I now realize that my magazine writing career began in 2004, with a ducky boat race down the Arkansas River. I was a clueless, if enthusiastic, 22-year-old intern at Hooked on the Outdoors. The Colorado-based magazine—which unfortunately folded, before so many others, in May of 2006—wasn’t able to pay me much of anything for my twice-weekly fact-checking and bookshelf-organizing services, but they did give me some cool gear and, toward the end of my summer in Boulder, they sent me to FIBARK on assignment.
I confess, I may have exaggerated my skill as a boatman in order to get the green light from the boss. In any case, my assignment was to represent the magazine in a gonzo journalist ducky boat race down the Arkansas aboard what I assumed would be a giant rubber duck. The magazine’s senior editor sent me off with simple instructions: Win.
Being an ambitious young man, I promised to oblige.
I spent most of the three-hour drive from Boulder to Salida wondering just what a ducky boat looked like (could it really be an oversized, inflatable duck?) and how I might gain an unfair advantage over my duck-riding competitors.
When I arrived, I watched kayakers in the churning rapids, tried to stomach a little food, stretched, and then went to find a lifejacket two hours before the race. Um, safety first, right?
My own watercraft expertise at the time boiled down to a few flat-water canoe trips at summer camp a decade prior and the occasional chauffeured raft trip down class I or II rivers. The Arkansas, I learned that day, has Class IV rapids. I wouldn’t be running them on my ducky, the race organizer promised—unless I sailed past the take-out point. Ha ha!
I remember nothing between getting that lifejacket and stepping into the frigid waters of the Arkansas. But, all of a sudden, there I was with my heat (yes, there were heats for the duck-boat race), leaving the gates—in this case the shore—and, after a certain amount of bare-knuckle flailing in and out of the current, I found myself fighting for first place, going stroke for stroke with an old guy from a paddling magazine. My competitors were mostly twice my age, but they were river people, I thought. I’m hanging tough with river people!
Merely balancing on the ducky boat, which in some ways does look and maneuver like a duck, was a challenge, much less paddling it with anything resembling technique. But, by sheer force of will, I was out front in the quarter-mile race through gates, heading for the final rapid.
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that I had encouraged a female friend who lived in Boulder to come hang out and watch the race. This is what she saw: Charles looking triumphantly toward the shore, raising his paddle, then disappearing into a hydraulic he hadn’t properly judged that spat him out seconds later without his boat, his hat or his pride. The ducky finished first, without its rider.
I’ve been chasing it ever since. •
Charles Bethea is a freelance writer who splits his time between the low piedmont of Atlanta and the high desert of Santa Fe.