The Kayak Klutz

And it was a river that I could not pass over. . . .

— Ezekiel 47:5


Next time I have a chance to be in excruciating pain and humiliate myself as the Kayak Klutz of the Wild Wild West, I’m going to do it on the Stillwater River in south-central Montana near the sparkling town of Absarokee.


Why? Because I had such a darn good time the first time.


We went kayaking there for the first time. I had taken my first few swipes with the paddle and looked behind me to exclaim to my husband, “This is great! I love this!” and turned back around when KLUNK!


I hit a rock. The kayak capsized and the current tried to suck my paddle out of the grasp of my hand. I wouldn’t let go. The problem was, the rest of my body was still wrapped around that rock. So I wrenched my arm, bad.


In Montana, they have a saying: a river runs through it. Yeah, but that doesn’t always work for people.


I’ve told the story many times. Time to set the record straight. The current wasn’t really rushing at 75 mph. More like 5 mph, tops. I didn’t really kayak for 50 miles; it was more like 30 feet. It wasn’t really 150-foot deep water where my accident happened; more like hip-deep. No, they didn’t really have to life-flight me out by helicopter; I just rode to the clinic in a pickup truck soaking wet, joking with the owner, Matt, the whole way. And no, I didn’t break every bone in my body and cling to life desperately, dictating my last will and testament onto the back of a cocktail napkin from the Cowboy Bar. I had iced tea, not a cocktail, there, and I don’t drink much, though you could never tell it from the way I kayak.


Once and for all, here’s the truth: I dislocated my right shoulder in a stupid accident that was all my fault. I had listened diligently to their safety lesson onshore but must admit I was only 1 for 2:


  1. I did NOT, as advised, lean INTO the rock when my kayak klunked into it. Instead, as I do with other obstacles, including surly teenagers and people with bad breath, I leaned AWAY from it. Of course, my kayak flipped over. They had TOLD us not to do that. Slow learner! Then I was trapped underwater, upside down. But rather than fear for my life, my only thought was totally self-serving: “I can’t drown here! Going kayaking was MY idea! My family would never let me hear the end of it!“ They would have no sympathy for my untimely death, in other words. So my left arm shot up and knocked the kayak off me in a mighty blast. My lungs filled with life-giving air. But why was I hunched over, holding my crumpled arm and shoulder with the other hand? Then – the incredibly bad pain spread throughout my shivering bod.
  2. I want it known, however, that I DID hang on to my paddle, as urged in our lesson onshore. That instruction, I followed to the letter. However, the current was so powerful, it carried that paddle backwards and over my head when I struck the rock. That’s what yanked my shoulder out of its socket and my arm into the next county. I was still holding the paddle: victory! But it had dislocated my shoulder: defeat!


With a fake brave smile, I waved my family on. Go ahead! Enjoy the rest of the kayaking excursion! They’ll take care of me here! And off they went, not even looking very guilty.


It was so much pain I wanted to chew my arm off. My right hand was quivering as if I were playing the banjo. I hunched over cradling my arm like Quasimodo taking a football handoff. I was bawling so loud I’m sure the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals rushed to town to investigate moose torture.


But there was a happy ending. Yes, it involved drugs.


In drenched clothes, I squished down the hall to the exam room at the Absarokee Medical Clinic, minnows leaping out of my sneakers. Mayme, Roxie and Paulette pampered me with a pillow, a pink blanket, kleenex, some Wild Rose hot tea, more kleenex, and a lot of TLC.


The Physicians Assistant, Sheri, saw the x-ray/ She didn’t find anything, excuse the expression, humerus about it. (Sorry: a little medical humor there. A very little.)


Anyway, she tried to pop my shoulder back in place with a little move they teach at the Marquis de Sade School of Nursing. I think she even placed her foot on my chest to yank my arm with more torque and leverage. No dice.


So they gave me an IV full of the powerful painkiller Demerol. Now you’re talking! As the clouds parted and the birdies sang, a nurse held my armpit back and Sheri skillfully played tug o’ war with my right hand. Snap! Crackle! POP!


What had gone hither suddenly was yon again. My pain went from Niagara Falls to a tiny little faucet drip, not even a trickle.


They sent me home with five lovely narcotic pills, a designer sling, instructions to discover the wonderful world of physical therapy, some fabulous Flathead Lake cherries, and a tongue-in-cheek warning at my request to my husband and four children, who by then returned from the uneventful remainder of the kayaking trip, that I would probably not be able to vacuum, iron, do dishes or balance the checkbook for the rest of my life.


“So what else is new?” they asked.


I cut a lovely figure in the parking lot of Absarokee Rafts as we returned the kayaks. I was wearing my interlocking designer hospital gowns forming the Sarong From Hell, plus sopping wet shorts, squishy sneakers and prominent arm sling.


I put my helmet back on because my hair looked so bad, too. I figured the rafting company wouldn’t exactly make me the cover girl of their next brochure. But at least I can salvage their reputation with the statistic that they have been in business for 12 years, have run well over 10,000 people down that river . . . and I was their first medical emergency ever.


Brace yourself, though, Absarokee: we loved it, and we’re coming back! †

By Susan Darst Williams | | Travel | © 2020