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Taming the Beast


by sir_serene

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We sat in an awkward silence for a moment, until Leah continued.

      “Well, there’s nothing specific about you, per se, but yes, I would like to interview you,” the Chia said. “How about we start with your name?”

      “Uh, Nate Johnson,” I told her. I still didn’t understand why anyone would want to hear my story. I stared at her awkwardly until she continued.

     We stared at each other awkwardly before she continued.

     “Listen, have you ever read my work? Never mind, it doesn’t matter. The point is, I can only interview the members of Tyrannia’s Yooyuball team so many times until everyone stops paying attention. Or before I want to quit my job. So I was hoping to write a piece on Camp Tyr.” She tugged on the strap of her brown bag, almost nervously. “I thought an exposé about this neighbourhood could be really eye-opening. And of course, feature some of the athletes who live here,” she added quickly.

      “Athletes?”

      “Yes, the brave Neopians who are out pushing the boundaries in their, uh, outdoor sports,” she said with a puffed-out chest.

      “And you wanted to talk to me?”

      “Of course, that’s why I’m here, silly.” She laughed at her own comment and then smiled, but it all seemed a bit forced. “You do realize that to most normal Neopians, the idea of climbing a rock wall, barrelling down a mountain on a bike, or strapping themselves into a tiny plastic tube and paddling down rock-infested rivers and over massive waterfalls is an extremely alien concept, right?”

      Her words stung a little. “But why me?” There were many more accomplished athletes, kayakers even, living in Camp Tyr that she could interview. Many with far more experience than I had. Why not talk to one of them? Someone like Eva, whose kayak cut through the river like a surgeon’s scalpel, precise and clean.

      “Oh that’s easy. You’re the first person who answered their door..” She said confidently, evidently proud with how well she had answered my question she continued, “Hopefully I can get your perspective on the community of Camp Tyr.”

      “My perspective? I’m sorry this is just a lot to take in.” I poked my head out of my door and looked around. “You’re telling me that I am the only one who answered their door? How many houses have you visited?”

     The Chia’s confident face slowly faded and was replaced with one of annoyance. She rubbed her temples and took a deep breath before answering. “Okay, I’ll be straight with you. You're the first person I have visited. Word amongst the postmen around here, is that you seem to be the most open about talking to folks who are not from Camp Tyr. Sure, some may call it an abuse of my contacts as a Neopian Times writer to get your address,” she admitted, surprisingly nonchalantly. “But it’s not my fault that Post Office workers can be bribed with a fresh batch of Hutcakes. What’s important is that I am here,I would like to interview you about Camp Tyr, and we look awkward standing in your doorway. So why don’t you just go ahead and invite me in and we’ll chat. I’ll be happy to answer any questions you still have, as long as you're willing to answer some of mine as well.”

      I was suddenly aware of how long we’d stood half-in, half-out of my hut and her request didn’t seem unreasonable. I raised a hand and gestured her in.

     “Your house is certainly, uh, charming.” Leah said. The Chia’s voice trailed off as she looked around. I suspected she was not only inspecting my house, but me as a person.

     I sat back down at my table and moved my mother’s letter out of view. “Please, have a seat. What exactly would you like to know?”

     Leah looked around the room once more, gestured to my kayak, and said, “I see that you’re into whitewater canoeing. Is that why you moved to Camp Tyr?”

      “That’s a kayak,” I replied, already annoyed. “But yes I am a whitewater paddler.”

      “Mild Burnumup, Hot Burnumup - what’s the difference,” I heard Leah mutter as she sat next to me. She carefully opened her bag and meticulously placed a notebook on the table. After adjusting it to be in the perfect spot, she pushed her glasses closer to her face, looked at me, and clicked her pen. “So as a… kayaker,” she said, gesturing towards my boat again. “Why don’t we start with the reason a bunch of whitewater enthusiasts have flocked to Tyrannia. Why is it so popular for your lot?”

