It was after lunch when we got back to Poplar. Some commercial trips were out, and more would be coming down the mountain soon. The river had dropped quite a bit, but still felt really big to me. It put a knot right in the pit of my stomach. Some days I’d pay to have a lighter boat. Today I was thinking about piling a few rocks into mine to make it heavier. Big rocks. “You’re sure about this? Ya feel good?” She asked as I lowered gear down from the roof.
“Oh yeah. This will be fast and easy.”
“You said it could get harder as the level dropped.”
“Yep. You have a good memory, Mary.”
“Did it get harder?”
“Dunno. I haven’t seen it yet.” She helped with the gear, absently, studying her next move. I was ready to play.
“Are you gonna…”
“Nope. It’s too far to walk. The bike trip wore me out. I’m feeling tired and weak. Too tired for all that extra walking and scouting so we’ll just run it and kinda aim for the middle. We’ll see it when we get down to it. Soon enough.”
“But what about…”
“Logs? Trees in the river, pinned? What about them? We’ll see them from above and I should have enough room to stop if it is an emergency.” We were both laughing.
“No! I mean, what about…”
“Oh, safety? Being responsible? Really, we’re just running these three very short rapids and we are way close to the parking lot here. It’s the next rapid downstream that will kill you. That one is a quarter mile long. And continuous. You can have religious experiences there. For sure. So really, being such short rapids and close, we don’t need to worry about safety.” She was about to be in hysterics. Was she holding her legs together? “Are you gonna pee?” She was trying to say no, and waving with her hand. “No, you’re going to pee. I’ve seen this before.”
“But what about…”
“Snakes?” She waved no. “Bears getting into our food?” Another wave no. “Heavy petting with unexpected local-looking types?” Mary went down to the ground, and slowly rolled over. “Well?” After a while she looked up with tears in her eyes. I was laughing along with her and my eyes were watery too.
“Well, Joe. I hadn’t really thought of any of those things. I was just asking about the coffee. Did you remember it?”
“Shit!” I said. “No… It’s still on the counter.” I was embarrassed. Mary was wailing again. Must be her nerves. “I’m glad one of us is paying attention. I’m not kidding, I would walk back for that coffee.” I had climbed down from the top and leaned over her…and then just kissed her teeth, since she was smiling from ear to ear. “Thank you, Mary.” What pretty little color moments to stand out in some future gray recollection.
Holy shit, I was coming out of my skin. The adrenaline was pumping at the limits of my thresholds. We had crossed under the trestle, having warmed up in a long pool of anticipation. There was little anticipation left now. The river takes a turn here, sweeping to the left and accelerating as it drops into the mouth of the gorge. Really, a very obvious event. The accelerating currents gripped the raft and propelled it forward. The further we went, the steeper and more narrow the river became, bringing the water together for our first river features – big, towering waves, growing taller; random, scary hydraulics and pour-overs as you struggle to get your bearings. Do I need to be more to the left?
“Entrance is coming up! Get ready!” I yelled. Mary was up in the bow getting a hell of a ride as the raft rose and fell steeply over the waves. They were starting to break across the bow already, filling the raft. Ellie was looking back at me, but she was doing fine. She was a natural. Mollie was a twisty, spinning, flopping, face-planting, three-legged mess. She was having a great time. Mary was smiling too. I was the only one freaking out.
“This is Entrance?!” she yelled back at me, grinning with sweet oblivion.
“No!” I laughed. It was a kind of laugh.
“Nothing! This is nothing! It doesn’t have a name!” Her face dropped. “We haven’t gotten to the first rapid yet!” No, not yet, I thought. But I need to cut across really soon. Every time I came up high enough to see, I was trying to commit a hundred things to memory. “OK! It’s coming!”
“When will I know?!” she asked incredulously.
“When you don’t have to fucking ask! Hold the dogs!” I was straining against the long oars. Pushing. Turned upstream a little and shoving forward as hard as I could. I was too far right, and the water was pushing against us. Not much time. Not enough time, really. We were going to nail the first hydraulic right in the middle. Suicide. I turned it downstream and squared up to get my momentum, which I found down the backside of that first monster wave, and we buried the front of the raft into the frothing white wall below it. We flushed through somehow, with the raft kicking left a little as we came out. Left to right converging currents started hitting us as we now careened down the mountainside. All right oar pushing. Left oar dangling over the water, ready. The boat rocked straight up. Straight down. Again and again. I was getting glimpses of the rock and the massive hydraulic below. Except there was no rock. I couldn’t make out the features. Both oars pushing now, but it never feels like enough. Please, more speed. And then we were already there. Beautiful line. Up and over the last wave looking down and to the left at a disgusting pour-over where the rock in the middle should be. Charging hard and fast into the meat of the next hole, a little right. A little right hand angle, but straight as I could make it. We stopped as if crashing a car into a wall. Mary and the dogs disappeared in front of me and my body shot forward as I shoved my feet against the foot bar, hundreds of pounds of water slamming into me face first. I folded in half at the waist, into the water hitting me, struggling to keep the oars in my hands as my arms split apart. Fuck yeah! Most of me disappears like this. I have no history in these moments. There is just here, the moment, the things in the moment, and action. My face was full of water and I couldn’t wipe my eyes yet.
“Mollie!” I heard Mary yell. We came out of the hole, and I was pushing forward with the oars. I got an arm up to wipe my eyes, and saw Mary bent over the left hip of the raft looking forward. I couldn’t see Mollie. We were lining up for the next hits, and they are each very large diagonals. “Mollie!”
“Where is she!?” I asked.
“There!” Mary pointed, but I couldn’t see anything. We lined up a little further right, and hit each breaking wave perpendicularly, getting pushed to the center, lining up with the tall tail waves below. And then we were in the deep pool, rocks towering around us, surrounded by a new sound of all that air escaping the water, a very electric hiss. There she was. My heart. It always seems to take forever to catch up with your dog when it swims. I heaved her in by the handle sewed onto the back of her life jacket and slid her pliable, long little self up onto my lap, laughing. We were so high…river high.
“Hey, Noodles! Did you have a good swim?”
“Jesus!” Mary yelled.
“Why did you jump out, boo?” I asked Mollie.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” I asked Mollie.
“Jesus! Is she alright? Holy SHIT!” Mary was peaking on the adrenaline, thrilled. We all were.
“Oh yeah. Look at her.” Seventy pounds of three-legged, train-tackling Plott hound draped across my lap, thoroughly satisfied. “She’s going to recover from that trauma just fine,” I joked. She had no idea what just happened, I was pretty sure.
“I tried! I held on as hard as I could.” Mary pleaded.
“I know. I know. You did fine.” Were we giggling between every word? “That was my fault. I didn’t get it completely straight.”
“No apologies. Shit…no time! We’re already here! The first big one of the trip.”
This is the second monthly installment from Joe’s first whitewater adventure novel PEARLS IN THE MOUNTAIN. Stay tuned for the next installment in May…
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