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First Person: Norma Sims Roche takes a river run

  • Norma Sims Roche with her kayak at her home in Northampton Monday, April 1.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Norma Sims Roche with her kayak at her home in Northampton Monday, April 1.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

The Westfield River Wildwater Races will be run for the 60th time on April 20, and our snowy February promises plenty of water. That wasn’t the case last year, though. The winter was warm and dry, and the race schedule, which usually stretches over two weekend days, was condensed to Saturday alone. But on Sunday night, just barely too late for the races, the skies opened up and the whitewater paddlers’ Internet message boards lit up: “Knightville’s rising! Who’s paddling tomorrow?”

I hadn’t been in the race, but the Knightville race course in Huntington is a popular intermediate whitewater run year-round, and I’d been wanting to try it. I’d come to the sport later in life, and learning to stay upright in a tiny, tippy kayak and maneuver quickly in a strong current hadn’t been easy. I’d discovered, however, that the fun of splashing through rapids made the effort more than worthwhile.

Knightville was a step up in difficulty from what I’d done before. I wasn’t scared, though — not really. I had the basics, my paddling friends would have my back, and even this big rainstorm would give us only relatively low, gentle water. But I wouldn’t know for sure if I was ready until I was in it.

As my car, kayak on top, descended into the valley toward Huntington, the sun broke through the rain clouds and shone on the wet, newly emerging leaves. Seven other paddlers lucky enough to have a Monday afternoon free were waiting at the Knightville Dam. My excitement built as we donned our gear, shuttled cars to the takeout, and hauled our boats to the water’s edge.

The beginning of the run had lots of waves to bounce through and rocks to avoid. I hung back to watch the more experienced paddlers. I could see the group strung out in a Z shape ahead of me, weaving its way through the boulders, as we paddled around a bend along Route 112. Then there we were, in the last quiet eddy above The Drop: the biggest rapid on the stretch.

Below us a natural dam of rocks forced the river water into a narrow gap near the right bank.

“Stay toward the left,” the paddler ahead shouted to me.

“The left of the river or the left of the gap?” I shouted back. The answer seemed obvious, but it’s good to pin these things down. And it’s easy to misunderstand instructions over the roar of a rapid.

“The gap,” came the reply. “Then turn toward 11 o’clock and eddy out if you can.” He paddled into the gap and disappeared. After giving him a few seconds to get clear, I followed.

As I dropped over the edge, I slid down a sloping waterfall and plunged into the big, solid wave at its foot. That 11 o’clock turn? Not happening. I followed the traditional whitewater advice, which pays homage to the movie “Deliverance”: When in doubt, paddle like you hear banjo music. I powered my way through the wave and somehow kept my boat upright.

There were more rapids to run, but nothing else as challenging as The Drop. It was a special thrill to paddle under the Route 112 bridge, which I’d driven over many times, looking at the wave train below and wishing I was in it. I paddled onto a big wave and managed to surf atop it for a few seconds.

I would have more encounters with The Drop over the year. Later that spring, at higher water, I entered the gap too far to the right, plowed even straighter into the big wave at its foot, and went briefly airborne as the boat flipped. Some of my friends had helmet video cameras, and I’d been wishing I’d get caught in a video I could show to my non-paddling friends. Naturally, that maneuver became my first YouTube moment.

Later that summer, after more practice, I came back, at even higher water, with more confidence and some key advice. “Don’t look at the wave,” my friend had said. “If you look at it, it’ll draw you in.” I lined up the boat, correctly this time, went over the lip of the falls, and there it was — huge, churning, fascinating. But I remembered. I wrenched my eyes away from it, looked toward 11 o’clock, and swooped into the eddy behind the rock dam. I’d styled it!

I’m not sure whether I’ll join the race this year. I’ll have to consider the weather, the water level, and the shape I’m in. But now that I’ve met the challenge of paddling Knightville, I’d love to add the challenge of paddling Knightville fast. But that will make it even more important to keep my gaze focused on where I want to go.

Norma Sims Roche lives in Northampton.

Legacy Comments1

You are awesome Norma!

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