PEARLS IN THE MOUNTAIN ~ Excerpt #3. by Joe Norwood 

“I see a raft,” Mary said. Ah, yes, the express trip, I thought. One company there runs two different put-in times, and the trip that doesn’t get a lunch puts on much later. This was it, people looking to go rafting fast and cheap. They were into their first of nine miles of constant paddling. Because they are “express.”

“There ought to be quite a few guides and trainees on this run.” I said.

“What?” She turned to face me.

“There might not be that many customers on this trip.” I was looking upstream. Seven rafts? “Most of these rafts will probably be trainees and trainers, and others will be guides just having what we call a ‘fun run.’” Sure enough, I saw a handful of kayaks too. They were working out On the Rocks slowly and I got into the dry box. Mary was looking for a place to change, holding a pair of fleece pants in one hand. I stuck my hand into the front of her tight, wet shorts, gripping the waist band and turned her towards me. She smiled as I pulled her shorts down slowly over her round hips and then to her ankles. I skinned out of mine too and stepped into a very comfortable, loose fitting pair of slacks. I didn’t need a shirt yet, but I did feel like I needed as much sun as I could get on my skin. We tossed our wet clothes up the rock to hang up later and I passed Mary a flask of bourbon while I packed a bowl. We smoked the entire thing watching the rafts work their way down to us. I knew the guide in the first raft well. Charlie. He is a very experienced guide and really dependable.
He would be the first safety boat, and he took the right line, stopping in the eddy to float for a minute. As if scripted, the second raft of customers hit the left side and paddled to a stop on the far bank. Both guides were getting out of their rafts now with their throw ropes. Charlie was looking around for the owners of the parked raft, but we were higher up than most people go. “Let’s go down a little closer,” I said. “We might be getting a show today.” I said. Mary beamed.

“What’s up?” she asked as we climbed down. Charlie could see us now and recognized me. We climbed down two ledges, still well above the rapid, and took a perch. Charlie was set up a couple of rocks down below us. His customers were carefully picking their way along the rocks and would be sitting among us soon. It is really very funny what atrophy can do to a body. The easy walk across the rocks was like an obstacle course for them.

“Training and fun runs!” I answered Mary very loudly, sitting down heavily with a large, satisfied sigh. I held my flask up to Charlie, but he smiled and just shook his head like I was a cold blooded tempter. We both knew he couldn’t take a swig while working, and we both knew that I drink very good bourbon. “Ya see, these boys are safeties.” I gestured, overly, back and forth at Charlie and the guide across the river. “If someone comes out of these other boats, the safeties will throw their ropes out to ’em and reel ’em in.” Charlie stood there quietly, grinning while I spooned out my southern accent. His wasn’t a choice. “Now here ya are,” I continued, “See over there? See, that boy still has his crew sittin’ in the raft. That tells a man somethin’. That boat might need to be what we call, a chase boat.” Mary looked at me, curiously amused. “Ya see, we only get one throw with these ropes.” Charlie was going along with me, waving his rope for emphasis. “So why would he need to be a chase boat AND a safety? Well see here, if a boat flips, those good folks yonder might just have to all paddle out together to save the swimmers. Ya can’t save them all with only one rope.” Charlie shook his head no. “And ya can’t…I mean, hell’s bells, ya cain’t let ’em swim the next rapid yonder.”

“That’s what ya call bein’ negligible.” Charlie spoke up.

“That’s right. That’s right. Cain’t be negligible. So here is what I’m guessing. That boy yonder would rather let his customers walk around. But I bet he can’t. Now, if all the next boats was jus’ trainees and guides, shit, ain’t nobody paddlin’ out to save a buncha so-called ‘professionals’. Naw. So I’m thinkin’ there may just be a problem child in that bunch comin’ at us.” Charlie’s head went down as he giggled silently.

“A whut?” Mary asked, invoking some very powerful southern dialect herself.

“A problem child!” I whispered, eyes wide. “Hey! Hey guide! Ya got a problem child in that stick?”

