Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Shenandoah River Adventure (or What I did Last Weekend)

There I was. Squatting down in a carved out log, hurtling down the mighty Shenandoah river. Cliffs to the left of me, boulders to the right. And heading straight into the mouth of a two-and-half-foot precipice, frothing at its jaws like a rabid leopard seal...

No, wait. Hold it a minute. I've gotten way ahead of myself here. You, the uninformed reader might already be scratching your head as to what’s going on. This is precisely the problem with writing an anecdotal post. One never really knows where to start. The writer has to strike just the right balance between establishing the background, and describing the interesting bits. It’s something I could never do. Well, I guess I’ll just start from the beginning.


Having just moved to Washington DC from Raleigh, and by virtue of not knowing anyone in the city, I had precious little to do on the weekend except lounge on a couch in front of the telly. Now ordinarily that would have been a perfectly fine way to spend the weekend, but for the fact that I hadn't got a couch to lounge on. Indeed, things would have been very different if only I had managed to procure myself a couch [1]. But it was not to be. Fate had other plans.

It was late in the afternoon on Thursday, while I was sitting at my office desk contemplating work that Ray came by. "Say, how'd you like to go canoeing?" I must confess he took me somewhat by surprise. I had just returned after a rather satisfying lunch, and was on the brink of an afternoon siesta. "Mmm... err... what?" was the best I could manage under the circumstances. "Canoeing. Down the rapids. Shenandoah river.", Ray elaborated. It turned out that he and his Church buddies had arranged for their annual canoeing trip, but one of them had pulled out at the last moment. There was thus an open slot, which was being offered to me.

I don't know whether it was the headiness from the meal or the sheer ennui, but I heard myself blurting out "Sure, why not". Ray said something to the tune of "Great, catch you tomorrow at four then" and scuttled out the door.

Now I'm sure those of you who know me well would be as shocked at this point as I was. It is a well-known fact that I am not one for the great outdoors, preferring instead to limit my adventures to watching National Geographic on the aforementioned telly. Canoeing! River! Rapids!! What the hell was I thinking? As the gravity of the situation began to sink in, I started feeling distinctively queasy. God! I've got to learn to be less impulsive. Canoeing down a river! Jeez. What will I accede to next? BASE jumping?

I spent most of Friday avoiding human contact. But come four 'o clock Ray was there at my door. "Ready when you are" he pronounced. So I walk up to my boss' office. "Hope it's all right if I leave a little early today. Ray and I are going canoeing." "Oh sure. Go break a leg", he responded. A nasty thing to say, for sure. But I let it go.

We left for Virginia at around 4:30 in the p.m. and to avoid traffic decided to take the scenic route. A good idea, in retrospect. We circumvented the freeway and passed through scattered little villages with lush meadows and inns with quaint names like ‘The Village Idiot’ and ‘River Mermaid’. We crossed the Potomac on a ferry (something you can do only in the summer apparently), and meandered though winding hills. Kind of reminded me of the Western Ghats, although wasn’t quite the same without the smell of monsoon in the air.

We got to the campsite just before sunset and hastily set up our tent. Hastily, of course being a relative term. Venky, in his blog had equated understanding a printer to rocket science. I deem setting up a canvas tent to be quite in the same league. After about 30 minutes, innumerable juxtapositions of rods and strings, and some help from Paul, the pastor from Ray’s church, we had ourselves a glorious, unflappable tent. Taking a moment to marvel at our creation, we proceeded immediately to stuff our respective faces. The conversation at dinner revolved mostly around past camping trips. I did not partake much in the conversation however, choosing instead to marvel at the brilliance of the night sky in the absence of any ambient light. There’s something about stargazing that has always enthralled me, with its hundred billion billion stars, galaxies, pulsars, quasars et al. I did not get carried away though, with the roar of the Shenandoah in the not too distant keeping me in check.

I slept surprisingly soundly. Till about 3 a.m. that is, when I was rudely awoken by what sounded like a freight train passing by. I turned to trace the source of the ghastly din, only to find that a freight train was passing by. And no ordinary train it was either. It had more carriages than Kuan Yin had limbs, I tell you. Just when I was driven to the point of getting up to throw stones at it, the train finally passed. Lucky for the train, I’d say.

