“Listen,” I said. We sat quietly and listened. Ellie was making contented morning grumbles. Mary lay there, still. The water on the stove was singing as it came closer to boiling, the pot sorta groaning and cracking. And then behind that, and constant, was clearly the sound of the river outside. I love that sound. And I love these moments…taking them apart to see all the different details. Layers. I watched Mary’s eyes, waiting. There it was. They shot up to look at me. Awake.
“Yes, it sounds much deeper now!” I laughed. She sat up straight to look out the windows, but the solar panels were still down.
“I wanna see! Is it flooding? It sounds huge.” She was out of bed, beautifully naked, starting first one direction, then turning around, walking the other, trying to remember where her clothes were and how much she needed to have on. I poured the coffee for us as she bolted out the door, still putting on her jacket. The dogs looked content to stay right where they were, but I left the bus door open wide enough for them anyway. When I caught up to her, Mary was standing at the put-in. “Where is the stick we put in to mark the level?” She was stammering in disbelief.
“Hell, where’s the fire ring?” I asked. She just pointed vaguely out towards the river, in shock, and muttered. The spot where we had made love was very underwater. I put her coffee mug into her hands.
“What the fuck? How did this happen?” she asked after a few moments.
“It isn’t unusual this time of the year. If the conditions are right, even a small amount of rain in the right spot can cause it to flash.”
“Is this a flash flood?”
“Technically, yes. And it’s still rising. Rising rapidly. I put a stick in the sand when I first let the dogs out this morning, and that stick is gone too.”
She started to look sick. “So, what happened?” she asked, still trying to get a grasp.
“This is the water from that storm Sammy mentioned last night. From the radar, it looked like it dumped several inches in a thirty minute period along the side and in the valley of one of the mountains upstream. This morning, after waking to this, I jumped online to check the gauges up the Toe and the Cane. There was a spike on there from midnight last night that went straight through the roof, so it makes sense that it’s down here now, and still rising. But that was all I got. Something is wrong with the gauges, and they won’t update anymore.”
“Can we still go rafting? Is it too dangerous?” I took her back to the bus so that we could change into some hiking clothes. We grabbed our cameras too. I figured that we should hike down the tracks alongside the river and have a look at what we were up against. We could talk about our options out there where it made sense. We left the dogs, because they are impossible around railroad trestles. Crossing the river on the trestle is a treat, and illegal Mary said, as she slowly read the no trespassing notice from the railroad company. The river makes a sharp turn below the crossing and then drops, accelerating towards the first rapids around the bend. Even this far upriver, the waves were impressive. When the waters are at this level, I think the river begins to look like the ocean in a hurricane. At the other end of the trestle, we stepped off into the trees, and carefully climbed out to where we could see the first rapid below. It wasn’t good. There was a river wide hydraulic at the bottom that would stop a train. It was terrible and frothy. Mean. Angry.
We walked further down the tracks, the river to our right. It flowed swiftly through deep pools bordered by large, ancient, weathered rock, and then a short distance downstream it terminated into a broad horizon line, mists and leaping water peering up from beyond. You could practically hear it get louder with every footstep. Finally we stood above the first major rapid.
“We’re definitely not rafting this one!” she yelled above the roar. It was a mess – a large, bone-crushing, frothy, ground-vibrating mess of whitewater, with two particularly nasty hydraulics. Make that three. Mmm. Mary had her camera out. I pointed out that this rapid was actually easy to run at these water levels, because the entire right side had opened up, enough water coming up over the garden of boulders to allow us to raft through safely and easily. I told her that as the water level dropped, this rapid could actually get worse for us, because there was a point where there was no longer enough water to skirt it over on the right, but that it was high enough to still be a serious issue on the left…the only place left to go. We walked a short distance further downstream to where I wanted us to stop and camp. We were definitely going to have to skirt Jaws at this level, I could see that.
