Physics, As Taught By the River
by Christina Cheung
It’s cold on the river. I’ve never been in a little plastic boat on a moving river before. In a moving river. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a moving river, ever.
It is quiet as we paddle along to the first rapid; part fear, part anticipation, part wonder at the rhythm of paddles sluicing through water.
We pass an outcropping of rock with little inukshuks built all over it.
“Roll for the river gods!” shouts our fearless leader into the stillness.
“You don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” whispers a support paddler beside me.
I do, of course. Mustn’t draw the wrath of the river gods.
It’s cold; a take-your-breath-away-cold, the way Canadian waters are. I’m fully awake now, and feeling like I have an ice cream headache.
This didn’t all begin with the refreshing cold of ice cream. It was much less exciting.
“It’s basic physics really. The nerve action potential is propagated via a carefully orchestrated opening and closing of ion channels, and when we artificially induce this with a shock, we can measure the amplitude, duration, and velocity of that response.”
So says the head tech in the Neuromuscular lab, the chemical smell of a dry erase marker slashing across white. I am surrounded by seventies-era rust-coloured carpet in the back room of a hospital.
One of the techs responsible for training me is telling me my thirty-one year-old self should join her twenty year-old kids in a pool session for the university whitewater kayak club.
I’ve just returned from a month away, caring for my mother, whose life unravelled the moment she lost control of her vehicle. She hung on, but only just, and is now a shell of the spontaneous, adventurous person she once was. She had celebrated her sixtieth birthday a few days before.
Life is short. Why not?
Our first night, we learn how to put a sprayskirt on over the cockpits of our little playboats. This requires grunting and triceps strength I do not possess.
In the months to follow, we practice rolls, leans, paddle strokes. Some learn tricks; fancy loops, stalls, and hand rolls.
There is physics in this, so much of it foreign and counter-intuitive. My nerd self has never known such joy in the physicality of physics; putting all that force and mass to work, teaching your body what vectors feel like.
Months of pool training culminate in a spring trip to the mighty Ottawa River. The last few pool sessions before the trip, my boat is flipped over and my new-found friends grab the stern and bow and shake me around.
“Get ready to feel like you’re in a washing machine. And then, don’t panic.”
The sky is grey, rousing itself from winter, and the air still has the crispness that autumn brings, but with warmer expectations. We’ve paddled a stretch of flat water from the put-in. There is anxious expectancy lacing each paddle stroke.
I’m wearing borrowed gear of varying sizes and colours, like a kid in hand-me-down snow suits.
We find the river gauge. Water’s high. We’ll run the middle channel.
Soon, I see a horizon line and hear the rush of what sounds like a waterfall ahead.
“Eddy out, we’ll hike up to scout.” Our guides make the hand signal, and we copy it for those behind.
So many words I’ve only just learned the meanings to.
The six hour drive to get here was full of lore and lingo, stories from paddling trips past.
There is fiddling with sprayskirts, the familiar thud and scrape of our little clog-shaped boats beaching themselves, the hollow bounce of a paddle being tossed to shore. We hike up to a flat rock ledge and peer at the rapid like a lineup of little kids on a balcony.
Two whorls of churning water: Sattler’s hole and Phil’s hole.
See that bit of green? It’s called a tongue. You want to be on it.
Avoid the holes. DO NOT LOOK AT THEM. Look at where you want to go. You will go where you look.
See that little wave? That’s where we’ll be dropping in. This will look very different when you’re on the water.
Keep paddling. Stop, and you’ll be at the mercy of the rapid.
All my sphincters are contracting. I feel like I might vomit. Or pee. Or everything all at once. I can barely hear what she’s saying the water is so loud.
There is spray misting my face, and I’m time warped back to being eight, looking from a suspension bridge at a raging river, feeling weak in the knees, imagining outcomes of falling into the turmoil of confused water below.
Then I am wondering what I’m doing here, voluntarily about to head into even bigger water, like a rowboat into a storm.
I think I might die.
Physics. It’s all physics. That’s what a line through the rapid is.
As we paddle in, I can’t recognize anything from this vantage point. It’s like I’m in a cauldron and compelled to find that bit of green, silky water to carry me between those holes to safety. I don’t make it that far, because for a split second of terror, there is no part of my paddle in the water, and I’m flipped over.
I’ve never actually been in a washing machine, but I think I have a pretty good idea of what it would feel like to be in one.
I see only bubbles and white, hanging on to my paddle with a death grip, fighting surprisingly powerful current to get into position to roll back up because my lungs are burning and my heart is pounding and I hear nothing but the sound of my own voice in my head telling me, yelling at me, to focus. One attempt, then another, and finally I am upright, blinking the water from my eyes and trying to determine which way is downriver.
It’s carnage, and my fellow newbies are swimming toward their boats, while our support paddlers are paddling around, hauling bobbing people to safety. There are jokes about bootie beers, and pride that our kayak club doesn’t shy away from taking newbies through this rapid like some rival clubs do.
There is a moment where my age becomes glaringly apparent to me, but then, I’m proud too. I just did that, didn’t swim, and didn’t wet my borrowed pants, or vomit.
Tomorrow, I think, I’m going to paddle it without flipping. My heart is pounding in the most exhilarated of ways. I have never felt so alive.
We portage one of the bigger rapids downriver while watching the more experienced of our group run it; a dragon’s tongue, off the ledge. From a distance, three tiny people, standing on a tiny rock while hundreds of gallons of water flow around them, crashing into foamy nothing below. Then three tiny people in tiny boats, coasting over the edge, disappearing into the foam. There is breath held, and a sigh of relief as tiny spots of coloured plastic bob to the surface.
Over the next few days, we run the river several more times, and by round three, I’ve gotten through McCoy’s without flipping over. I’ve surfed a wave, awed by the clear, green-tinged water moving beneath me at alarming speed, while I somehow sat suspended on top of it, floating, flying, magically frictionless while the froth of the wave sloshed behind me.
It does not matter that I’ve spent three nights in a tiny cabin with too many people, smelling of river and wet neoprene and beer.
It does not matter that tomorrow, I resume my role as a physician, testing nerve and muscle, and telling people they have diseases I cannot cure.
On this river, right here, I am fully present, fully alive with all synapses firing, thinking only of the angles and vectors and forces, feeling them, and manipulating them.
If only they taught physics this way.