“Yeah!” Charlie yelled back. “We have a girl from the French Broad guiding a six load on this trip. First run since her check-out.” I screwed my face up like I just bit straight into a lemon. Sometimes these folks break in new guides in pretty hard ways. “She just flipped at On the Rocks. That’s why it’s taken so long. Crew’s shook up.”

“Oh God!” I said “Nice day for it.” The southern accent was gone. “And this is going to be an express trip?” Charlie laughed.

“Hey man,” he said, “I forgot your name.”

“Steve! It’s Steve,” I shot back and stood up to put my hand out to him. “And yours? I’m really good with names, so I probably never asked.”

“It’s Amos,” he said shaking my hand, smiling. “Really nice meeting you. I’ve heard a lot about you. And you, ma’am?”

“I’m Mary.” she replied. Charlie nodded and looked away quickly.

“You know, Mary, they say that Amos is the best guide on this river.” I told her.

I heard someone in Charlie’s crew behind me say, “Amos? I thought his name was Charlie.”

“The hell you say. We all know that Steve here is the best guide on the river.”

“You men are silly,” Mary said, not entertained.

“Who’s got the safety across the river?” I asked squinting. He looked familiar. But then again, about everyone out here has a beard.

“That’s Shaggy.”

“The fuck you say,” I mouthed, wordlessly. “How did you get him to come out to work for you guys?” Shaggy and I clocked a lot of miles together out here, and he is the strongest, smoothest, most fearless man I know. The stories. I have this one picture of him after a flash flood…anyway he is always nearly dying, but it never makes him talk any faster. Steady. Not excited.

“He’s just merc-ing.”

“What’s a Shaggy?” Mary asked. Charlie and I both pointed across the river.

“Best guide on the river,” we said at the same time. Charlie had his throw bag open and was pulling a bit of the rope out. The rafts were coming in. He told us that there were two other customer boats, and one raft of guides doing a fun run. It came in first, leading the way for the new guide. The entire crew was experienced guides, just out here to play, and they were showing the new guide the line around the meat. They did a wonderful job of tucking her in, spinning in the eddy below to face her as she came through. Solid. And she did great. God, was she tiny. The next customer boat was right behind her, sorta ready to help clean up, but crashing right into the meat of the hole. It was pretty glorious. The last two boats were the trainees. It looked like one had a guide training and the other one was only trainees.

“You got turkey boats out already?” I asked.

“You wanna train?” Charlie replied.

“Ha!” The first one came in right down the middle. The trainee guiding was sitting in the rear on the right side wearing a bright orange customer flotation vest. The guide training was sitting on the left side one seat up shouting over the water. Instructing. Stuff. He looked pretty freaked out. Or stressed. Or probably both. Sometimes it is really hard to get concepts through. The rest of them were paddling like rock stars, loving life as they hit Jaws right in the middle. Water sprayed into the back of the raft, and a large column exploded off the bow, shooting upward too. For real, the trainee took his paddle out of the water. The boat tried to turn, but the trainer saved it with a few desperate strokes. They came over the boil cheering.

Turkey boats don’t have guides. They are all trainees, and so they can be pretty entertaining. These guys had an old floppy raft, well past retirement age. It looked like two of the trainees were arguing or struggling to understand each other in this life. That isn’t unusual to see. They came in a little right of the line and the kid guiding had a left hand angle, calling strokes and still trying to get to the biggest part of the hit. Holy shit. I was already on my feet.

“Yes!” I yelled. The raft slammed Jaws diagonally. The front of the raft never cleared the boil line. It stopped, buried there while the rest of the raft swung into the weaker part of the hydraulic on the right side. Then the raft just hovered there for a moment while the front twisted and the first three trainees came out. The left side went back in as the raft tracked across to the middle. Another swimmer. One trainee was holding the chicken strap on the high side, and the other was hugging the thwart in the middle. The raft popped up to the top of the boil and lay back down. Then started sliding back upstream, back down into the tongue. The next hit was huge. The raft went vertical and the kid on the right side held onto the strap, dangling high over the water. He closed the coffin, as we say, pulling the boat the rest of the way over, upside down. I was yelling things. I have no idea what, but I was pretty excited. And then the raft stayed in the hole. Oh God, I was about to die. Too much goodness.

