Paddling in Clear Currents

One of the things I miss about not working in Providence anymore is WaterFire, an art installation running down the rivers in the heart of the city. Over 80 braziers installed in the river are filled with firewood, lit, and stoked over the course of the night, accompanied by music playing along the river. WaterFire runs every couple of weekends over the summer, depending on the tides and funding, and is something you shouldn’t miss.

I was looking at their site a couple of weeks ago, and noticed that they were running a Clear Currents event this weekend, which involves illuminated koi fish mounted over canoes and kayaks paddled throughout the installation. I first saw this a couple of years ago, and envied them then. When I saw the announcement now, I was interested, but balked at the price — $50. Then I remembered the times I’ve thrown a $20 bill into the donation bucket at past Waterfires, and signed up.

It was totally worth it.

Clear Currents participants are very much a part of the show. We were told in the first welcome email, “Since WaterFire is an artistic event, each of you is considered an “actor” while you are on the water.”  This turned out to be very true. The whole night I was very aware of being a part of a performance, and having an audience.

I arrived in Providence yesterday just before 3:30. The volunteers were already there, and a number of other paddlers had also arrived. Each boat needs to be fitted out with its fish, which is mounted on a pole fastened to a small plywood base with foam “feet” which rests on the deck of the kayak; the base is attached via adjustable straps running down and around the hull. The koi fish itself is about three feet long; it has a cloth silk-screened exterior over some sort of stiffening material over which LED lights are wrapped; the whole thing is powered by a lantern battery cable tied to the mounting pole.

Volunteers prepping a boat
Volunteers prepping boats

With over 50 boats to prep, it took a while to get them all ready.

Boats ready to go
Boats ready to go

Around 5:30, we had our orientation, then everyone piled into their boats, and set off for the staging area, just off the basin under the Providence Place Mall. By 6:30, we were all there. Shortly after 7, the gong sounded, “Being in Rhythm” started playing over the speakers and we knew it was almost time. This WaterFire featured the Gendo Taiko drummers from Brown University, and they were awesome.  Finally, the basin fires were lit, we were given the signal to turn on our fish, and it was time to run the gauntlet between two rows of braziers and out into the basin.

Gendo Taiko boat ahead of us
Gendo Taiko boat ahead of us
Lights on
Lights on
Preparing to enter the basin
Preparing to enter the basin

Into the basin we paddled, more and more of us, until the whole center of the basin was full of circling illuminated koi fish — or paddlers, if you want to look at it that way.

Koi fish in the basin
Koi fish in the basin

We circled for about five minutes, then headed downstream, each “school” bound for its own part of the river. There is a very detailed schedule for paddlers; after exiting the basin, each of the six “schools of fish” would be spending a half hour in each section of the river.

My school’s first section was the area just beyond the basin, up to the Exchange Street bridge. We entered our area, and began lapping it. I quickly discovered an unlovely fact about my boat — while it’s comfortable and stable, it doesn’t like tight turns, even with the rudder.

Aside from that, it was a lot of fun. It was so cool to see the fires from the water, and to be a part of it. I think I was photographed more last night than I have been in the past twenty years. Several people called out to me about my beard, which is now quite long. I think the best part was hearing little kids when they saw us.

Waterfire from the river
Waterfire– and spectators– from the river

I was most aware of having an audience after we moved to our second area, between Steeple Street and College street. I tried to go under the side arch of the Washington Street bridge, and got stuck. Turned out the the koi fish had hit the underside of the bridge. It broke, but I got a round of applause when I freed myself and got out from under the bridge. After a quick visit to the base, where volunteers replaced the fish, I was back in the event for my school’s move to the next area.

I’d never understood viscerally how busy the river is. Sure, I’d seen the wood boats and the gondolas and the party boats before, but until you need to paddle around them, and stay out of their way, you won’t understand. I was also surprised how much wood ends up in the river.

One last section, and then it was time to circle the basin again. Around and around we circled, more and more koi fish joining our school. The fires in the basin had burned quite low by then, but we could see a wood boat working its way up the river. Still we circled, and the wood board drew closer. We continued to circle, and the first brazier was reloaded, then a second, then a third. Circling time was officially over, and we were now free to move around the river as we wished, but many of us kept circling as the fires re-awoke. Then it was time to break formation, and do one last paddle back down the river and back to the base.

Would I do it again? For sure. I mentioned earlier that I initially balked at the price. After seeing what’s involved with the fish — the lights, the cloth covering, the mounting pole and strap — I can understand it. One thing I wish the web site had made clearer was the “Additional paddler position”. I thought it was a charge for a second paddler if they allowed a tandem kayak; it wasn’t until after registration closed that I learned that it would have allowed me to change places with another person; it would have been a great way to share the experience. I had a great time.

One thought on “Paddling in Clear Currents

  1. Hi Ted,

    Thanks for joining us last Saturday for Clear Currents! It’s one of my favorite events of the years. Thanks for helping create the art that transforms the city and inspires its residents and visitors. Hope you join us again in 2016!

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