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May
11

Rock, Paper, Scissors

How do you decide who is going to run a rapid first? I am sat in an eddy playing, rock, paper, scissors with Driller, it seems to be a sensible way of working out who is going to run the penultimate drop on the Gronda, falling onto rock, this is a must make boof. To pencil this drop would be disastrous, with the ensuing impact likely to damage boat, body and ego as cameras will be pointing our way.

The first two rounds are a draw as we both pull rock and paper, I then loose out to rock over scissors, so Driller is in the driving seat as far as the decision goes, I ponder whether he will elect to go first or send me as the guinea pig.

We discuss where we want to position our boats, left of the rooster tail and boof left, although to be fair with this drop doesn't really matter which way you boof, you just have to.

Driller still hasn't said whether he wants to be the probe or not but we have time as the boys set up safety, we sit in the eddy looking around at the houses that line the steep sides, we have now entered the village effectively increasing the population by six after an hour of inspecting, covering each other and running rapids in turn,.

The Gronda is a classic Italian 'ridiculously steep creek' as one description puts it. Lying in the village of Rassa in the Province of Vercelli in the Alps, the Piedmont region offers an abundance of steep rivers, gorges and bigger volume runs to test paddlers late April through till the end of May, although with the huge snowfall over the preceding winter the season will probably run later this year as the snow melts filling the rivers to the highest levels we had experienced in our three trips here.

The river has sculptured the granite bedrock over the years providing a Disneyesque environment for kayakers, a veritable theme park of drops, slides and chutes. We feel like ten year olds, desperately trying to stand on our tip toes to be tall enough to get onto the latest ride. We park alongside the last drop where the river joins its neighbour the Sorba and walk upstream inspecting as we go. I always find it difficult to be subjective about a run when I am stood around in my day clothes. I am finding that I need to undergo that Mr Ben transformation.

Mr Ben for the uninitiated was a cartoon character from a children's TV series on the BBC in the early 70s. A businessman wearing a bowler hat and a suit visits a fancy dress shop, enters a room and changes into a costume, leaving the room via another door he proceeds to have an adventure before returning to his normal everyday life and home at 52 Festive Road.

There is lots of sucking of air through teeth as we walk, speculating on what lines will go. We watch others already on the river, using them for confirmation. We return to the van and change for the day's adventure.

We put on next to the last of the tarmac and in three or four paddle strokes are experiencing a weightless feeling as we launch our boats into the air and let gravity take over, a quick introduction for what lies ahead. A slide, river left follows and then it the first must make move of the day, around the back of a rock, turn in half a boat's length and launch off a rock ledge. As I land I throw my weight forward to dissipate the energy of the impact into my backside and thighs rather than landing upright and have the energy travel up my spine.

Which brings us back to rock, paper, scissors! Driller has elected to go first and I wonder whether he realises that our little competition is to decide who has the choice rather than who goes first!

He disappears over what I thought was the main event, only for his helmet to remain visible before dropping out of sight over an unseen horizon line from my position. My attention diverts to Lew who I can see is watching Driller, a signal and it's obvious that Driller has cleared the base of the fall and my mind turns to my own thoughts for my run.

My little ritual that seems to have evolved over the years starts, subconsciously, deck on, buoyancy aid, nose clip, clean hands and a clean paddle shaft, I place the first stroke deliberately placing both paddle shaft and hand into the water, first on one side then the other, I haven't developed the ritual so far as favouring which side first but it may come in the future as the brain satisfies itself that all is in order and clears itself of any unwanted rubbish. As the last piece of tumble weed disappears from my mind's eye I set off with a quick glance around to be sure of where I am and where I want to be.

As is common on a lead in I glance over at the river bank and catch Lew's eye, he remains unmoved, watching me closely, I know that if I am off line he will tell me, indicating simply the correction needed, he remains motionless, his eyes sweeping from me to the base of the fall. I check my position and anticipate the strokes so I will hit the drop on a right paddle stroke.

I get the pull from the face of the fall and my boat launches horizontally away from the lip affording me the flat landing I seek to project me beyond the rocks and into the airiated water that follows, I land on the feather bed of froth at the fall's base created as water impacts onto the rock band, the boat submerging beneath me as the airiated water offers little support, a brace, then a forward stroke and I join Driller in the eddy. Driller comments that the elation of a successful move is soon replaced by the trepidation of the next and all too soon the smiles disappear on both of our faces as we now face the last feature, we wait again as the boys move downstream for signals and safety.