      I sat up straight in my seat. “There’s probably a few reasons. The Jade River Narrows might be one of the biggest draws in the area. The most obvious would be how close it is to Camp, which was already established by rock climbers years before anyone even paddled the Narrows. It’s also only three miles long. So kayakers who are trying to step up to more extreme runs can take their time and scout each rapid on the way down, while boaters who know it well can make it down pretty quick. Sometimes we’ll even run multiple laps on it in a single day. The biggest reason is that it runs everyday.”

      “What do you mean by that? Don’t rivers always have water?” Leah asked, looking up from her notepads.

     “Yes, but since most whitewater rivers are in the mountains. We typically have to wait for the right time of year or for recent rains to fill them up with enough water for us to get our boats down. The Jade River is a rare case. Since it forms from snowmelt near the base of Terror Mountain, and the Narrows are channelized to well, there is almost always enough water in the river to be navigable. Luckily, we’re so deep in the Tyrannian Jungle, the water’s much warmer than most mountain rivers.”

      “Interesting, I would have never thought about that, but that does make sense.” Leah nodded as she scribbled the last of the sentence she was working on. I was impressed at the speed in which she took notes. “Now you. When you and your friends aren’t eating your fill at the Giant Omelette, for free I might add, why do you paddle whitewater? Doesn’t it seem unnecessarily dangerous?”

      I had anticipated this question, or at least some version of it. Maybe without all the rude pretext, which I chose to ignore. I had been asked this very question many times before, and yet, I still felt caught off guard by it. Not just because of the judgemental tone she took when asking. She just didn’t understand. "I mean, isn't there an inherent risk in just living life? What makes our sport beautiful is that it exposes our weaknesses. The river can't be lied to. It doesn't just require our respect but demands it. We're forced to learn to coexist with a force much greater than ourselves and learn lessons about fear, hubris, and complacency. There's an intense sense of fellowship in our community; we're all brothers and sisters. It doesn't matter where we were born, how old we are, or if we even know each other. Once on the river, we are all putting our lives in each other's hands and we forge a sense of kinship through shared adversity, triumph, and unfortunately sometimes heartbreak. But these are just the basic building blocks of what it means to live- and it makes us better versions of ourselves."

      “Ah, friendship and whatnot.” Leah said nonchalantly as she absentmindedly scribbled something in her notebook. I didn't like the tone of the interview, so far. “Doesn’t it get boring to paddle the same river every day though?”

      “Not at all! There are so many different moves to be made on a river, and new lines open up at different water levels. Sometimes the water is higher and the water gets pushier, sometimes it’s low and you’re forced to make precise movements to avoid the rocks. As the level changes, the features change - some features wash out, some get worse. A hole that could be good for surfing one day, might be totally washed out the next time you visit.”

      “Are there really holes in the river?” Her tone was less dismissive when she asked this. Though I couldn’t tell if she was genuinely interested or just satisfying her journalistic curiosity.

      “That’s just what we call hydraulics. When a change in the river bed causes the river to fold back upstream on itself, the water forms a hydraulic and recirculates upstream. Some holes on the Narrows can be extremely sticky.”

      “So it’s best to avoid them at all costs?”

      “Sometimes." It had never occurred to me how difficult explaining whitewater to non-paddlers could be. Only now did I realize how counterintuitive our sport was. “There are some that you definitely want to avoid, but others aren’t as bad. Like I said, surfing is a big part of our sport, both waves and holes. Holes are more retentive so you can do different things with them, even tricks. Then there are holes that are just downright unavoidable. So you either have to paddle hard and punch through them. Or boof them”

      “I’m sorry. Boof?” She asked as she cracked her knuckles. “What is boof?”

