Trip Report: Last Paddle

Posted by Robert N Pruden on May 26, 2005

Paddling to Work for the Last Time

Today would be my last chance to paddle to work at Celanese. I have been scheduled to be laid off on May 29, 2005 after 21 years of working in the Central Labs. The great minds of the US based Blackstone Corporation recently acquired Celanese. They decided to render our plant site redundant in a bid to bump up textile prices to generate improved stock values elsewhere. Therein lay the reason why I found myself pondering a last paddle to work.

In years past, I have driven my car, motorcycle, bussed it, roller bladed, run, cycled, walked and paddled to work. I even tried cross-country skiing once, but the trails were too icy for me to ski well so I had to turn back and get the car instead. Speaking of turning back, many years ago I surprised a skunk when I barreled up a hill on a curve along the paved trails that follow the river. It raised its tail in defense but I couldn’t smell anything so I decided that I was too fast for it to spray me. I got to work only to have a fellow technician comment on the smell I brought into the lab with me. I was promptly sent home by the lab super of the day to get a change of clothes. I have never quite stunk so pungently as I did during that day. That said, I decided to travel to work today paddling the VJ Guardian Spirit. The VJ is the Waters Dancing Lightning 17 sea kayak I built three years ago and used during my 1000 km solo cross-Canada tour.

I launched myself into my workday at my favorite launch site, Magpie, located at Edmonton’s Emily Murphy Park. At 1130 a.m, the river is running a bit high today with a fast brown silt-laden current moving at about 5-6 km/hr. The park is heavily greened now with spring-fresh scented leaves perfuming the air with their sweet saps and resins. The air smells absolutely beautiful to my chemically overloaded nose. I want to be nowhere else, not even in any of the Heavens described by the great religions – I am already there. I can’t wait for the day when I can smell the subtler scents of nature. Working for so many years in an industrial lab has almost killed my sense of smell, but I know in time I will recover most of it.

While I prepped the VJ for the launch, I saw a middle-aged man who had stopped to sit on a bench to enjoy the warmth of the sun, which shone through a break in the. He was repeatedly tossing what was effectively a small log down into the river for his dog to fetch. The dog, ignoring the fast current, dove into the very cold, silt-laden water each time, gripped the small log in his teeth and gleefully swam to shore. I enjoyed seeing the pooch’s grin when it paddled to shore as much as I enjoyed watching it splash around to fetch the thing. It looked ridiculous carrying the thing in his mouth. It was one of those Australian sheep dogs: very smart and very quick. I watched the dog action and chatted with the man while gearing up for the days paddle. I was as anxious to get onto the river as the dog was to chase down another log toss.

The skies were cloudy with occasional sunshine breaking through, combined with gentle warmish breezes blowing that grew to whipping gusts depending on what section of river valley I was passing through. The threat of rain loomed overhead but the winds blew all potential precipitate offenders away too quickly for them to amount to anything wetter than a sun basked beaver butt. Please, whatever you do, don’t try to picture that image in your mind – I take no responsibility for any potentially mind damaging descriptive used herein.

Oddly enough, nothing seemed to bother me today, not the unsealed gap on one seam that I sanded a few days ago or the ferrule on my paddle had come loose. I didn’t worry about the unprotected wood. The Lloyd’s rated okhume can easily withstand a few hours of exposure to moisture without delaminating. The fiberglass is another story but I decided that if it delaminated from the wood then I would sand it off and patch it later because I needed a patch there anyway. I decided to take advantage of the problem ferrule and feathered the paddle blades by only a few degrees instead of the usual 30 degrees. I opted to do this mostly because that was the only position where it would stay in place. It turned out that I preferred the paddle this way because it is easier on my wrists yet still effective for paddling in my own style. It took me only a short while to adapt to the new angle.

As I was launching the kayak the Fire Department sped by heading upstream on their river boat. I knew they would be cruising past me later on. I could hear a man speaking through a megaphone addressing a crowd over background music from the other side of the river. The sounds must have been coming from the Legislature located a few hundred meters downstream of Emily Murphy Park. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip were in Canada to help Alberta and Saskatchewan celebrate their 100th birthdays. There were in Edmonton today. Perhaps the Fire Department was cruising the river for security reasons. I also heard, then saw, the police helicopter known as Air One, cruising overhead dutifully scanning for terrorists. They did a flyby to check me out once I started paddling past the Legislature. Good on them for doing that – you never know what kind of heavy weaponry a sea kayaker in a 17’ wooden boat has hidden in the cockpit. Remember that kid in Michael Moore’s documentary, “Bowling for Columbine”? Yeah, the one who had something like 14 guns hidden in his baggy clothes. You get the picture.

The bulk of today’s paddle was uneventful after Air One buzzed me. The sounds of the Queen’s visit faded away as I paddled further downstream away from such regality. The sounds of the rest of the city became the norm. I passed by the Edmonton River Queen as it sat tied to the pier. There wouldn’t be any head-to-head challenges for me to enjoy today. Instead I enjoyed the site of people walking, jogging and cycling along Edmonton’s wonderful trail system as it wound its way along the river. I grew up on these trails and did imagine that one day I would find the water demystify its qualities. Little did I know that I would become intimately familiar with its bottom as well, especially during intense moments of stupidity. J Everything in its time.

