An imaginary line runs the length of the river. It winds around switchback turns and is stretched taut on the straightaways. At times it is exactly equidistant from the left and right banks. At times it curves only slightly to pass a whisker-width away from a rock. Other times, it swings wide to to the left to skim the edge of a wave train, slings far to the right to avoid bogging down in the shallows, or zigzags manically through a maze of rocks.
Finding and following that line — riding it — is the grail of the river racer. You can’t always see it, but you know it when you find it. And there is a certain joy when you do, when your muscle and the river’s muscle join forces, and your boat surges downstream
The line isn’t easy to find. It is even harder to hold. The very nature of paddling involves losing that line even as you find it. Each paddle stroke is to the left or right of the center line of your boat — and thus immediately needs to be balanced with the next stroke. A boat does not travel down a river like a car on a road. It tends to slide and skid through the turns. The river is a braided rope of currents each moving at differing speeds. Make the turn too wide and the current slings you and then pins you against the outside bank. Make the turn too far on the inside, and you can be bogged down an eddy. And then there are the rocks.
The dream is to fly down the river on a line, dodging rocks without getting off course, riding the current when you can. Every plant of the paddle will be perfect — and will keep you riding that invisible line. The trick is to avoid being pulled off course by currents. To stay straight through standing waves big as refrigerators.
Practice all you want and you will still not be prepared. It rains (or doesn’t rain) prior to the race, and the water level is a 2 feet higher (or lower) than you expected. Rocks you have never seen before poke their dark noses above the surface. Or the light is different — there is a glare on the water — and today you simply cannot see the rocks. Or maybe as you enter a round a bend to difficult stretch of whitewater, a canoe is there, in front of you, turned broadside to the current. A few had strokes to the left and you are paddling an unfamiliar line in a part of the river you have not paddled before.
A trip down a river is always an improvisation. One of the first things you learn is that it can’t be entirely planned beforehand. If there is a script, you will leave it. A lot of your time will be spent trying to get back to it.
Canoes and kayaks cut 130 lines down the Passagassawakeag River last Saturday, during the annual Passy River Race. None of the lines were perfect. But perhaps some of them were close. You get to the take-out and you want to make the run again. But you can’t return to the same lines. So you seek new ones. You go onward. This weekend, it will be the Soudabscook and the Marsh Stream. Then it will be the Kenduskeag, the East Machais, Machias, the Meduxnakeag, the Aroostook, the Union, the Sebec.
You start seeing lines in the water. You start seeing lines in your dreams. You are a river racer.