      I knew I sounded like a lunatic to her, but to her credit, she showed no signs of laughing, at least not outwardly. “So when we paddle through a hole or over a ledge, the bows of our kayaks will plug the water below, submerging for a split second before resurfacing. Since, it’s a lot more stable if we can keep the bows of our boats dry, we boof these features so we can maintain control.” The look on her face made it painfully obvious that she still had no idea what I was talking about. “Okay, imagine I paddle my kayak straight off of a ten foot waterfall. My boat is going to dive vertically into the water below like a pencil.” I used paw gestures as a visual, to which she nodded. “But if we take a paddle stroke at the right time, and lean forward, we can manipulate our kayaks to land flat, or near flat, in the water below.” I clapped my paws together. “This makes a loud ‘boof’ sound. So we call it boofing. Of course there’s times you don’t want to boof. Like when-”

      “That’s okay, I think I get it.” Leah quickly drew a rough sketch of what I had been using my paws to illustrate. “Don’t you ever get scared out there though? Like what do you do if you flip? Do you sink?”

     “I’ve witnessed a couple of close calls on the river. Anytime someone is stuck in a dangerous situation, it can be scary. Flipping isn’t really scary though, we usually just roll back up. And if not we just pull the spraydecks off our cockpits and get out. ‘Everyone is between is swims,’ is a common saying we have.” I could feel Leah’s eyes studying me from behind her glasses as I spoke. Judgemental eyes. “Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times I feel anxious. Even though we all take safety very seriously, sometimes when I’m paddling something new or there’s more water than I’m used to, I get anxious. I’d say typically though, we all try to make smart decisions and not push beyond our own limits.”

      Leah’s pen stopped. She tried to hide her impish grin, unsuccessfully. “It’s interesting you would say that. Would you say that the citizens of Camp Tyr, as a collective, tend to make smart decisions?”

      “I guess so,” I replied cautiously. “I can’t really speak for the other communities though.”

      “Okay. Well let’s just focus more specifically on you then. What do you do with your life, other than this dangerous activity you love so much?”

      I scratched the back of my neck as I answered, “I haven’t done much for the past couple of years other than kayaking.”

      “You don’t have a job?”

      I shook my head uncomfortably.

      “How do you earn Neopoints to live then?”

      “Uh, my mom sends me some, every now and then.”

      “So you just live your life frivolously, eating your fill of the Giant Omelette, and expecting the rest of society to provide for you? So, the citizens of Camp Tyr really don’t tend to hold jobs then?” She scribbled furiously in her pad.

      I hung my head and shrugged. “Again, I can’t speak for anyone else. Though, I guess lately, I have felt like I am stuck in a rut. Maybe I am waiting for a sign. Something to push me forward?”

      “I don’t care about that. You can discuss it with a therapist. What I want to know is why you, and the rest of the citizens of Camp Tyr, think you can live off of the hard work of the rest of us. You can’t tell me you take pride in your lifestyle. What does your family think of your life?”

      My face felt hot as I pounded my fist against my table. I knocked my chair over as I stood up. “I think you should leave.”

      “Don’t want to talk about your family?”

      “No, I don’t. Not with you,” I shouted. I stormed to the front door and threw it open. “Now, get out!”

      Leah scrambled to gather her things. She was haphazardly throwing them all into her bag. To my shock, she didn’t seem embarrassed. In fact, she seemed content with how our conversation went. The table that had been covered in her notebooks and pens, was now empty. Save for my mother’s letter. I had to stop her, when she reached for it.

      “That’s mine.”

      “Right. Of course,” she said as she made her way to the door. With a wry smile, she continued, “This interview has been most enlightening. Thank you for talking to me on the record.”

      I slammed the door behind her and paced around for a moment to cool down. Once my heart stopped racing, I picked my chair up and grabbed my mother’s letter. I stared at it for a minute. I thought the Wishing Well Stamp was inside. At that moment I made a decision. I was going to make a change, but I needed the help of my friends to do so. So I threw the letter back on the table and grabbed my keys.

     I needed to speak to Eva. Rusty would surely be on board, but I had to try to convince that stubborn Usul that she was wrong.

     

* * * * *

      “You’re late, you buffoon,” Eva shouted while she tapped her foot on the ground. Her ears were pinned back so I knew she was frustrated.

      “Give the guy a break. He clearly didn’t get any sleep last night,” Rusty said calmly. Before I could thank him he added, “I mean look at him. He looks awful!” A toothy smile formed on the yellow Wocky’s face while Eva failed to hide a smirk behind her paw.