“This is where I want to camp. On those rocks across the river. Up there. Under the big pines. The view there is to die for. I’ve never camped here, but I’ve always wanted to. We usually go way downstream – half the way or further – and then set up our campsites. So you have to start relatively early. But here, we aren’t even a mile downstream from the put-in. That only takes a few minutes to raft, so we literally have all day to get down here. Here is what I am thinking: Most likely the water will drop pretty fast as the day goes on.” She was taking pictures. It was beautiful. The evening’s fog still lingered, held into the gorge as if trapped by the rocks of her craggy insides, while the sun began to roast holes into the thinning, brightening veil. “Tomorrow we will have all day to break camp and raft the other 8 ish miles to Sammy’s. We could easily be there by 3, even if we take our time.”
“So it is too dangerous to run?”
“No, it’s not that. This isn’t class VI, if that is what you are thinking, but it is high enough that running solo is irresponsible. No other boats or crews for safety. It’s fun, and totally doable right now, but the water will be much cleaner and manageable in just a few hours, I’m sure. That first rapid can surprise you if your raft is light. The last time I rowed by myself at this level, I tried to hit the right side of the hole at the bottom, but the water down the right side was more shallow than it looked. I drug my right tube on a rock, which slowed me down and turned the boat too much. Put me right out in the middle. Stalled.”
“No, but it was sketchy. I don’t know when I lost one of the oars, but it was a surprisingly long surf. The sides were coming up pretty high. She stayed down though.”
“What did you do?”
“Haha! You don’t get to do anything when you surf an oar frame like that. You draw the oars in and cross them, then you lay down over them, grabbing the raft and frame, and you hold on as tight as you can, pinning the oars under you. That’s it. As the sides go back in and hit the tongue, the ends of the oars grab all that water and try to pry you off the boat, but you have to keep those things under control, because if you drop them, or let them get loose, the river can beat you to death with them. I lost one somehow that day, I just can’t remember exactly how. See.”
“How’d you get out?” she asked.
“She spanked me for a while to let me know how disrespectful I was being. I’m still not exactly sure what I was doing that was disrespectful, but…” I looked up into the trees and started to drift off. “Anyway. Then she spit me out to go find my lost oar. I got spanked me a few times on that trip, actually.”
“Were the dogs with you?”
“Oh no. Not on that trip!” Mary studied the ground for a moment.
“Are you pretty sure it will drop?” She looked worried. I laughed at her. “Stop,” she said. “Should we cancel the trip? I don’t want to swim that!”
“Me neither!” I kept laughing. “Yeah, I can’t guarantee anything, but it ought to drop to a nice, juicy level by this afternoon. It might stay too high for us to surf like I promised, but that just means a bigger rafting trip. You win either way.”
“Are you lying?” she asked with a warning in her voice. A threat?
“No!” I laughed. “Let’s go have breakfast and then take an easy biking trip. Keep to our schedule.” She slipped in quickly to embrace me, her cold hand sliding under my shirt, tracing some of the scratches she left on me the night before. Her eyes became lusty and satisfied for a moment. There is an animal swirled into the goddess inside of that woman.
“What if you’re wrong though? Will we cancel the trip if it doesn’t come down?” she asked.
“Are you lying?”
“I don’t like beards,” she said smiling.
“You lie!” I whispered…
EDITOR’S DESK- Author Joe Norwood is a longtime rubber pushing raft guide from the Southeast. “I first came to the rivers in 1992. It had been raining all week and the river was dark and heavy with mud. The rafting trip took about an hour and when it was over my life had changed. I’ve never known a joy so fulfilling as guiding people on rivers in the mountains. It has stayed fresh with me, and my experiences have grown like towering mountains with great, long views. I like to share what I see with little stories. And smiles!”
This is the first excerpt from Joe’s first whitewater adventure novel PEARLS IN THE MOUNTAIN. Stay tuned for the next installment in April…
Or buy it online!
And follow Joe’s blog!- https://joebe.me/