Summerteeth is slang for someone missing a few pearlies. It also applies to what I did this summer- I cut my teeth in the kayaking world. I was initiated, in a brilliant, exhilarating and harsh way that did indeed involve almost loosing some teeth.
What began in the spring as a road trip with a couple friends exploded into a raw passion for sliding down rivers. To my mom this was a no brainer. When I expressed to her how natural and fabulous it felt to be bounced around by whitewater she just looked at me and said, “Duh, you were always a water baby.”
I have pretended to be a rock climber for about two decades now, and have grunted my way up some pretty stout cliffs, but my true calling has always been to the water. Whether it’s swimming, surfing, diving, sailing – it is my most natural element. So much so that I feel like a klutz at times on land, though I still love to climb and romp in the mountains.
With my jumpstart kayaking trip in May I steadily progressed through the beginner/intermediate reaches of river that were still running during this dry season in a very dry year. I borrowed countless boats, paddles and gear to which I’m so very grateful to the generous and trusting folks who lent it. With the encouragement of people who hardly knew me I made it down some rivers I thought would take at least another year to warm up to. Namely, the Wild and Scenic Tuolumne River.
For days before I was to run this I couldn’t eat. Nerves were getting the better of me. Three of us set off from Meral’s Pool with my mom watching. She had offered to come along and drive shuttle. I’m not sure if she knew what she was in for, but she was game to sleep in the dirt and when we were three hours late to the take out because we grossly underestimated our time to paddle the 18 miles, she had enjoyed her time by chatting with the crane driver who lifts commercial boats from a bridge.
That day was ground breaking for me. Sure I’d had a couple rolls, and a swim through Clavey Falls, but I had made it though and the day was glorious!
The hook sank deeper, this time, piercing my heart.
Three more trips I paddled down the T (as we affectionately call it). The last one ending far less gracefully than the first. A bad move sent me careening upside down over a bouldery drop in a tricky rapid called Sunderland’s. My face plastered against the boulder and I felt like I was getting smashed to pieces in the aftermath.
I forgave my buddies for not telling me about the black eye. I discovered it the next day upon take out. There was enough to think about with a smashed thumb and throbbing front teeth. Within a week the tooth took on a shade of grey, barely noticeable, but to me, screamingly obvious. After putting off the appointment repeatedly, I finally had a root canal and yes, my front tooth was, in fact, very dead.
The color is still off, but there are worse fates I could be stuck with. In some ways I wear it as a badge of effort, courage – proof that I can try something and fail, and try again and nail it. Outcomes could be worse. It’s true people have died kayaking and I have backed down to work on my skills so that I can do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen to me. Reality checks are important. Last I checked in with myself, I wholeheartedly decided it was better to die trying. I talked my mom into understanding the risk and to be at peace knowing how happy paddling makes me.
The Tuolumne river and I have bonded. Along with giving up a bit of my own living body in it, I scattered some of my dad’s ashes to mark the 10th anniversary of his death. What I do on rivers would scare the pants off my old man, but then, almost all of my activities scared him.
Eleven years ago, from a pay phone in Curry Village, I called my dad to tell him I had climbed Yosemite’s greatest monolith, El Capitan. The conversation was short and tense. Later he saw a photo my climbing partner had taken of me, hanging free, far away from the overhanging east face as I jugged up the rope. Then he understood. He said he understood the look and smile on my face and it all made sense why I do it. Surly he would understand now too.