I knew the blue canoe would capsize several seconds before it happened. Its paddler—a scruffy-bearded 60-something—was wide-eyed in the whitewater. He slammed his waxed basswood paddle across the boat, bridging the gunwales. It was a pose that had meaning. To the eyes of seasoned paddlers, adopting it is as good as saying, “I feel in over my head. I’m going to desperately grasp for anything that might feel stable. I’ll be toppling into the water momentarily.”
Scruffy had paddled a good line into Kelly’s Rapid. He followed the Big Guy’s coaching and made an early left turn to avoid careening into a rock wall and overhanging branches.
The wave train that came next was big. Normal fluctuations in water level—in addition to changes in the river bed from flood events—make a rapid different every time you paddle it. In years to come, the size of the wave train at Kelly’s would become more benign. However, at certain river levels in the summer after the Arab Spring, Kelly’s was a roller coaster off the rails. The 100 paddle craft that we already shepherded through had bucked back and forth like mechanical bulls in a spring break beach town. Photos would freeze-frame tandem canoe bow paddlers soaring three feet above the wave troughs below them. Yeehaw!
I was on cleanup duty. My job was to ensure our team got everyone who fell out of their boats back in as safely as possible. We’d practiced the drill a dozen times so far that day.
I sat astride my golden yellow, 16-foot sit-on-top. Today I’ve guided 20,000 miles of adventures from its seat. Deformed by a couple decades of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it’s no longer entirely kayak-shaped. But in 2011, the boat looked spry in its seventh year of service.
Scruffy’s canoe hit the first wave off-axis. He looked unsure of himself. The second wave drove the point home. And by the third, he took the “I surrender!” position and made his upper body rigid. His arms and legs fluttered behind as his left shoulder led the way into the Schuylkill River.
He inverted the boat as he disembarked. It was a clean getaway, though. There were no signs of feet wrapped up in loose lines, no milk jug bailer string lifejacket tangles, and no sandals wedged under the seat. Boat entrapment—my first of three concerns about the swim—wasn’t going to be a problem.
The blue canoe passed me as its paddler performed his tumbling routine. I faced upstream in the calm water behind a rock midway through the rapid. From there, I could track each boat’s progress through the whitewater and enter the current when problems emerged.
A whistle dangled from the corner of my mouth. It was on a lanyard tied to my lifejacket. I had carefully trimmed this leash so I could crane my head all the way left and right, but the lanyard wasn’t long enough to wrap around my neck.
I pressed my lips around the injection molded plastic and issued a single 120-decibel blast. I wanted the Big Guy, everyone around me, and—of course—Scruffy to hear that I was going to work. But, I didn’t want any ambiguity about my message. Two blasts would mean I deemed we didn’t have enough coverage for more rescues and the Big Guy should stop the flow of paddlers. Three blasts would mean I didn’t have enough resources for the rescue at hand and everyone available should come help.
I shoved my bow into the current perpendicular to the flow. I was ready for it to catch, and matched the force of the water with a lean into the turn. I peeled out, then back paddled a couple strokes to match Scruffy’s speed as he bobbed a dozen feet in front of me.
A sing-song chant of “Boat over!” worked through the onlooking crowd. I made eye contact with a volunteer ready to toss a throw rope and shook my head “no.”
My second concern was the possibility of Scruffy getting hit by his own boat. A swamped tandem tripping canoe full of water has half the mass of a Ford Fiesta. If his downstream progress stopped, I didn’t want Scruffy to experience an economy rental car collision at river rapid velocity. However, the blue canoe was moving faster than the swimmer. Scruffy was now upstream of his boat. The possibility of a Fiesta crunch was mitigated. Two concerns down. One to go.
I didn’t see Scruffy’s feet.
Kelly’s Rapid contains angular, cut stones. They’re remnants of an old canal lock. If Scruffy tried to stand up prematurely, his feet could wedge and stick. That could cause injury or—disastrously—drive down and hold his face in the water with the full force of the river.
The Big Guy had given a safety talk that morning—a presentation on what do when things go wrong. His talk has evolved—with the application of new best practices—into the river safety demonstrations my team leads today. The Big Guy shared cues on how to swim defensively in moving water: look downstream, lay back, and keep your feet up!
Complicated instructions don’t work in rescues. Commanding “Don’t stand up!” would be too much for an adrenaline-charged brain to understand. Simple, “do this” commands are the only way to communicate.
I started my own chant.
