"Competition of the Week" story # 4

Pine River, Michigan           September 14, 2001

"Competition of the Week!" I yelled.
     "Threeeeeeee!" The Spanish exchange student, Sergei, was pretty excited.
     He and I sat in the middle row of a van heading for the undisturbed beauty of the peaceful Pine River. We were going to rent kayaks and let the river's lazy current push us through cozy woods, and several friends had joined us.
     The three Michiganders I've been best friends with the longest were stuffed into the van's back row: Dark-haired "Vato" was the cool one and a bit of a lady's man; Blond "Tonto" was the rib-thin, crazy one; and wide-smiled Chris was the sensible, married one already with a career. My brother drove the van, and the round-bodied muscle-head, Bill Hatch, rode shotgun.
     Being so close to one another wasn't such a safe proposition. That's because this wasn't going to be just kayaking. This was kayaking with fun noodles! This was war.
     Alongside us as we rode were the electric blue kids' toys we'd be doing battle with on the river. The three-foot long, two-inch thick styrofoam noodles were popular with parents because they kept their little ones afloat. However, if these moms and dads were aware of the time Tonto had cocked his aquatic macaroni-wielding arm like a scorpion and whipped Chris with all his might below the belt, causing Chris to tumble to the river bank in agony (during Kayak-Fun Noodle-River Joust 1999), I think they might tell their kids to go play with matches instead.
     Van tensions were already high. Once, as I turned to talk to Vato, I nonchalantly dragged a fun noodle with me and rubbed it in Sergei's face. "Oh, sorry," I said, but the Spaniard dove at me, pushing me off the seat. He tried wrestling me to the moving vehicle's floor, while I pounded his head with my noodle, and everyone cheered.
     Apparently, Tonto and Vato disagreed with Bill Hatch over who they wanted to win. They reached for noodles and started smacking each other in a fight that spilled throughout the van.
     "Alright, guys, those fun noodles are getting TOO close to me!" said Brandon, pretending to freak out. "If you guys don't behave, I'm turning this van around!"
     But even Brandon wasn't safe from the attacks. Every so often, Tonto would get frustrated byt hte pace of the van and say, "Vato, make Brandon go faster." Vato would then extend his noodle and jab the driver in the back of the head, providing a not-so-subtle hint to speed up.
     After a ninety-minute drive, we got to the river and selected our galleons. Vato and Bill Hatch picked army-camouflaged kayaks so they could disappear in hiding on the river and prepare better ambushes. The gray vessels my brother and I picked had wobbly undersides, something that would come back to hurt us. All in all, we made for a worthy armada.
     We got into our swimsuits. My brother put on a pair of tight goggles and smiled. With his lumpy, shaved head, he resembled a race-car turtle who'd just taken the checkered flag.
     We slid our boats into the river. The "Pirates of the Pine" had set sail, and "Competition of the Week" 3 was underway.
     On the thin river with the dusty gray bottom, we stroked our double-edged paddles around until we could go where we wanted to. Then, I paddled up to my brother's kayak, laughed wildly, pulled the fun noodle out from between my legs, and slapped it against the green life-vest Brandon wore. Downstream, Tonto and Chris's boats cruised side-by-side, and the two frantically swung their noodle arms in hope of knocking the other in his head.
     Not that steering the kayak wasn't challenge enough on its own. The current often disagreed with our paddles over which way to go, our boats rocked dangerously with each turn, and the surrounding green forest provided fallen trees for menacing obstacles. Bill Hatch, behind us and trying to catch up, was the first to fall from his boat into the river, apparently after bumping a log.
     The jousting paused, and we laughed as Bill righted his kayak. The winner of the joust would be the captain who sunk the most ships, while avoiding getting wet himself. Bill Hatch had fallen into last place.
