“It’s spinning again.”
“I’m paddling on the right—it’s supposed to be moving left.”
“Well it isn’t.”
And it wasn’t. A full 180 degrees later, the canoe settled out and we began a backwards float downstream. Digging our oars into the water, we re-activated the rotation and were well on our way to forward-facing when another canoe began listing toward us. We braced for the bump, but were caught off guard when we suddenly scraped to a halt. The women in the neighboring raft continued their spin, drifting downstream amidst confused paddle strokes as we waved goodbye from our perch on a riverbed sandbar.
“First things first. Don’t get in a fight. These inflatable canoes don’t have a keel, so when they start drifting or spinning—and trust me, they will—it’s no one’s fault.” The group looked at their respective boat mates and laughed. Five minutes later though, it was clearly the sagest advice we could have received. (Aside from the perennially-wise “For the love of God, don’t forget to put on sunscreen.”)
Moored on the shallow patch of riverbed yards from the launch point, we sunk our paddles into the soft, pebbly sand trying to push ourselves free. No budging. Forgetting I still had on socks beneath my worn sneakers, I squish-stepped through the chilly water to manually heave the raft toward deeper water.
Riding the current once again, winter-white feet propped up on the cooler and freed of sodden sneakers and socks, we assumed a placid float. The morning’s soporific blanket of clouds was rapidly burning away, and I tilted back my head and stretched out my arms to absorb the sun’s warming rays. The sap was clearly rising in other rafts too; a threesome loaded with red and white coolers had already docked on a sandy bank, the boating party spiritedly clinking beer bottles. A short way up the river, a couple’s Labrador puppy paddled furiously from bank to bank barking gleefully at the birds hopping and twittering in the riverside scrub.
Occasionally, a felled branch or overhanging tree necessitated a swirl of paddle maneuvering—though rarely did our efforts save us from collision. Once caught in the tangle, our fevered strokes were little match against the mud-green current surging against the raft and pushing us further into the welter. Skin scraped, voices laced with the faintest note of irritation (each of us sure the other’s paddling was to blame), but the raft still upright, we eventually floated on.
In a wide lazy stretch, I hung my legs over the raft and let the tips of my toes graze the cool water. A sunning turtle dropped with a soft plip! into the still water, and a dragonfly alighted on the bow of the raft; an entomic figurehead. Clouds of gnats swarmed silently in the riverbed shadows. Bellies full and limbs sun-jellied after lunch stretched out on a warm, pebbly slope, we strapped on life vests and took turns bobbing downstream in our skivvies and sneakers.
Mid-afternoon, when our boat had bumped, spun, and floated its way to the appointed landmark—a big rock jutting from the center of the river—we welcomed the chance to come to a brief berth against a gnarled branch twisting out of the water. The rock was our signal to phone the boating company and let them know of our impending arrival to the pick-up point. Instead, we wedged our raft tighter under the branch, pulled out a container of strawberries from our cooler, and lazed a little longer watching nothing in particular… a crane dipping its slender white head into the water, a hovering dragonfly…
Russian River Adventures in Healdsburg offers self-guided half- and full-day trips ($45 and $65 per person, respectively) in their SOAR inflatable canoes. Whether you take the half- or the full-day trip, the company will pick you up at a designated location and drive you back to their parking lot to pick up your car. Make reservations online, or call 707.433.5599.
Pack a picnic, bring the dog, and relax with a day of [mostly] easy paddling. And remember—when the boat starts drifting, just go with it.