“Feet… up!…Feet… up!,” I broadcasted in my guide voice. I used the low end of of my vocal register and gave each monosyllable a push from the diaphragm.
It worked. Scruffy’s water shoes broke the surface three or four feet in front of his face. That alleviated my final concern. Phew.
Scruffy, his new blue submarine, and I all cleared the last wave and entered a deep pool.
I greeted Scruffy with a smile. “How’s the water?”
“Refreshing!” he bantered.
I ask Scruffy to hang on the bow of a touring kayak that approached to help while I sorted out his boat.
From afar, the move looked impossible. I effortlessly plucked the 17-foot blue canoe full of water from the Schuylkill and hoisted it across my boat.
There was sleight of hand at play, though. Positioned perpendicular to the swamped canoe, I straddled my kayak with my feet in the water. This lowered my center of gravity and widened my craft’s footprint. I simultaneously rotated the waterlogged canoe and slid it across my cockpit. In effect, I turned the boat around—and clear—of the water it contained. I finished with the boat balanced upside down in my lap. Then—while careful to avoid clocking Scruffy in the head—I rolled his boat forward and slid it back into the water, this time afloat.
I helped Scruffy—who was all smiles—back into his boat. Onlookers clapped, hooted, and cheered for him.
I leaned forward, drove upstream with short, high-torque strokes, and reclaimed my mid-rapid position to prepare for the next rescue.
Five days later, Chester Getty slammed his mug on the dining table. This was unlike my 85-year-old mild-mannered grandpa. “You mean the Port Clinton Peanut Shop?” he challenged, incredulous.
I was telling Grandpa about Kelly’s Rapid and paddling the headwaters of the Schuylkill River, an area of Pennsylvania’s coal country where the flow threads around Appalachian ridges to visit beautiful, humble communities.
Establishments don’t need names there. Places are called “the fire house,” “the dealership,” and “the hotel.” Time moves slowly.
The Peanut Shop, a bumpy-floored maze of glass display cases sells delicious confections. There’s homemade chocolate brittle, every flavor of jelly bean, and—of course—roasted nuts. Like the rest of Port Clinton, it looks exactly as it did last century.
“I’ve been there,” remembered Grandpa. “Many times.” He explained the shop was his carpool rendezvous point. My great-grandfather transported him there in the family’s Model T Ford to meet and ride in another farm family’s Tin Lizzie bound for Williamson Trade School in the Philadelphia suburbs. That was in 1936.
65 years after Grandpa’s last Peanut Shop visit and 8 years before Scruffy’s swim, the Big Guy slid his slim, 6’3” frame into a booth in a strip mall family restaurant. Practical, wire-frame aviator glasses joined his dark, curly beard to dominate his face.
He smiled. As always. The Big Guy had a smile for when he laughed his chest-bouncing baritone giggle; a smile for when he wanted something; and a smile for when he was indulging an explanation of poor decision making. On this day he smiled while listening indulgently.
I was 18 and spending the summer before college working for the Big Guy, guiding and marketing canoe and kayak trips.
We dug into Italian sandwiches as I explained there was no way that capsizing the 26-foot, 10-person big canoe I was guiding could have been avoided.
We were leading a group of coworkers on a team-building trip on the Susquehanna River. During the paddle, I announced from my perch at the stern that we’d reached a good place to swim. Anyone who wanted to cool off could hop in the water. There was one taker. A man slowly leaned over the side of the giant canoe, then dropped into a perfect back-roll entry, like a SCUBA diver splashing in from an inflatable boat. The other eight guests and I counter-balanced his lean, but weren’t ready for the surprise back-roll release. He went in the water to the right. The rest of us went in the water to the left. The boat inverted. To an onlooker, it would be a Buster Keaton routine.
The Big Guy nodded along, but gently corrected, “You could always jump in when that starts to happen.” I instantly knew he was right. The move would have been to hurdle over the side and keep both hands locked on a gunwale. My buoyancy would prevent the boat from leaning toward me and my weight would prevent it from leaning away.
I spent 10 years guiding for the Big Guy. Our expertise was leading giant multi-day river trips—sometimes with as many as 180 boats. We’d finish a couple of week-long trips in Pennsylvania, before going on to New York, and rounding out the season in Virginia. In the insular world of Mid-Atlantic paddlesports, we were rockstars.
Our tour bus? A ’91 24-passenger Blue Bird school bus in outfitter livery. I slept across the 4th row seats for weeks at time; my head on a duffle bag and femur bridging the aisle.
