author: Kris Wolpert
It had recently rained enough to bring streams up a bit and that afternoon the river was cresting at 11 feet on the Harrisburg gauge. I was headed towards Duncannon on Route 322 after a trip on Codorus Creek and as I approached Dauphin, with a boat on the roof of the car, I found the river to be irresistible. After quickly arranging a shuttle with a friend, I parked my car in front of the houses at the end of the 322 Eastbound exit for Fort Hunter and got a ride back to Dauphin, where I launched my boat.
While putting-in, I decided to head for the West side of the Narrows where the waves had looked larger and where I would be less visible. Wanting to be less visible might sound rather reckless, especially when boating alone, but with the protective clothing I was wearing (this happened in March) and as a frequent paddling partner said "there isn't much to get pinned on at that level," I had more concern about someone inaptly calling 911 than I had about the river. It would not be the first time that someone, unfamiliar with little boats, misinterpreted intentional Squirt Boat moves as desperate attempts to control a half sunk boat - Ya, I know, many people who are familiar, still scratch their heads in wonderment.
Off on my late afternoon stroll, I headed towards the West side and at that level the water velocity is fast and I had to crank pretty hard to traverse the river before reaching the Narrows. The waves were chaotic and the eddies were few and far between. The eddy lines were juicy; I had a few swallow the boat up to my armpits, while trying to cross them. No problem, all was as expected. Seeing that I had used-up the eddies on my current descent trajectory, I beat a path back to the center of the river, where there were several larger eddies, and managed to get to one of the eddies formed by the trees and rocks located directly downstream of the statue. There I found two muskrats huddled on one of the few visible rocks. They appeared to be a bit frustrated by the more-than-100-thousand-CFS that they found themselves in the middle of.
As I proceeded down from there I continued my return toward the East shore. At higher water levels, the river and things on it are a lot more visible from the highway. I saw a couple cars stop along the road and figured that they had spotted me. The problem at that point was how to wave these people off and let them know I was all-right. Later a friend suggested a radical approach to this problem that involved using a certain single finger - not being that creative at the time, I tried to paddle a little more conservatively (flat and on the surface) and hoped for the best.
In a short time I reached my car; the whole trip took 30 minutes. I changed my clothes, loaded the boat, and headed down the road.
While waiting to make the left turn onto Fishing Creek Road to get back to 322 West, emergency vehicles started to appear in the distance. I waited to make my turn. The first vehicle went by and took the route I was waiting to take. Phewww! The second, with rescue boats in tow, turned into the Fort Hunter Fish Commission Access. OH, CRAP! More emergency vehicles, also with lights and sirens running at full intensity, turned into the Access. At that point I said to myself (I was starting a solo conversation), "Oh well, I guess I better check this out". I changed course and parked at the Fish Commission Access. Another self directed comment emerged, "I'll probably get a ticket for parking here with a un-registered boat on the car."
Rescue people were moving in many directions; some were starting to unsecure the boats; some were pulling on wetsuits, PFD's and other smelly looking river things; some were starting to clear logs that clogged the ramp; and who knows what else. I don't remember how, but I picked-out a rescuer that appeared to have bit of authority and hit him with, "I hate to ask you this, but what are you looking for; I'm afraid it might be me?" He got a puzzled look on his face. As I pointed to my car and the boat on top, which has been mistaken for a surf board numerous times, I explained that I had just come off the river in that trick kayak. I gave him my exact put-on and take-off times and locations. I had purposely checked the times to find out how little time the trip would take. He wasn't 100% sure of who or what they were there to rescue but he had been told a kayaker. He got on the radio to get more details from the dispatcher. Meanwhile, he informed me that a helicopter was on the way to assist with the search. OH, DOUBLE CRAP!!
By this time the whole access area was filled-up with vehicles and people. Rescuers and news media in the lower lot - spectators in the upper lot. Going by the size of the crowd, it was starting to look like not much else was going on that day. The poor guy, who was the only one there when this flurry of activity began, continued fishing right in the middle of this mess. A State Police helicopter showed up and proceeded to fly a search grid over the river. I could hear the radio conversation with the helicopter; that was a little strange. I walked back to my car to get a hat and some spectators asked me what they were looking for. I said, "ME" and more puzzled looks ensued.
Word came back on the radio and it was decided that the description of the supposed victim matched me - my long term fear of someone calling for an unneeded rescue had come true. I spent about 45 minutes there - talking with various rescue people. Some of them did not quite understand my exclamation that I put a lot of time into educating and training myself for kayaking in severe conditions and that the biggest fear I had, associated with kayaking, is that someone else may be injured or worse in an attempt at rescuing me, should I need it or not.
I offered to go back out on the river so that they could come after me and also informed them of the two desperate looking muskrats; I got a mixed reaction. Seriously, I do have a lot of admiration for the people who do this work.
While I was on the river, I was very aware of where I was and the list of items that I had stacked-up in the negative column: I was alone, the water was cold, the water was high, there were very few exposed landing points, the Susquehanna is extremely wide - a swim to shore from the middle would take over a half hour - this would push the limits of the protective clothing I had on, and I cannot do a deep water reentry with that boat. I wasn't very worried about my ability to roll but what if my spray skirt popped off or a shoulder got dislocated?
I TOOK THAT LATE AFTERNOON STROLL VERY SERIOUSLY - AND I ENJOYED IT.
Copyright © 1999 Kris Wolpert. All rights reserved.