I noticed, I had drained most of that bottle myself in a space of about 15 minutes.

The food was just coming out at that point. I was enjoying myself immensely simply because the whole chain of events was so wonderfully improbable. A few minutes after draining the last of the bottle, however, I turned my head to look over at the horseshoe players, and noticed a funny thing. When I turned my head, the earth also turned, but in the other direction. This rather unusual sensation took my attention immediately. Then I noticed that any sudden movement created a subtle but very noticeable effect upon my equilibrium. I suddenly realized, with a chuckle, and a little bit of embarrassment, that I was drunk.

Now, I have never really been drunk. Once about 20 years ago I had a small chain of margaritas that left me feeling very happy and talkative, but I don’t recall any effects on my balance. In general, I am pretty careful about my drinking. I enjoy the cup, but take care not to over indulge as a matter of principle. Now, realizing that I had done a rather foolish thing, I immediately tucked into the food. Chips, salsa, cheese, pretzels, venison kabobs (hoorah!), beans and franks. I hoped that food might slow down the absorption rate, but it really was too late at that point. The stuff had already reached my brain and done its work. The whole thing was pretty funny, and between mouthfuls of good food, I had to chuckle to myself.

At one point, Rick asked my why I was chuckling, so I explained my predicament. He gave me that special look that can only come from a friend – half rolled eyes, half amused grin, and half “you-big-dope” appraisal. He forbade me to get back into the kayak. I averred as how I was fine to make the half mile paddle down to the take out. He expressed firm and unyielding disagreement. “If you roll over and you are like this….no. You are walking.”

We sat around eating and talking for a while longer and then bid our hosts good bye. They offered some more cider to take with – they had 50 gallons to get rid of. I gratefully accepted another bottle, which I stowed in my pack and carried with me while I walked (somewhat unsteadily) the half mile or so down to the boat launch, chuckling all the way at my naivete and unguarded stupidity. Even so, I did not chide myself overmuch. The day was beautiful. The hospitality well meant. The friends were good and understanding, and while I was a little foolish, I did not go so far as to get downright obnoxious (at least, I don't THINK I was). In fact, on the ride home, I apologized, and my comrades were gracious enough to not tell me what an ass I was. Several expressed that they were glad I had “enjoyed” myself. They were probably lying, but it was kind of them to lie that way. Either way, we all had a good laugh over it. And best of all, I have fond memories of a most excellent day, new friends, and another bottle of the most lovely apple cider stored in my refrigerator waiting for another, more temperate, day.

I was not allowed to drive home – a decision I had made shortly after the earth began moving on it’s own accord. I walked through the door, and my lovely bride greeted me with the customary “How did it go?” I responded with what might possibly be the last thing she ever expected from my mouth. “Good…I’m a little drunk actually.”

All in all…I’d say it was a pretty good day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, a most excellent day! May this summer bring many more!