The special forces officer still shivered violently. That was good. It meant his core body temperature hadn’t crashed—yet. His bare hands clutched the tree branch impaled in his right quadricep. He lay on his side on an icy bank, his legs submerged in the Middle Fork Popo Agie River. Wyoming’s snow-swept Wind River Range was a jaw-dropping background. But I had no attention to spare for taking in the scenery.
“Sir, do you have anything in your mouth?” I quizzed.
He opened his mouth and wailed, “Aahhh!!”
“Any loose teeth in there?”
I used my penlight to peek for myself. His airway was free of obstructions.
“Take a couple big, deep breaths—good. Are you breathing OK?”
With gritted teeth, he nodded.
The scenario was designed to challenge my ability to calmly apply a system for assessing and treating a patient’s injuries in the backcountry. It was the 28th day of an intensive Wilderness EMT course in Lander, Wyoming.
The officer was a fellow student. He was acting for my benefit. However, I’m not sure it was difficult to appear convincingly cold when soaked on a 15-degree day.
In my years with the Big Guy, I developed a special interest in wilderness medicine. The satisfaction of learning effective and confidence-inspiring systems, as well as the ability to meaningfully help people appealed to me.
Today, when my team provisions a 125-person, multi-day trip on the Schuylkill, we pack an inventory of 3,000 medical supplies.
We deploy EMKs—expedition medical kits of our own design—in each guide boat. These have everything our team members need to assess, then treat or evacuate sick and injured adventurers on the trips we lead.
We also provision a BFMK—a big… medical kit—in a hard Pelican case. In addition to everything our EMKs have, the BFMK contains the supplies for our curated-over-decades methods of blister treatment. We use medical-grade tree sap, foam tapes, surgical tapes, Kinesiology tapes, and German-made bandage sheers to craft incredible, pain-relieving blister dressings. Many paddlers—myself included—sometimes arrive for a big, multi-day trip with river sandals that haven’t been broken in or with hands that are not yet calloused for the season. I’m proud of the seriousness with which we approach curing the most common source of pain on river trips.
The cry was clear and loud as I returned to camp. “Matt, get your medical kit!”
I was guiding a Schuylkill River trip that had stopped for the night in Port Clinton.
I snatched a big orange waterproof case—the first iteration of what would become the Bad Adventures BFMK—and jogged to a couple dozen people surrounding a woman clutching her face.
“She got stung, Matt! It’s bad.”
I went to work.
“Agnes, do you have anything in your mouth?”
“Mmm… nooo…” she said, muffled by her palms.
“Can you take a couple deep breaths for me?”
She was shaking and I saw tears forming in her eyes.
“Agnes, I need to watch you breathe. Can you take your hands away from your mouth?”
With the flair of a magician’s big reveal, she drew her fingers away, showing off a pair of bright red candy wax lips. The crowd howled with laughter. When my shock wore off, I joined them. The Port Clinton Peanut Shop had struck again.
Schuylkill River trips usually start in Schuylkill Haven, Pennsylvania. The waterway is narrow; a mere 40-feet across with a canopy of trees that envelop us. The river makes small, playful drops. We take care to paddle around upended trees in the water. The Schuylkill twists and turns, shaking away civilization as it departs town.
We reach the slack water behind Auburn Dam in a small, curving valley, cuddled by ridges alive with conifers. The dam was built in the mid-20th century to remove coal silt from the river. Today, it removes paddlers from their boats as we portage.
The river dives back into the woods and winds further into Appalachia. A square culvert bridge channels us to the “The Chutes.” One at a time, we paddle down a two-foot drop with a big splash finish.
Great blue heron and bald eagle usher us to Port Clinton, where the Little Schuylkill River joins the flow. Big box stores and franchise restaurants are nearby on a map, but they’re the last things on our minds in the beautiful surrounding river valley.
We drift through pastoral scenes and under old metal bridges that connect sleepy boroughs via country roads. Before arriving in the industrious city of Reading, like Scruffy, we splash through Kelly’s Rapid.
River trips attract the best of us. More than any other community of people, paddlers are the kind ones; the good ones; the ones whom I feel most proud to be among.
A big river trip on the Schuylkill is special. There’s enough challenge to bind us together. But not too much to prevent welcoming new paddlers into our fold. There’s enough variety and change to make each trip new and unique. I love each and every adventure. Even after seventeen years guiding the Schuylkill.