Up in the grey before the sun has really risen, certainly before it’s cleared the tree tops, is an ask. On a day off, even more so.
I’d loaded the Bronco up last night, denying myself any excuse I could use to prevent myself from starting my day on the water.
When searching for my farm, and certainly after adjusting to life out here here, I would often remark that I live forty-five minutes from everything except the James. That, I would say, I can be on in under five minutes without even a stop sign to slow me down.
I am not, historically, a water person. Mountains versus beaches is not even a question that I would need to consider. Mountains all day. Yet, I made a bet when I moved that proximity to the river was enough to offset the distance from literally everything else. That I could find happiness on the water.
This is not the first bet I’ve made on a river, not even the first bet I’ve made on this river. For the last six weeks I’ve been rowing crew, moving from the erg in my home gym to a real boat filled with real people out on real water. From the first time we were out there floating, that I was hooked.
Driving my feet into the stretchers, feeling the oar bite into the water, fluid resisting against effort, leaning back and sending the boat gliding beneath me was a sensation that just struck with a rightness that I’ve experienced shockingly few times. Not mostly right. Not even just right. But all the way right. Natural.
Strong in a way that I never felt strong before.
When the entire boat falls into rhythm, when eight people are catching together, oars moving water with practiced efficiency and the boat is balanced and set and the world is rushing at you from behind? Well, maybe I was a water person after all.
Long legs grant leverage.
Long arms give length.
The rowing stroke takes my usually awkward proportions and turns them into an asset. Paired with months of conditioning and diet, and I am in my best shape since leaving the Army almost twenty years ago. On a boat with seven other rowers, I’m also suddenly in the novel role of being ‘the strong one.’ I’m usually the tall one, sometimes the smart one, occasionally the funny one. But I’ve never been the strong one. Except when rowing.
It’s a good feeling.
Different, yet empowering.
Being on the water, working myself sore, really using my body. From head to toe, embracing what I am physically capable of, using my legs and back and arms to rack up miles, letting my heart propel me.
This morning wasn’t crew, though. This morning was me dragging a kayak out onto the James and paddling west beneath the Cartersville Bridge.
Paddling a kayak and rowing crew are functionally the opposite means of achieving the same thing. You sit in different directions. You leverage completely constrasting muscle groups. Even the mentality of the motion is different. A loaded 8-man crew boat can approach 2000 pounds, while my kayak is barely 60 plus my 210. The impact of currents are worlds apart. I rarely notice rowing upstream. But paddling upstream is a different world. Rowing fast is about optimizing effort and reducing negative habits. Paddling fast is about either working with or overcoming the current. Digging and clawing. There's a realization of fragility there.
But the reason I was out there with the rising sun this morning wasn’t to paddle fast. It was to answer the question – is the river enough?
This morning it was. New and alone, having not paddled a kayak in years, I was learning the river. My new portion of it. There were two other kayakers out fishing ahead of me. It didn’t take me long to get up river and away – a benefit of that new found strength. And then, in the clinging morning mists, with the sun at my back, I was able to pause and reflect.
The river here is dramatically different from where I row. The river’s width is fairly similar, but the depth is more shallow and would be a nightmare for a shell or scull. The nimble nature of a kayak means they can bound easier than the fiberglass of a shell.
The sides of the river are farmland just off the northern bank, and tall rocks and forest up to the edge on the southern. And unlike Richmond, the shorelines aren’t dotted with large houses and private docks. The houses that are there are decidedly more modest, peeking out between the trees. And there aren't docks. They just don't exist.
This morning became water and nature and shoulders. There were a few clouds of bugs, which the birds and fish were making meals of. Swallows and swifts were darting, and I spotted a kingfisher and a large osprey – that one surprised me with its size compared to the Cooper and Redtail hawks that are far more common even a half mile off the river. I guess we get accustomed to the birds we know.
I paddled upstream for an hour, till I could feel the burn, letting my mind alternate between learning and wondering and getting lost. Sometimes letting the boat drift, others getting caught in a current to see if I could claw myself back out. I turned around, teaming up with the James to get back to the launch and my truck. Between the James and the effort, I was a bit damp and probably a bit ripe. I lashed my kayak onto the back of my truck and drove to the general store for coffee.
Not a boat against the current, but with it. And a welcome start at that.