You know it’s a thru-hike – or at this point a thru-paddle – when you wake up in the middle of the night with all your regrets staring you in the face.
The good news is I had absolutely fantastic stars, a halo of milky way, just by looking up and it was warm enough to keep the tarp drawn.
Probably all this was triggered by talking to Eline who made a decision to not hitchhike anymore. She’s come over to the ‘dark side’ of us purists walking it all – roads, horrible mud, poor trail, the works.
To tell the truth, I have not hitched either, although I skipped when the opportunity was presented. So in 1,200 km or so at this point, I’ve missed maybe 40. But I don’t like how it feels. I want to know I’ve managed it all. As we paddle, I wonder if some of the dreariest weather and the places where I fell down are ones that make up for skipping road walking of suburbs?
They’ll have to.
But all this pondering woke up the ugly beast of regrets – going to the wrong college, accepting the wrong job, dating the wrong guy. A very wise friend once told me she never admits she’s made a mistake in this arena, rather she’s made ‘interesting choices.’
Just writing that sentence makes me laugh.
And my grandpa used to say, “Life isn’t long, but it’s wide.” We always have a chance to redeem ourselves, and a thru-hike is an illustration of that fact. Like Eline, I can just decide to change mid-stream how this thing is going to go down.
One thing I don’t regret at all is my choice in paddling partner. It’s four solid days of paddling long stretches of flat water, not just floating, and there are some tough rapids, the hardest today. I am exactly Andrew’s mother’s age. We click as a little team.
The routine is different on the river. Everything loads into water tight barrels which have to be carried up – and down – around four stories above the landing on muddy and then sandy trails to the grassy sand-fly-ridden camp area. Everything is carefully tied into the canoe including a spare paddle and baling pail.
We push off around 7 into the flat coffee-brown water under gray skies. The banks are pocked with holes and creases from higher, faster water and create perfect symmetrical reflections like a Rorschach test. Huge cliffs close in on our lone canoe as we snake along, seeing the river slowly drop into the distance as it works its way towards the Tasman Sea.
I feel so comfortable with Andrew. We talk like family, in a comfortably intimate manner. going for long stretches with no words spoken at all or humming, whistling, maybe bringing up a topic and carrying on for a while.
In a few hours, we hit a set of rapids and I make a bad call sending us over rocks, but they’re small and the drop is nothing, so we just scrape over. Next, we come a bit sideways into the V of bigger rapids, sucked in sideways, bumping and thwacking our way down the waves.
Andrew gets us straight and I hold us steady as we rock forward and finally spit out into the Whanganui’s swirling whirlpools. A little shaky, I ask if those are the biggest rapids. Andrew has been on this river before and gleefully responds, “Hell no! The 50/50 is coming up.”
Fifty-fifty is a monster rapid that spits out half those who try to take her on. There’s a cool campsite and a cave worth seeing, but my heart is already beating fast and I know it’s best to just ‘lean in’ and get through this rapid.
At first I don’t see anything but a rock beach in front of me. The narrow channel that allows the canoe to go forward is far to the left against a flat stone wall. Andrew tells me we have to go straight into it, ignoring our instincts that scream, “Turn!” or we’ll crash into a wall.
It does feel pretty unnatural to intentionally aim yourself into what I now see is a bubbling cauldron of fast water. And perhaps the slow buildup to the precipice emphasizes my terror, like the steady click-click-click as a roller coaster makes it’s first huge ascent.
Andrew is the captain sitting in back and steers the boat directly into the V while I keep my paddle in the water, knees braced on the gunwales from my front row seat, seeing everything happening up close and personal.
The sound rushes at us as we pour in, waves churning backwards that can’t be bumped or thwacked. They’re far too big and simply crash right over me as the canoe pitches headlong into them, soaking me up to the chest.
Boom-splash, boom-splash, boom-splash, thwack, thwack, thwack, fizzzzzzzz. It amazes me the boat is capable of going through as we’re ejected rolling and pitching, the canoe filled with muddy water above our ankles but still upright.
“Stay centered!” I yell, like a life coach as we lumber toward flat water and Andrew begins bailing. In the end, he removes twenty-six gallons of water, but we give each other high fives and laugh at the noisy boiling whitewater we just conquered.
Once we pass Pipiriki, we are out of the park and the land looks more pastorale. But there’s a lonely feeling to it, as though abandoned. No more jet boats or tourists.
But are there more rapids?
You bet, and wilder as one funnels us down a long C-shaped shoot, smashing us into low-hanging tree limbs, fortunately springy and easy to push aside. We drop over hidden rocks and luckily choose the correct sides of two islands as rapids bounce, shudder and shake further and further down the river.
We pass Jerusalem, a convent turned backpacker accommodation with its charming church, dozens of wild goats skirting up the steep hillsides, and finally a cable car that brings guests over the river to the Flying Fox where we decide to camp.
It’s a funky collection of huts, glam tents and a well-stocked camp site on a family’s property amidst fig, lemon, avocado and myriad other trees. I set up the alicoop and take a hot shower in the bush before it starts to pour rain. I’m sending this to you now from a sheet-metal roofed picnic table as comfortable as can be after a very long day paddling.
Reviewing my words from earlier today I realize we all have regrets and things we wished we’d done differently. Before Andrew and I hit the rapids with the fast-approaching tree limbs – I forgot to mention Andrew bailed out another 15 gallons of water from our tippecanoe after that monster – I shared with him the story of my wedding day when my one and only cousin, who I asked to be my maid of honor, got crazy mad at me about something really trivial.
Andrew asked about my wedding as he’s just about to propose to his girlfriend. So much was wonderful that day, but it was hard to ignore my cousin going into a bad space and then taking out her upset on me.
It’s almost 17 years ago and we still don’t talk, mainly because I called her out on her poor behavior and she didn’t like it. But in telling the story to Andrew I felt pretty awful for how I managed it. I don’t think Cheryl behaved well, but I could have chosen to take the high road and diffused the situation rather than take things personally and escalate the situation.
Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference, but it doesn’t serve me well to be ‘right’ and have no relationship with my one and only cousin. So, like Eline saying she is not going to hitchhike anymore on the TA, I think I might change the story I tell and have a little compassion. My cousin didn’t ruin my wedding, she just had a bad day. And we all have bad days. I wouldn’t want someone to hold that against me the rest of my life.
Here’s to facing regrets straight on with honesty and courage – like aiming the canoe into the churning V of the rapids, and being willing to maybe not rewrite, but at least reinterpret the story we tell ourselves. And then moving through the crashing waves that soak us head to toe almost like a baptism, sending us upright, even if a little wobbly, to a renewed sense of our power and goodness.
Til tomorrow’s adventures, good night!