For a moment, the sight of Native American grinding holes and the noise of powerful rushing water shrouds every sense, creating an other-worldly setting trapped in time.
A soft splash distorts the calm and the short, sleek form of a playboat kayak emerges into view, followed by another.
Soon the serenity is interrupted by quick paddles, enders, popups, pirouettes, surfs and spins as the rapids give way to a hydro-aerial playground.
It’s a scene made possible Saturday by 57-year-old residents Keith Howell and Brian Ching, representatives of a playboating kayak trio that tackle mysterious white water north of Oakdale on the Stanislaus River.
From a distance, the location stretching around 150 yards looks similar to the rest of the river system, but closer inspection reveals turmoil beneath the water as currents and obstacles bend the rapids around rocks and trees with the deep holes and drops perfect for a short playboat (also called rodeo boat/trick boat).
The action gets intense when the playboats take turns tackling each ‘play spot’ for an attempt at some form of trick — one of the most impressive is a combination of an ender (boat drops head on into rushing water) a popup (boater leans back to pop the boat out of the water in a standing position) and a pirouette (boat spins while upright and mostly out of the water).
Howell and Ching reached into their full arsenal of tricks on Saturday, but were without fellow playboat enthusiast Brent Noon, who was unable to make the trip.
Noon is well-known in the community as the father of state medalist wrestler Trent Noon and current OHS wrestler Tyler Noon.
Ching is the owner/trainer at Oakdale Fitness Plus and is the father of Oakdale graduate and state wrestling champion, Trevor Machado-Ching. Howell is an outdoor enthusiast and gym rat who can be caught tackling vigorous trails on his mountain bike.
Noon and Ching built a relationship while coaching wrestling and Howell joined the pair when Noon made introductions at Fitness Plus over 20 years ago. Soon after, the three agreed to challenge themselves with kayaking when they turned 40 years old.
The first day on the river finally came in the summer of 1994, but the lack of preparation nearly resulted in disaster.
“The first day in the water we almost drowned,” Ching remembered with a laugh.
“The river was in flood-status and we didn’t know what we were doing,” Howell added. “We just taught ourselves the best way to do it.”
And as the three learned to kayak, they also learned their real passions for the sport were better suited for maneuvers across a short span of river than the slow, somewhat monotonous paddles of a long float. The nine-foot round-bottom boats were traded for flat bottom counterparts that got shorter and sharper with each purchase.
“Between just Brian and me, we have been through 20 kayaks,” Howell said. “They just kept getting smaller and the biggest improvement was that flat bottom that allows us to do more in the water. I think the way our boats kept changing was a big reason we kept our interest in it.”
Howell won’t take credit for developing the key changes in equipment or technique that helped the group build the confidence they have on the river these days, but Ching said the longtime outdoorsman was the biggest factor in his own growth of skills.
“Keith basically taught me everything,” Ching said. “I just watched him and tried to copy him, then he laughs when I have to swim.
“Brent is just crazy,” he added, laughing. “He’s all over the place. Some of the best times of my life have been had on this river right down here in this water with me, Keith and Brent hanging out.”