      “Are you ready at least?” she asked as we made our way to the put-in with our kayaks slung over our shoulders. Mine felt heavier than normal today.

      “I think so.”

      “You got this dude,” Rusty said. His tone sounded less confident than I would have liked. “Besides, Eva has called in a few favours, we are going to have the sickest safety crew set up. If something goes wrong, we’ve got your back.”

      I couldn’t help but smile. My friends had really pulled through for me and I was really glad that both of them were there. Eva had been surprisingly accepting of my idea of paddling the Beast. I was certain it would have taken longer to get her on board. I could tell that they were trying to give me space to mentally prepare myself. It was the first time in a year that we walked in relative silence to the put-in.

      I was thankful that the put-in was empty. I didn’t want anyone around trying to convince me that what I was about to attempt was impossible. It took me months to convince myself that it wasn’t, and I didn’t want to have any doubt moving forward. Eva and Rusty both geared up in a flash, but I decided to take my time. I pulled my spraydeck up and around my waist as I looked down at the river. The clear water gave off an emerald shine, the force of the river below disguised by only a few ripples here at the put-in. I pulled my life jacket over my head and carefully tightened each strap on it. I climbed into my kayak and twisted my back with my arms behind my head to stretch out my back muscles. I watched as the water lapped at the bank of the river and matched my breathing to the ebb and flow of the river. I double-checked the strap on my helmet then pulled my neoprene spraydeck out and over the cockpit of my kayak. If I were to flip, the waterproof material would prevent my boat from filling with water, allowing me precious time to set up and roll my boat back up.

     Before pushing away from the shore I closed his eyes and took in the smell of the river once more. I was always calmed by the algae scent that accompanied the rushing waters. I opened my eyes and recited my customary greeting to the river, “No one ever truly conquers the river, but are merely allowed to pass through. Please allow us that courtesy today.” After one more deep breath, I opened my eyes and pushed out and into the current.

      We used the start of the run to quickly warm up before the gauntlet of hair-raising rapids that lurked downstream. The water at the put-in was shallow and mostly flat, save for a few ripples. As we rounded the first bend the ripples morphed into small waves and pillows of water began to form over the tops of rocks. We drove our boats up and over the pillows to catch a brief moment of air time before landing back in the water. We found our rhythm as the river began picking up speed. The walls of the river soon stretched towards the sky and constricted in on each other. The waves grew bigger as the water deepened. Before long we found our way at the start of Chaos, our first major rapid.

      I signalled to the others that I would take the lead before I paddled into the frothy maw of the long rapid. I dug my paddle deep with every stroke, navigating my way through the crashing waves. Halfway down the rapid I veered left and aimed for the shoulder of a large pourover hole. I drove my kayak out of the water and slid down a slanted rock and into an eddy below.

     Downstream I could see a horizon line that let paddlers know they had reached Bearog Falls, a ten-foot-tall double drop with a munchy hole at the bottom. Rusty landed in the eddy next to me and shouted, “Eva chose to stay on the river right through the bottom of Chaos.” I could barely hear him over the crashing river. We watched as she made her way to the lip of the double drop and quickly vanished. “Do you wanna follow or sweep?” I motioned to Rusty for him to go ahead, and soon he disappeared over the edge of the drop too.

     After giving Rusty enough time to clear the landing, I peeled out of the eddy. With a few deep paddle strokes, and the help of the main current, I picked up enough speed. I leaned far to the right as I reached the edge. A swift pull of my paddle blade and I was at the bottom for the first drop. I had entered too far to the left, and quickly spilled over the second ledge right where the hydraulic had the most strength. I sat up. Leaning downstream, I braced my paddle blade against the water. Small sweep strokes and aggressive hip thrusts allowed me to fight the hole. It fought back. It pulled me back in. I dug my paddle deeper below the surface of the water, searching for any downstream current I could find. The hole didn’t let up. It knocked me around. I felt my head sinking closer to the river’s surface as my brace became more aggressive. Before my right shoulder sank underwater, I found the current I was looking for. Small adjustments to my paddle and even more aggressive hip thrusts, and I felt my boat dislodge from the recirculating water. I was too off balance and flipped.

