I first capsized when I underestimated a rock about 40 minutes downstream from the put-in. Instead of glancing off it, the solo canoe I was paddling got wedged between the rock and a hard current. Trying to wriggle and budge my way out of the predicament, I swamped the boat. That was one way out of the jam. But as options go this time of year, it's a mighty cold and inadvisable one.
Darren Bush paddled back to help me get the boat dislodged and up on the bank so I could empty the water out of it and my boots. The co-owner of Rutabaga, the local paddlesport shop, had invited me to join him Friday afternoon to negotiate a gorgeous three-hour segment of Badfish Creek in northern Rock County.
I had never paddled it, nor had I tried canoeing this early in the season. Bush didn't mention swimming. But the swimming was my fault, not his.
Another 30 or 40 minutes downstream, I got hung up in a cluster of tree branches that had fallen across the current, and dumped the boat again. This time our stop on the creek bank included lunch: Fraboni's subs. Then it was on to my third catastrophe, involving another cluster of branches, and a fourth precipitated by my mere presence in a solo canoe - and my complete and utter disregard for everything I know about boat control.
I may be clumsy, I thought, but at least I'm inept. Warm thoughts such as this relieved my involuntary shivers and chattering teeth.
Hypothermia is no laughing matter, of course. It can compromise victims' judgment, rob them of physical ability and render them helpless. Mindful of this, Bush kept an eye on me, looking for signs of impairment and monitoring my responses to his advice on solo-canoeing techniques.
The last time I could remember being this cold was 40 years ago, on a sailboat in Southern California. But here on the Badfish, I was relaxed despite the chill. My thoughts were clear. Bush was trained to handle the situation if I should deteriorate. And the creek was rewarding our presence.
From our launch off of Highway 138 about 500 meters north of Cooksville, this segment of Badfish Creek meanders east through northwestern Rock County croplands and wetlands. Dotted with occasional low-grade and sub-grade riffles, it twists and turns like a lost and bewildered tourist until it enters the Yahara River just south of Stebbinsville.
Along the way, it is bridged twice by Highway 59 and once each by North Riley and North Casey roads. The soil of its banks is dark and often left exposed by erosion. The sediments of its creek bed are by turns pebbly and sandy, soft and silty, and then muddy with a mud so dense it sucks boots off of feet. On Friday there were waterfowl around every horseshoe bend, trumpeting our progress.
But for the occasional sound of distant traffic, the Badfish felt and looked less like a creek than a small, remote river with enough features and obstacles to keep a paddler busy and attentive.
The Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District releases treated wastewater into Badfish Creek, supplementing rainwater and snowmelt from a watershed that drains about 85 square miles in northwestern Rock and southern Dane counties. This made for a good pushy current on Friday afternoon. Up ahead, Bush read the eddies like a maestro reading a symphony - wielding his paddle with the authority and subtlety of a baton in command of orchestral waters.
This was my first time paddling a solo canoe, and I was finding it tricky. Solo canoes call for different skills than tandems. Perhaps the biggest distinction is the wide kneeling position favored by experienced soloists. It affords greater stability and better control, thanks to the paddler's lower center of gravity - though these advantages were outweighed by my inexperience.
Four hours, four cold swims, a fraction under seven river miles. More than four audible expletives. (I lost count.) And quite a fine afternoon indeed.