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I'm back / wreck of the Topo-Duo

I just took a month-long break from kayaking to live in the real world for a while: touring Southern Utah and a trip to New York. But I'm back now and I'll be playing catch-up with all the reviews and articles that have taken lower priority. There should be several articles from me in the next issue of Kayak Magazine which will be out in time for the Outdoor Retailer show in August. I had a couple of short breaks between trips where Ken and I managed to break two boats. I haven't broken a boat ever before, but for some reason June was cursed for me. So, by request, here's the post on the wreck of the Eskimo Topo-Duo. More later. Gather round kiddies while I tell you the tale of the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Topo-Duo.

It was cold, rainy / warm, sunny day depending on who you were talking to on the phone and whether they were in Idaho or Salt Lake City. Nevertheless, the weather was mixed inclement and pleasantly cool. We arrived at Camp Middleschool around 5 in the afternoon and exchanged pleasantries with the natives before getting to the business at hand: the paddling of the Malad Gorge for the bazillionth time. But this time was different... we had grown complacent in our experience and our vigilance against danger, foolhardiness and just plain stupidity was at an all time low. For this particular expedition we had procured a pristine Eskimo Topo-Duo. Surely, two kayakers of such robust style and mental interconnectivity could manage the navigation of this behemoth of plastic down a now all too familiar river, Ken and I felt we were men enough for the task.

The scene was set. The purple barge resting beside the bubbling river, blissfully ignorant of its impending doom. Ken and I suited up in our damp, dank, musty gear and discussed how we would negotiate the river and how to roll the beast, should that unlikely situation arise. Everything was good, the sun was shining behind the clouds and rain, we were in high spirits to be on the river - it looked like recreational victory was assured.

The first stretch of river only confirmed our sense of indestructibility. We made the rapids our slaven love-harlots as we bridged the holes and waves majestically. The bow of the Topo-Duo crested and fell through the turbulent waters without sign of fouling or ill-temper. Ken giggled hysterically as we crushed through cataracts that would normally toss our little playboats about like flotsam. I was enjoying myself as well in the stern end of the boat, playfully smashing the blade of my paddle against Ken's head when he wouldn't respond fast enough to my commands.

It was about halfway down the river when the first signs of trouble surfaced.

I began to notice a (how to say?) "certain lack of unit cohesion" between the enlisted crew in the bow and the command structure which was occupying the stern. This first manifested when the Topo failed to navigate a seemingly innocuous rock garden. We came at the rocks with full speed ahead, ramped up and onto the shoals only to find ourselves scuttled. It took considerably knuckle dragging and coaxing of the boat to free ourselves of the reef, but we succeeded, only to find ourselves perpendicular to the current. I screamed out orders to my crew, only to find that mutiny was afoot in the steerage sections. Corporal discipline was called for and I meted out powerful blows to my disobedient deck hand with my trusty paddle, but to no avail - we were careening broadside into a powerful rapid! Ken shrieked in terror, but I was determined to keep my appearance of order and discipline intact in the face of certain death lest moral falter among the enlisted men. Still, our fate was sealed and the barge careened off-line. Terror and confusion reigned supreme as the foundering kayak was tossed broadside into rocks and then backwards as we tried in vain to regain control of the rapidly deteriorating situation we found ourselves in. Somehow, by providence or sheer unwitting man-power, we wrested control of the Topo back from the vengeful river-gods and drove into the safety of the last eddy before the crux rapid.

At this point, I was questioning the loyalty of my crew and the escort ship that made up our flotilla. Middleschooler, who had remained uncharacteristically silent (or his screams of protest were drowned out in the noise of the river, I forget which) was now showing signs of doubt that our mission would succeed. And I must admit, that I was getting a deep-down gut feeling myself that fun would not be ours that day if we were to proceed into the jaws of the next rapid. But one look at my giddy crew told me, there would be no turning back. Ken was laughing uncontrollably and simpering at the rapids. I scouted, trying to pick a new line, but when I returned, I was informed that Ken had a plan, having not looked at the rapids himself. What was this plan? To use the slackwater of the hanging pool to slow down, realign and boof to the left of the nasty rock in the middle of our path. Normally this kind of insubordinance would not go unpunished, but reluctantly, I complied and we emerged back into the current.

We made the top of the rapids look easy, but momentum was building and it looked like the pool of slackwater would be insufficient to slow our manly advance. Surely, the small ledge hole would provide us with some needed inertia? No! We were slingshot across the pool where all sense of order was lost. The kayak crested the lip of the drop and down we fell into a perfect one point broach with the rock between the two cockpits. The full force of the waterfall was crashing down on the deck of the Topo and I felt her bulkheads begin to strain. Worse still, fire had no doubt erupted in the engine room and I knew it was only a matter of time till she burst into a ball of flame. I knew I had to think fast if were to save the life of my crew and myself. I gave the order:

"Get out! Get out! Get out!"

and pulled my spray skirt. The deck of the Topo came sinking down right above my legs, but I was too quick and freed myself - where my legs were just split seconds earlier there was now mangled plastic and destruction. I was lucky to be alive! I turned downstream to face the next challenge before me, swimming the rest of the rapid, when suddenly I remembered: my crew! I looked back to see Ken was still in the death trap which was now rolling upstream into the waterfall. Without regard for my own safety, I lurched back up onto the rock and snatched his limpening body from the hellfires of the wreckage. At this point, it's entirely possible that the fuel caught spark and the entire area was engulfed in hellish explosions and flame, but I can't be sure because my memory gets foggy at this point. What I do know is that when I resurfaced from the eddy, I was still on the rock, Ken was downstream and the plastic hulk was still trapped in the bottom of the waterfall.

Before I could congratulate myself, I knew I had to recover the safety gear and begin the reclamation process in earnest. We spent two hours in the water, on those rock and at the base of that waterfall trying to free the Topo-Duo

When all was said and done, the Topo-Duo was a twisted wreckage, Ken's camera case gave it's life to keep the last precious bits of structural integrity in the boat, but had leaked in the process destroying his video camera. My camera made it though okay. MiddleSchooler was wounded in the fray - the pride of the Twin Falls physical therapy clinic was laid to waste in an unfortunate leap from one rock to the next and his previously damaged knee was once again ruined. My paddle was saved thanks again to the valiance of MiddleSchooler, but Ken's was lost in the briny deep. Conservative estimates have approximated that this joy-ride cost almost $2000 in lost and damaged equipment.

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