Take me to the river, no wait, drop me off right here

Boys in the wood

Boys in the wood


Saturday was the day. Third straight weekend with waves, and Hurricane Gonzalo made certain this was the best of the lot – south swell, wind straight offshore, gaping overhead barrels. Hatteras, to quote a few of my friends, was epic. Disregarding my promise of abstinence, I found myself in the water, laying on a board, stroking like a madman to get into a wave, and standing up.

Let’s back up. All those things happened, but I wasn’t in Hatteras. Our annual mamping (man camping) trip to the mountains was scheduled back when Gonzalo was just a butterfly flapping through West Africa, and I wasn’t going to let my son down. Even in a year without ridiculous sabatticals, I wouldn’t have blown off mamping.

So I was 250 miles from, and 2000 feet above, the ocean, on a red inflatable paddleboard in the New River near Blacksburg, and I was trying with every fiber of my being to break my vow of surf celibacy. The object of my desire could hardly be considered a wave, more like a stationary tricycle minus the pedals. This wasn’t the Snake River in Wyoming or Germany’s Eisbach, and it definitely wasn’t Hatteras. It was, at best, a shin-high, gurgling burp of river water. And I was as determined to ride it as I’ve ever been with an actual wave.

This is river surfing at its best.

This is river surfing at its best.


I’ll be honest; when I heard we would get an opportunity to surf a river wave, I was jacked. Standing along the riverbank a few minutes paddling out, our guide pointed the wave out to me. It was maybe thirty yards from where we stood, but I still couldn’t see it. “Right there, right past that rock,” he promised. I squinted, lowered my expectations, and saw it.

I wished I hadn’t. Talk about a letdown. The air left my balloon, and my dreams landed with a thud on the rocky bank. Ah, well, at least I’d be surfing.

Paddling into position for this natural, miniature Flow Rider was easy. There was very little current running alongside it, so I was able to sneak up on it from an angle without any struggle. If you can imagine paddling across your front yard and dropping off the curb into the street, you have a good idea of what I was looking at, that is if your yard is flat and your curb stands no more than eight inches in height.

This is river surfing East Coast style.

This is river surfing East Coast style.


Each time I stroked to the spot and leapt to my feet, the swirling current twisted me sideways. The ‘wave’ wasn’t steep enough or tall enough to keep the inflatable pointed upriver, so every attempt resulted in an awkward twist and fail.

After a dozen or so tries, I heard a distant cry that sounded like a call for help. Using my spidey senses, I ascertained that it was a beer calling from the cooler at our camp. No one else seemed to hear it, and I couldn’t in good conscience let the suffering continue. My dream of river surfing shattered, I headed downriver to rescue the poor bottle from captivity.

Thankfully, there was no phone service in the boondocks. I was spared the claims and photos of Hatteras until returning to civilization on Sunday. Better still, the tropics appear to have shot their seasonal load, and the forecast calls for pancakes this weekend. As sad as it sounds, these days a flat weekend is a good weekend.

Hell yes, bring it on!!!

Hell yes, bring it on!!!

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Biggish wednesday, thanks a lot Bertha!

This view is currently for sale by owner, I'm guessing for around $2 mil, if you're interested.

This view is currently for sale by owner, I’m guessing for around $2 mil, if you’re interested.

I’m not freaking out. I don’t have a blood pressure gauge, but my breathing appears mostly normal. Every five minutes or so, my chest tightens ever during inhalation. I have to consciously help the air in, then out. I believe it is my body sensing another overhead set pouring across the nearby cobblestone points.

I’m back in Rhode Island. It’s the middle of the day and I’m sitting on the deck of a rented cottage overlooking a score of tiny sailboats moored in Quonochontaug Pond. A more peaceful setting I cannot fathom. Beyond this visage of harmony lies the Atlantic, where thankfully obscured from my view, the fruits of Hurricane Bertha beckon. All things considered, it’s the biggest test of my year thus far.

Thank you, Drew Todd, for texting me 37 images (no exaggeration) of perfect waves this week.

Thank you, Drew Todd, for texting me 37 images (no exaggeration) of perfect waves this week.

This morning at camp I told myself, Maybe this torture has gone on long enough. Maybe it’s time to put an end to my experiment. I’ve made it seven months; what can I gain from holding out?

I stuck to my guns, not because I thought of some grand reason to abstain but because there wasn’t a big set breaking at the moment camp ended. I turned around and didn’t look back. It’s okay, I tell myself now. It isn’t about me. If not, then who? The kids, think about the kids. This day will stick with them. A milestone.

Do I look stressed out?

Do I look stressed out?

There are the twins, Harry and George. Their sibling rivalry is 10 years old and just getting started. Harry paddles directly outside. The swell is peaking. He sits for 45 minutes and gets a bomb, well over his four-foot head. He rides straight in, but on the drop alone it’s the wave of his life by a mile. George sees it and must compete. He charges out and gets cleaned up by a monster set and washed to the shore. He’s rattled and stewing while Harry beams.

Emily, who two days ago could not stand up on her board, stricken with a teenage growth spurt that has left her as gangly as a newborn fawn, is now outdoing her sister Zoe. She eventually tires of endless whitewater straights and asks to go “kinda outside” to get an unbroken wave. I pull Emily through a procession of waves, spin her around and shove her into a stomach high reform. A nosedive looks imminent, but she finds her feet and ekes out of certain annhilation. Wave of her life. She wants more.

Jackson, every wave he paddles for, his mouth is wide open. When I say wide open, I mean he could fit his fist in it, no problem. Shit, maybe both fists. Let’s just say he makes the dude in Munch’s scream painting look more tight-lipped than a guard at Buckingham Palace.

I yell, “Close your mouth,” as Jackson whizzes by, but his friend assures me, “He does that in every sport.” Maybe so, but in tennis or golf he’s only gonna get a mouthful of air or the odd mosquito, not a gallon of seawater.

Last twenty minutes of camp, after whitewaters all morning, Jackson says, “I wanna go out there.” I love to see this progression, and I point to an instructor to escort him through the shorebreak. Moments later, mouth agape, he’s flying down the face of a head-high plunger. Wave of his life.

Then there’s Xander. Eleven, been coming to camp for three years. Goofyfoot, only goes left. He’s been falling off a lot this week on knee-high closeouts. Not enough time for him to set his stance or set an edge before the wave flop onto the sandbar. First thing this morning, he’s out the back with the thirty other surfers who have descended on Fenway for this “wave event.” An instructor is with him, just to provide a small push and make sure he stays out of everyone’s way. I look up from nearshore whitewater duty, and Xander is tearing down the line on an overhead peeler, going left towards the jetty of course, looking solid and unfazed like a miniature Occy. A dozen more times he’ll repeat this scene. It’s just four-foot Rhode Island, but it may as well be Pipeline.

To the other campers, the other surfers, the instructors, and the parents on the beach, Xander is a legend. He could never surf another day in his life, but the accomplishment of being eleven years old and taming moving mountains will serve him well. Fifty years down the road, his grandkids playing in the shorebreak, he’ll remember this day.

Xander rolls into a beauty and heads for the time of his life.

Xander rolls into a beauty and heads for the time of his life.

As for me, Bertha won’t be the end of my struggle. The tropics are heating up, and others temptresses will come in her wake. Camp is winding down for the year, but this thing is far from over. Doubts are multiplying, and vicarious enjoyment through my students will not be an option. What then?

 
*I’ve changed these kids’ names and thought I should let you know