When I look back on all the rivers I’ve paddled, I cannot pick of the one that means the most to me. They all have qualities and memories for me that make them unique. The Cheoah was my first class IV experience; Watauga was the first river I learned to understand my limits. Ocoee had the first holes and waves I ever surfed, and the Winnipesaukee was my first river in my new home in the Northeast. While these and other rivers are so distinct and hold different places in my heart, one aspect ties them all together: I ran them all with friends.
The river, to me, is where the friends are. Boating buddies are those at the top of the rapid telling you where the line is and also at the bottom to pick up lost gear if and when you swim (happens at some point). They’re laughing at your flip in the eddy line and cheering at your first combat roll. They hand you beer at the end of an epic day, and share stories over Mexican at the nearest restaurant from the takeout. My memories of every river trip are filled with as much carpooling story-swapping, joking, encouraging, and smiling faces as they are of holes, waves, rocks, and drops.
The rivers I learned kayaking on were in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. From the lower Pigeon in Hartford, NC to Watauga in Elisabethton, Tenn., I gained experience and a few friends each time. By the end of two years, I had gained a network of boaters and hit the river every weekend with them.
Then I moved to Boston for grad school, and suddenly boating was 1,200 miles away. I felt
isolated, and I couldn’t even figure out why. After a month of google searching and e-mailing, I finally hooked up with the Appalachian Mountain Club Boston Chapter, and on Saturday, September 24, I finally hit a New England River. Dan, Will and I paddled the Winnipesaukee, a one-mile stretch that enters into Franklin, NH. Afterward, we celebrated a fun run and beautiful weather with beer and hearty American food at a nearby diner.
The river experience did not end at the takeout. Dan, Will and I swapped stories of our boating teachers, river successes and failures, and everything else we could think of well into the night. That whole time, I could not stop smiling; I had found home again.
Home is where the heart is. My heart is with the paddling community. Boating is not just about the river, but about the people you share the river with. I have paddled two more times up here, and my boating community keeps growing. I still also hear from my friends down South (got a GIANT box of oatmeal cookies as a reminder of one friend), and I know that when I’ll visit them, we won’t have missed a beat back on the river. So when I try to think of which river is my favorite, I have to say it’s the one my friends are paddling, too.