     Water whipped around my ears. It was deafening. It knocked me around. Blind and disoriented I leaned forward. I needed to get set up to roll back up. My helmeted head bounced off a rock. The river tried to steal my paddle. I fought to keep it. Water slammed into me from all sides. I swept my blade along the surface and snapped my hips. My boat rolled over first, followed by my body, and last my head resurfaced. My lungs ached as they tried to fill back with oxygen even though I had only been underwater a second or two. I looked at Eva and Rusty. I tapped the top of my helmet with an upside-down fist, the paddling signal for, “I’m okay”.

     I continued to float past the eddy they were in. I didn’t want to give them an opportunity to convince me to walk the Beast, and try to paddle it on a different day. I was ready. Still. I worked with the current to glide over the next few holes and cut through the waves. When we reached the next major test, The Juicer, I paused to clear my head. I couldn’t afford to take it for granted. The Juicer crashed down two massive ledges, threading between tight boulders at the bottom. On almost any other river, it would probably be a mandatory portage. Bearog Falls was a powerful rapid. The Juicer was dangerous. I rolled my lips as I paddled for the entry ledge. A late, left-hand boof stroke pushed me far to the right of the hole immediately downstream. I leaned forward and punched through that hole. With a quick draw stroke, followed by a reverse sweep stroke I turned my boat, found the tight channel I was aiming for, picked up more speed, and boofed again. I landed in the small target between massive boulders and lifted my arms so my paddle wouldn’t get stuck as I floated through them.

      I pulled over to the gravel shore to the left, got out of my kayak, threw rope in hand, and I scrambled up to the top of one of the massive boulders forming the Juicer. A quick signal to Eva and Rusty let them know that I was ready to run safely as they ran the rapid. Eva would not be thrilled that I had run such a stout rapid so cavalierly, without one of them ready to throw me a rope if I needed it.

      We picked up a nice groove after The Juicer. We smashed waves and plopped over ledges as we continued our descent. Rusty took a little time surfing a wave at the bottom of Pinball Rock. Eva and I waited. I wanted to save my energy for the test below. Eva wanted to stay fresh in case something went wrong.

      It took us almost an hour to reach the top of the Beast. We could see the steep horizon line where the bottom of the river fell out. Eva wasted no time beaching her kayak and getting her rope ready. I heard her yelling at Rusty, but didn’t hear what she had told him. My focus was on the horizon line. The world seemed to shrink around it.

      “Nate are you there?” I looked away from the lip of the Falls. Rusty was getting out of his boat. Eva has gone ahead to get ready and set up safety. She wanted to set up an anchor using some of the trees, in case one of us has to clip onto the rope and jump in for a rescue.” I nodded my head slowly. I needed to make sure they didn’t need to use that anchor. “I will walk back up and signal you when we are all set up. Before I go, walk me through your line one last time.”

      “I am going to take the far right line through the top drop, and land in the calm pool of water there. Once I am ready I’ll peel out into the current and angle my boat to the right, aiming for the boulder on the right side of the Trap. If I time my paddle strokes correctly at the end the water should let me drift into position to boof into the eddy on the right, right above the underwater cave. If I can get into that eddy, everything should fall into place. I pull back out into the current one last time and take the boof stroke of my life.”

      Rusty grinned at me and winked, “You’ve got this bud! We’ll celebrate at the bottom.” He threw his kayak on his shoulder and hiked over the crest of the hill. I was alone at the top of the Falls. I focused on my breathing. Counted breaths. My vision blurred as I stared at the lip of the Falls. I rolled my lips again and splashed my face. After another deep breath, Rusty reappeared at the top of the Falls and raised his paddle straight in the air, signalling that they were ready. That had been so fast! Surely they hadn’t had enough time to set up an anchor already. I had expected to have more time. My heart began to pound against my rib cage. This was it.

To be continued…

 
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