About two weeks after Rick and I decided to go on a whitewater river rafting adventure, I started to notice a few new wrinkles on my forehead. Not deep and permanent ones, but tiny stress-induced worry lines that had surely materialized because of a singular, gnawing fear: hitting my head on a rock while being thrown from our raft into a treacherous river rapid. I tried massaging them away and moisturizing day and night, but I knew that it was the countless stories from friends and family about getting dumped into the water on their own rafting trips (thanks, everyone) that were stoking my subconscious mind’s knee-jerk reaction to frown and furrow my brow.
The morning that we put in on the Snake River, our river guide, Paul (a Wilderness First Responder and Outdoor Emergency Care Technician certified in CPR and Swift Water Rescue), gave an expert lesson on what to do in case we got thrown from the raft. We would need to remember to aim our flexed feet downriver so that we could hit any potential rocks feet first and hopefully not get our ankles lodged in them. Since our life vests were so buoyant, we should hold onto and pull down on them near our necks so that our mouths would stay above the vest itself and out of the water. If we found ourselves in strong rapids with cresting and dropping waves, we must remember–counterintuitively–to breath at the bottom, not on the top. Since one generally passes through a wave and not over it, if we tried to breathe at the top, we’d simply take in water, not air. And lastly, we should look ahead for a surviving boat’s river guide and follow his/her instructions to swim to that boat or to the shore or whatever.
Normally, knowing safety procedures eases my worries, but somehow, visions of my head split open by a rock still managed to nag at my wild imagination.
Throughout the trip, the river provided myriad opportunities for rip-roaring rides through class III (Difficult: rapids with high, irregular waves; narrow passages that often require precise maneuvering) and class IV rapids (Very Difficult: long, difficult rapids with constricted passages that often require complex, expert maneuvering in turbulent water; scouting is generally necessary). But we also had long periods of tranquil and leisurely pathways that were ideal for admiring the scenery as it slowly went by or for napping on the edge of the raft.
When we knew that the rapids would be no more than class I (Easy: waves small; passages clear; no serious obstacles) or class II (Medium: rapids of moderate difficulty with passages clear; requires experience plus suitable outfit and boat), we took advantage of floating or swimming in the currents. Even though the rapids weren’t very vigorous, we felt so invigorated and liberated, being carried along at the whim of the waters.
These courses were perfect for kayaking, too. Half of our group hopped into baby blue rubber ducky kayaks to feel what it was like to be the captains of our own vessels. Rick, was a natural, and the joy on his face at maneuvering deftly through the waterways made my heart melt with pride and happiness.
I, on the other hand…not so much an expert. Kayaking on smooth Lake Union in Seattle or on the glassy waters of the Inner Passage of southeast Alaska is one thing. Kayaking with currents pushing you towards the shore is quite another thing for me. I think that I just need to develop better technique in order to build my confidence, and I’m eager for another chance to do just that. But when something out of your control happens, it’s simply not a pleasurable experience.
My concentration levels were virtually at their peak and my muscles were in fully engaged-mode. My ducky would be pushed to the left by the currents when I wanted to go to the right. I would spin and face upriver when clearly I needed to be facing the opposite way.
When I was about fifty meters away from a sharp bend in the river, I read the water and knew that I needed to aim for the middle so that I wouldn’t be swept to the right and into the large, rocky cliff face that jutted into the river from the bank. As I paddled towards the center, I heard a buzzing, rumbling noise grow louder and louder. I sighed in frustration because I knew that a twenty-foot jet boat was coming upstream at high speed and heading my way. Now normally, when they see kayakers or rafters, the pilots are supposed to stop, or at the very least, slow down, so that their wakes don’t rock the other smaller vessels in the river. But this guy was showing no signs of slowing down. Although he kept to his right, I knew his wake was going to rock me and possibly throw me into the rushing river. But if I paddled too close to my right side of the river, my head was going to make fast enemies with the rocky cliff.
I struggled and struggled to stay on course, to fight the natural movements of the water and the unnatural wakes of the evil jet boat. I simultaneously cursed that pilot in my head and prayed to God to help me. Every part of my body worked to keep me afloat as the waves tussled and jostled me like a cowboy on bucking bronco. I got so close to the rocks that I actually pushed away from them with my hand to avoid scraping my face.
When I finally regained control of my kayak and steered into calmer waters, my nerves were frayed and I wanted out of that ducky…quick.
Paul signaled to us that we’d be coming upon a restful part of the river where we would dock at a massive boulder in the middle of the water. Here we could transfer out of the kayaks if we wanted (yes, please) and into the rafts. We could also, if we so chose, climb the boulder and jump fifteen feet into the water below. Despite my still-frayed nerves, I so chose.