     The jousting resumed. Chris, who'd arrogantly boasted earlier in the van, "Nobody will tip me!" piloted the most intimidating schooner. Approaching another from upstream, he would paddle to gain speed, switch his grip to the noodle, ram his enemy with the kayak's sharp tip, and put all of his shoulder into a forty miles-per-hour macaroni to-the-face of the off-balance victim.
     As deft as Chris was, the Spaniard was equally inept. Sergei seemed to go out of his way to hit all the obstacles he was meant to avoid. He quickly fell over twice, becoming a drenched Spaniard. Vato stayed back to care for Sergei and Bill Hatch, as the rest of us fought.
     "Yah!" yelled Chris victoriously, as a cannon-ball noodle shot of his had tipped my brother over in his kayak. To the surprise of few, Chris had taken the lead.
     Brandon fought back, though. Once his kayak was running, he snuck up on me from behind while I was warring with Tonto. In the middle of a sandwich made with death noodle pasta, I staved off the twin assaults with my noodle while pushing down on Tonto's boat to force in water. Tonto responded by submerging my front end with his hands, and Brandon completed the successful double-team by lifting up my back end. My body and kayak leaned over the river.
     My kayak tilted slowly until I reached "The Angle of No Return" - that horrifying moment when you know you're going in. I braced myself for the cold water and tried clawing whatever piece of Tonto's kayak I could to ensure I didn't go in alone.
     I plunged beneath the river, and the chilly 57-degree water shocked my body. I surfaced and shook my fist angrily at Tonto - the same nemesis who'd tipped me three times during Kayak-Fun Noodle-Joust 1999. Brandon and Tonto hi-fived. I laboriously dragged my kayak and the fifty pounds of water now inside to shore to empty it.
     Recovering, I made my way up to Chris's kayak to wage war. And I lost. I went down again. "Yah!" cheered Chris, and he continued on in his cocky, frollicking way.
     Me fighting Chris in Kayak-Fun Noodle-River Joust 2001 was like the Iraqis fighting the Americans in the Gulf War. But, I wasn't an Iraqi, I was a kayraqi! The main differences being that kayraqis are more fun to be around, their lower bodies are banana-shaped, hollow boats, and, when necessary, they can get crazy.
     As I propped my boat against shore and lifted it to let the gallons of water seep out, I got an idea. My kayak rushed down-river. I caught and passed Chris, giving him a few macaroni jabs for good measure. Setting the pace for the river-riders, I passed a wide bend in the Pine and docked my boat. I waited.
     Once Chris rounded the corner, I ambushed. I ran into the water, and Chris, a sitting duck, wisely tried to avoid me. He paddled away, but there was nowhere for him to go but into a fallen log. I pounced on his kayak with all my weight, and he got stuck sideways against the log. Incredibly, he continued to hang onto his balance. Finally, it was too much for even him, and he met "The Angle of No Return." I celebrated, watching the invincible sink into the stream. Woohoo! Somebody finally tipped Chris!
     A few river bends later, Chris attempted an ambush of Vato, who'd been hovering behind the jousters in a wussy effort to avoid combat. Vato was prepared, though. He freed his legs quickly from the kayak and hopped out. Facing Chris, he slammed his fun noodle against the shallow water with strength and deliberation. Like a male big-horn sheep stomping his foot threateningly to another, Vato was challenging Chris to a shore duel.
     After a brief skirmish, the pirates returned to their battle-ships. I got revenge by tipping Brandon, which evened my record to two knock-ins and two falls. Brandon tipped Tonto. And Vato tipped the still-confused Sergei.
     "I was just paddling along," said Vato, "when I saw him over by a log - with no idea where he was going - and off-balance. He was totally helpless. What could I do, I couldn't help myself? I shoved him over. But, I was proud of the kid! The first thing he did, right away, was get up and grab his fun noodle to defend himself."
     Sergei continued weaving his way from log to rock to tree branch in pathetic miserableness. He kept stopping to empty his water-logged kayak, and he fell further and further behind. "We have to face the facts," I said. "Some of us aren't going to make it out of this river alive."

To be continued ...

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