I clearly state it's my turn to go first, enough of rock, paper, scissors. I can't see where I want to be from our position in the eddy so I edge forward until the river unfolds before me. There's the rooster tail, a shoot of water spurted upwards by an unseen undulation in the riverbed beneath the surface, a draw stroke to the right and it all starts happening, fast, as the bedrock falls away, I am launched airborne, passing the plume of water on my left shoulder.

The flight is short lived as I land in a white out of foam next to the river right wall as the falling water explodes against rock, bubbles and spray created obscure my vision like standing in a shower, bleary eyed at 6.00am. I don't have time to savour the moment as I might at home, this is a one token affair in the pay as you shower campsite washroom; you have to be quick.

My speed across the pool carries me further right than I anticipated, a final stroke and its over, my elation returns and remains for a short while until I re focus my attention on Driller's run and ready myself for any events that may unfold, he cleans the rapid and the smiles return and remain this time as we look back upstream, ecstatic at our run down, the tumbleweed of life blowing back into the mind as the brain moves forward and fills with random thoughts.

I am not sure which effects me more, my nerves for my own run or those for my friends, the wave of relief that flows over you when someone achieves a smooth line certainly compares to my own feelings as I realise that I am through a rapid clean and have managed to position my boat where I had intended.

Although later in the week I do manage a sneaky smile of pleasure as I watch Driller getting worked in the same shallow hole having failed to project his boat far enough from the base of the fall. I watch his reaction as he realises what is happening, like a small child who discovers the square peg fits into the square hole, his boat stalls, forward speed dissipated, a moments hesitation and the tow back created by the boiling, folding, recirculating water draws his boat into its clutches, turning him across the face of the hole, he is working on autopilot now, bracing and edging, dictated by the water, he balances and begins to fight the current, using his skill to position his boat, then powering from harms way.

The time spent on the bank is well served, observing the water and envisaging the effects it will have on your boat and how you can counter those effects or turn them to your best advantage. The process of seeing yourself clean through a rapid is all part of the mental approach required to ready yourself before ratcheting yourself into your boat.

Your position is key, both in body and in boat, if one is out at the start of the move that will be exaggerated as the move continues; getting this right allows you to be best placed to react to what follows. The time to execute that carefully placed paddle stroke is gone mid rapid, as the speed of the water increases the time to react reduces and your success relies on your reactions and the hours of practice over the preceding years. The thought process is gone. The brain is relying on its RAM processor to deliver the necessary signals to your body at the required speed, this is not the place for the google search engine in your brain to be overloaded with tasks as other thoughts interrupt the flow of information to your limbs.

The satisfaction gained from what we have just done is apparent, this isn't what I set out to do when I started boating but the challenges that these steep creeks offer are compelling. The camaraderie of working together as a team to problem solve as we progress is shared by all.

Now it's our turn to run safety for the others, our opportunity of supporting our friends as they experience what this river offers. The river gives us the opportunity of challenging ourselves and that freedom to focus our minds on the task in hand. The time we spend here is time away from the realities of life along with all the day to day issues its brings us. I relish such moments and am grateful to know people to share them with.

We put on next to the last of the tarmac and in three or four paddle strokes are experiencing a weightless feeling as we launch our boats into the air and let gravity take over, a quick introduction for what lies ahead. I get the pull from the face of the fall and my boat launches horizontally away from the lip affording me the flat landing I seek My speed across the pool carries me further right than I anticipated, a final stroke and its over, my elation returns and remains for a short while until I re focus my attention on Driller's run and ready myself for any events that may unfold, he cleans the rapid and the smiles return and remain this time as we look back upstream, ecstatic at our run down, the tumbleweed of life blowing back into the mind as the brain moves forward and fills with random thoughts. Although later in the week I do manage a sneaky smile of pleasure as I watch Driller getting worked in the same shallow hole having failed to project his boat far enough from the base of the fall. I watch his reaction as he realises what is happening, like a small child who discovers the square peg fits into the square hole, his boat stalls, forward speed dissipated, a moments hesitation and the tow back created by the boiling, folding, recirculating water draws his boat into its clutches, turning him across the face of the hole, he is working on autopilot now, bracing and edging, dictated by the water, he balances and begins to fight the current, using his skill to position his boat, then powering from harms way. There's the rooster tail, a shoot of water spurted upwards by an unseen undulation in the riverbed beneath the surface, a draw stroke to the right and it all starts happening, fast, as the bedrock falls away, I am launched airborne, passing the plume of water on my left shoulder. Thanks to the Lyndon, Driller, Lew, the Tedi Knight and Lisa.