Whenever I travel to an unfamiliar area I always try to get out on the water. It’s not enough to just feel a sea breeze on my face while taking a walk along a city’s waterfront or by strolling barefoot on a beach. I need to experience the feel of water passing under a boat’s hull. I need to experience the area from the perspective of a sailor, and take regard of the shoreline from the sea instead of regarding the sea from the shoreline. I want to get a feel for the lay of the waterways, a sense of what it might be like to ply these unexplored waters on a regular basis. There’s also my sense that there is more likely “adventure” to be found on the water then there is on land.
And it’s not just ocean water that attracts me, as I’ve always been drawn to lakes, ponds and rivers, as well. If there is water, I look for boats and the means to get on one.
Back during my university days I visited my friend, Lee, in Sacramento. Not much water to speak of there, but after he mentioned a whitewater rafting trip he’d recently taken on the American River, I convinced him that we needed to explore the river further. So we packed a lunch, filled a cooler with beer, bought a cheap blow-up raft at WalMart and drove an hour or so northeast to a known launching area. Lee made arrangements for someone to pick us up at the end of the day at the take out some 20 miles downriver and we proceeded to blow up that raft with a foot pump.
A few people hanging about at the put-in spot gave us quizzical looks, and one man asked, “do you boys know what you’re doing?”
“Of course we did,” we replied. After all, Lee had recently rafted this river…with a guide and on a sturdy, hard-bottomed raft specifically made for white water rafting.
The man shook his head as if to say, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, and off we went, full of excessive bravado and confidence so common in 20-year-old men. A half mile down the river we hit the first rapids, appropriately named “Meatgrinder,” as our first impact with an unseen rock punched me in the left butt cheek making me howl out in pain. A couple of more strikes quickly followed, letting us know that perhaps our cheap raft wasn’t made for white water. And then we turned a corner to enter the frothing water of the actual rapids and were quickly upended—bye-bye beer, lunch and the first paddle…
…And only 19 more miles and about 30 named rapids to go!
Somehow we made it. We drifted into the take-out at dusk clinging to the last of the raft’s four air pockets that hadn’t yet been punctured, our bodies covered from head to toe in bruises and gashes. Our driver looked with incredulity at us and the remains of the raft and said, “what were you boys thinking?”
“What?” we replied, our bravado still intact. “That was great!”
On the ride back to our car, we did admit to a bit of discomfort, and agreed that we needed a more robust raft for any such future rafting adventures. We also bemoaned the loss of our beer, lunch and paddles. One small saving grace was that we had inverted our life vests to wear them around our mid-sections like a diaper, thus providing a bit of protection to the more sensitive parts of our bodies.
And no, we did not have helmets. But it didn’t seem to matter much, as apparently we had more bone up there in our noggins than we did brains.
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