The morning brought bright sunshine, blueberry pancakes for breakfast and a sense of impending doom. At about 9 a.m. we trudged off to the river bank, donned our life jackets and set sail.

When I say ‘set sail’, I mean that figuratively, of course. There was no sail to speak of. Only a dingy little boat with two planks across it. I decided to take the front plank, while Ray steered from the back. Being a novice, so to speak, I spent the first few minutes getting the feel of the canoe, and trying hard not to tip it over. Just when I had finally figured out which side I should be facing, Ray decided it was time to take on the rapids.

We let the other, more adventurous folk take the lead. Paul (the pastor) had reassured us that he had his ‘Hail Mary’s ready to baptize anyone who takes a dip. Needless to say, his was the first boat to capsize [2]. When everyone else had gone across (or gone under), we headed for the rapids. The water seemed fairly calm till we were about 10 meters from the fall. Then it seemed to suddenly suck us in. And not in the general direction that we wanted to be heading either. “Get on your knees. Stay down”, Ray hollered from the back. I complied.

So there I was. Squatting down in a carved out log, hurtling down the mighty Shenandoah river. Cliffs to the left of me, boulders to the right. And heading straight into the mouth of a two-and-half-foot precipice, frothing at its jaws like a rabid leopard seal. I waited for my life to flash before my eyes. But there was nothing. Just the one thought -- "Must stay afloat. Must stay afloat." I don’t remember whether I had my eyes closed or not, but the next thing I knew, we were tossed up in the air and planted safely on the other side.

After a slight wobble, I made a quick assessment of my body parts, and was pleasantly surprised to find myself in one piece. HA! That wasn’t so bad after all, was it now? Bring on the next class II rapid. There weren't many more class II rapids though, just a host of pesky class Is. The rest was mostly relatively calm water, with picturesque landscape surrounding it.

For the next ten miles, we rowed and we paddled. At times we teetered. On occasion ran aground on some rocks. Bumped into a floating log. Lost a paddle and cajoled it back. But mostly we rowed. The last two miles were the toughest. By now we had negotiated all the rapids and the river had widened to a slow, shallow bed of river weed. And with the midday sun egging us on, each stroke grew increasingly laborious. But still we rowed. The light brigade would have been proud of us.

At last, after four hours of tireless rowing, we reached the landing post. We eagerly turned in our canoes and looked back at the river with a sore back, aching shoulders, and a triumphant smile. A smile that said I tamed the mighty Shenandoah river (or at least a ten mile stretch of it).

For all my pre-trip apprehension, I was really glad that Ray had brought me on this trip. I can’t remember when I had so much fun since... well, since my trip to Daytona beach earlier in the month.


I know, I know. It is highly unlike a recluse like me to go about frolicking like this (that too twice in the same month). But before anyone insinuates a mid-life crisis (or a one-third-life crisis, as the case may be), let me reassure you that this sudden spurt of activity stems solely from the euphoria of finally getting out of school. Give me a couple of months, and I’ll be back to normal.

1 Some of my less-informed friends often refer to me as a couch potato. I have it from very reliable sources however, that I look less like a potato and more like Bruce Dickinson.

2 In the name of the father, the son, and the holy glug... glug... glug


At August 3, 2006 at 12:30 PM, Blogger Venky said...

J dude - I think that was one of the funniest (toungue-in-cheek funny and not ha-ha funny) blogs I have read ... now I'm not making light of your canoing (coungh coungh) experience - I believe you ... there was no NatGeo here ... but the description was very vivid and ... long - extremely unlike you (except for the times when you describe the finite automata theory ... ad infinitum)
Enjoy reading your blog ... and tell us about your girlfriend!

At August 4, 2006 at 1:46 PM, Blogger Shilpa said...

hey i saw your link from Hafta - so ure new in DC?? apart from guessing you're deeply entrenched in academia (as well as the waters of the shenendoah) i'd be happy to point you to other DC and desi-related activities!!


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