Trainees swimming left. Trainees swimming right. And a raft stuck surfing on its own in the middle.

“That thing is doin’ a helluva job, ain’t it, Joe?” Charlie yelled. I slipped down from behind.

“Yeah, look at it go!” The raft was getting tossed around nicely. It was a great little show. The other training raft ferried out from the side, the crew paddling carefully. The trainer was up front now. It took a couple of tries, but they got close enough that the guide was able to jump into the surfing raft. He had a rope in one hand and as much of the raft as he could hold in the other, and he got down low. The other end of the rope was being held by trainees from his raft, and when the rope went tight, they easily pulled him and the raft out of the hole. They dragged it to the big eddy on the right side where we were and then forced the three swimmers that made it to the left side of the river to swim across instead of paddling over to get them. I was thoroughly entertained.

A few minutes later our friends peeled out. They had a lot of river yet to run, and the most difficult rapid was coming up soon. I waved across the river at Shaggy. He gave me a small salute back. “Tell Shaggy that I’m still using that Sawyer key to open my beers on the river.”

“Aintcha s’posed to drink out of cans out here?” Charlie asked.

“We break a rule every once in a while, don’t we?” I said. But I didn’t mean to go that far. History…

“You guys camping at lost Cove?” He asked.

“No,” I said. “We’re going to camp right here.”

“Nice. Is it flat enough up there?”

“It isn’t flat. Whether or not it is flat enough will be decided tonight, won’t it Mary?”

“It looks fine to me. I’ve camped in worse places.” she replied. “It was nice to meet you.”

“Yeah. Same here. Y’all oughtta stop by the outpost tomorrow on your way through,” he said. I studied him a moment then shook his hand.

“I s’pect you might be seein’ us around 3.” I replied.

“Or come by Sammy’s. He’s cooking a big dinner tomorrow night. We’re all coming over.” I smiled knowingly at Mary. He was the last boat to push off and he turned around as he coasted out. “See ya Charlie! Watch out for those bears tonight!”

“Thanks!” I yelled back. “Thanks, Joe! It was good seeing you again!”

I could see his customers fussing around and then I heard one, turned around, say “What exactly is your real name?”

“You.” Mary said.

“What?” I was tying our raft to the bowline.

“You like seeing people suffer.”

“What?” I asked in disbelief. “It was just a wee bit of carnage.” I smiled at her. “Totally harmless.” I had a few more packs in my arms now, about to climb back up to the top. I was still feeling electrified. “It was fun, right?!” I asked smiling.

“Absolutely! But you, sir, have a little bit of devil in you. I’m still wondering if I ought to trust you so much.”

“I’d be more worried about the bears.” We unloaded the raft and made a nice late snack. I changed into some shorts and lay a mattress down so I could get some sun to get into my skin. It had grown quite a bit warmer later in the afternoon, but we wouldn’t have much more direct sunlight. It’s strange being in heaven like this. Once I have everything, there is only the restlessness vibrating underneath, like the roar of the river in the background. I have to contend with it. And it is something. I can see how the universe began in moments like those. Every time I find heaven I eventually feel the need to rush off. The power to sit and remain is one of my walls.

EDITOR’S DESK- This is our last of the three monthly installments from Joe’s first whitewater adventure novel PEARLS IN THE MOUNTAIN. (Part One appeared in March and Part Two in April.) Filled with whitewater action and the musings of a longtime southeastern rubber pusher, it’s an awesome read for a Dirtbag. 

You can help Joe make it to the publisher-
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By Chicago Mike

Editor-in-Chief "Chicago" Mike Toughill is co-founder of Dirt Bag Paddlers and former Peshtigo River Manager at Kosir's Rapid Rafts in Wisconsin. He's been Wallacing since 2003.

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