I allowed my mind wander haphazardly from one thought to the next. I spent much happy and unsuspecting time taking pictures without the proper exposure. I had the camera set incorrectly. The images were chosen for color, setting and by how they affected my introspection during this last paddle to work. Maybe I was really feeling blue deep down inside and that feeling tinted the images. I know at least one person who affects electronics that way. Computers consistently seem to go awry when she is near them. She never liked getting too close to the sensitive electronics in the lab because they would invariably go wonky when she touched them. When I finally downloaded the pictures I would find that the exposure adjustment was on “manual” and was programmed for a default setting. Ah well, they would otherwise look appropriate for the day if I wasn’t feeling so good.

The closer I got to work the further my thoughts moved away from work. I do not dwell on the what-if’s regarding the future had the company not been shutting down. I dwell only on the immediacy of the present and certain aspects of the near future. Practically, even the near future is too far away to think about. My mind races from one possibility to another – none of which can be safely considered since I know not where I will be next week or the week after that. To be honest, I don’t really care where I will be working. If I don’t find a job in another lab, then I will pursue my long-standing and well-trained interest in home renovating. I have complete confidence in my abilities to renovate some one else’s home. I also have enough severance pay to get my sorry financial butt out of a tight spot for a couple of months. If all else fails, that cushion will serve me well. My future depends only on what I choose to do with it and on nothing else.

I decided to do some technically correct paddling at this point. I neared the Capilano Bridge, which serves to extend Wayne Gretsky Way across the river from North to South or vice-versa. Yes, the old Capilano Freeway was renamed to honor Wayne Gretsky, the hockey player who helped Edmonton win no less that five Stanley Cups. I remember many occasions where I acted “out” after a few drinks to help honor an Edmonton Oilers’ cup win. Perhaps a section of the North Saskatchewan River will be named after me one day if I write about it enough. Lord knows I have paid a fair price for paddling it already. I know every rock on its bottom in many sections and know what its moods are on sight. I know where not to lean over to reach the bottom. I even know one grizzled old beaver on sight because I have paddled along side it so many times. I even convinced it to pose for a picture with a Canadian RCMP Mountie once (side-long glance to see if you believe that one). :P

Occasionally, I have had the idea that the old beaver doesn’t mind my presence quite as much as it used to. For those who don’t know an interesting fact about beavers, they do battle from time to time and bite each other’s tails. Those bite marks sometimes go right through the tail and show where a chunk taken out. You can identify a particular beaver by these marks. Heck, even the VJ even has identifying marks and scars on her that this old beaver must surely know. For that matter, I have just as many scars on my hide to help it identify me. We are kin in that respect. We are kin because we spend so much time on the river.

Time ran on while I thought my last day thoughts. All too soon I spied the three bridges that stand together near the remains of the Celanese plant site. Two of those bridges help the Yellowhead Highway cross the river. That highway links Graham Island, of the Queen Charlotte group of Islands off the coast of British Columbia, to where it meets the Trans Canada Highway about an hours drive west of Winnipeg, Manitoba. I have traveled that highway from mile “zero” at the north end of Graham Island all the way to its last mile where it meets the Trans Canada Highway about an hours drive west of Winnipeg. One day I hope to do that drive on my motorcycle accompanied by a couple of good cameras. I’ll start in Winnipeg so I can end up in the Queen Charlottes for some very purposeful reasons.

The other bridge is a CPR train trestle. Not much to say about it other than that it is high up – a great place to jump off while attached to a hang glider. The wind often blows strongly through that area because of the contours of the river valley there. Maybe I’ll try that one day, perhaps when I get tired of paddling adventures. I guess that means I’ll never go hang gliding.

I landed beside the bank below the Celanese Utility Building. There is a service road that makes for easy portaging. I brought along my portaging cart so that I wouldn’t have to do the very difficult slog up the steep side of the valley to the Central Laboratories Building with the VJ on my back. The last time I tried that I had a brutal time of it.

I was greeted at the lab doors by Teo and Shirley, who had a good chuckle at the idea of me paddling to work. I noticed them watching me when I stood straight after bending over to get my stuff out of the hatches. As I entered that lab I casually mentioned that I still hadn’t figured out a way to ride a horse to work.

With that greeting at the lab door I ended my last paddle to work. I really wanted to paddle home but because of a job interview and another more important appointment, I had to opt to run home instead. Sadly, by the end of the day my feet were throbbing with fatigue so I caught a ride home with another employee. With luck, I’ll have time to do a weekend long paddle somewhere near the mountains. Perhaps something will happen to make the trip interesting. The only way to find out is to get in the boat and see what is around the next bend in the river.

Robert N Pruden

Pictures taken during my last paddle to work