As I stood on the edge of the rock, I looked down below at the woman who had already jumped in and was swimming back to the rock to do it again, I saw Rick in his kayak beaming and shouting out words of encouragement, and I repeated to myself the chant of a coward trying to summon up some bravery: “You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.” I’ve gone paragliding in Switzerland, skydiving in California, have flown through the air with the greatest of ease on a flying trapeze in Seattle, and have jumped off boulders higher than this in Hawaii, but here in this moment, I was paralyzed. One minute passed. Two minutes passed. I was too embarrassed to just climb down and too wigged out to just jump. I looked at Rick again. His eyes connected with mine. And I jumped.
I was back in business. The thrill of the jump and the briskness of the water fired me up, and I was ready for anything. Or so I thought.
After scouting our last class IV rapids of the trip, we eagerly climbed back into our raft. Our river guide and resident cowboy, Craig, talked us through the route we would take through the currents, and reminded us six passengers that we would need to dig hard and fast to help us clear the rapids.
Paul’s raft went ahead of us. We watched his pathway and were pleased to see the raft clear the rapids without any problems. Our turn. We were woot-wooing even before we got to any choppy water, eager to make the most of our last big hurrah on the river. Rick and I were both on the right side of the raft, he in the first row, I in the second. When Craig told us to start digging, I kept my head down to follow Rick’s strong and rapid tempo. By the fifth stroke, I felt gravity pulling me forward. The nose of our raft was starting to point downward, and when I looked up, all I saw was a massive wall of water that was now suddenly and swiftly pushing the nose up. This was bad. This was really bad. And we all knew it. Craig did his absolute best to keep us upright, but he was no match for this monster–and no one could have been. The raft inclined as the oncoming roller (a reversal wave or wave that rolls back on itself) swept underneath us, and one by one, with the speed of a machine gun, everyone and everything were all launched from the raft.
Blackness. I remember nothing but blackness.
Then all of a sudden, I realized I was under the upside-down raft. I gasped for air and swatted my hands above me to get out from underneath the vessel. When I cleared the raft, Paul’s training kicked in. I straightened my legs and flexed my feet as the waters carried me through the torrents. I saw Rick about ten yards in front of me, holding onto the upside-down raft and looking for me. His look of concern and worry for me were painful to see. I tried to let him know I was okay, but I gulped water every time I tried to shout to him, and when I waved my arms, I would sink deep into my life vest and below the water.
I grabbed the neck of my vest to stay better afloat. The waves were still overwhelming, and I had to consciously tell myself, “Breathe at the bottom!” What seemed like an eternity went by before the waters started to subside. Paul’s boat was now forty yards ahead of me. I saw him signal for us to swim to his boat. I saw a paddle go by, so I swam for that first–foolishly thinking this would somehow help me. Eventually, I made it to Paul’s boat, and I was pulled up firmly out of the water and into the safety of the raft.
We were able to pull in a couple more rafters, but still needed to help Rick and a woman named Lisa. The waters were getting rough again, and I couldn’t help but worry. But soon after, we had Rick, and my heart felt like it could beat again.
Lisa was still thirty yards back from us. Paul told her to swim to shore, so she started to veer towards her right. I saw Paul look downstream and then whip his head back towards Lisa. He yelled calmly yet authoritatively, “Don’t swim to shore! Follow us!” and I faintly heard Lisa say, “Yeah, right.” We all understood why. We were about to go through a class III rapids.
We watched helplessly as Lisa braved her way through the currents. But she did it and finally made it to our raft. We were all so relieved that she was safe. And then we all laughed when we realized that she had salvaged some precious cargo from our overturned raft: one can of Canada Dry.
When we made it to shore, we all animatedly shared our perceptions of the raft toss. The excitement was palpable, fresh, and contagious. It had been a thrilling experience not soon to be forgotten. While we were still a little trepidatious, we were nonetheless grateful that no one was seriously hurt and that we had had an adrenaline-surging adventure that we would speak of often, long into the future.
As we recounted our tales, I kept feeling a stinging sensation on my forehead. I touched it and felt no blood, so I wasn’t too worried. When I had Rick and some others look at it, the looks on their faces caused me a little bit of concern. I had Rick take a picture so I could see what it looked like. Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but apparently, a nice chunk of skin was now gone from my face and floating down the Snake River. I don’t know if my head hit a rock or a paddle or scraped the rope on the side of the raft, but I would definitely have a permanent and physical memory from this trip.
I was determined to not be psychologically scarred by this. When we got back into the rafts, I asked if I could “ride the bull” or straddle the very front of the raft with my legs dangling above and in the water. I needed to face my fears head on. While we only went through class I and class II rapids, it was enough to regain my confidence and realize once and for all that I could do this and not fear it.
Now, a couple of months after that experience, I’m still scarred physically for life. It’s healed over, but I can still see the mark and can actually feel a divot where precious skin used to be. But it is now my one of my favorite souvenirs of all of my travels and of all my adventures, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.