White water rafting is a popular sport and vacation activity. Fearless men and women navigate treacherous rapids in plastic canoes for fun and that adrenaline rush. For lesser mortals and families, companies offer rafting excursions on almost every river in the world. And by no means, do I think you shouldn’t do it. I’m just telling you why I don’t.
My first and only experience with white water rafting was in Bend, Oregon. My wife and I, and our extended family including young kids, had rented a house at the Sun River resort, which I highly recommend for its biking, hiking, and golf. But we all wanted to try white water rafting. So we made reservations with a company that assured us that the river we would be traversing, the Deschutes River, would be ideal for safety and fun, having mostly Class 1 and 2 rapids at that time of year. I had no idea what the numbering system meant, so I did a little research. Here is my version of the descriptions I read:
CLASS 1: EASY, PEASY. Almost like a pool after your fat uncle jumps in.
CLASS 2: EASY, WITHOUT THE PEASY. Mild rapids, more like a fat uncle and cousin jumping in a pool, or maybe the ocean as the waves break on the shore.
CLASS 3: SERIOUS BUSINESS. These are more powerful waves, some jutting rocks, and swirling eddies. I never liked Eddies, especially Eddie Haskell.
CLASS 4: WTF?! Stormy seas, giant waves, sharp rocks, and death spiral whirlpools. For the love of God, why?
CLASS 5: Dead.
So Class 1 and 2 sounded great!
We all reported to the rendezvous point, received our instructions, including keeping your feet as high out of the water as possible should you fall in. Wait, fall in? Yes, fall in. That way your feet don’t get stuck under the water between some rocks. I fortunately was wearing my nerdy water shoes from Lands’ End, so mischief managed there! These would sadly come in handy as the trip progressed.
Then they gave us our life vests, which smelled like 2-week-old unwashed armpits, but no helmets. Odd, since nowadays you need a helmet for almost any moving vehicle that doesn’t cocoon you. But never mind, we were doing Easy Peasy and Easy, so we were good.
We climbed into the zodiac and our guide positioned us in such a way as to ideally weight-balance the raft. I liked that—scientific and logical. I did wonder why the outside people, including me, had to balance on the bouncy nacelles. Seemed unstable. Nevertheless, off we went, and sure enough, the first leg of our journey was smooth and fun. “I kinda like this rafting stuff,” I foolishly thought.
The flotilla of rafts then anchored a few minutes later in a calm estuary so that the guides could show us the next part of the river and strategize. “Strategize?” I thought. With a bunch of novices and kids? We walked for a few minutes on a dirt path, then turned to see the river.
I almost dropped a deuce, but luckily it was only my jaw. These were SERIOUS BUSINESS and DEAD rapids! The sound of the water was deafening, and it was all foamy white water. Rocks abounded! The guide started pointing to the path we needed to take so as to not hit rocks and possibly tip over. I was about to question the sanity of doing this when the guide said, “If you are uncomfortable, you can follow this path for a couple of miles and meet us at the landing point.” Everyone shook their heads and seemed eager to go. Even my family! Even my kid! It was bad enough that I was wearing wet, nerdy water shoes. I alone couldn’t go squishing down that path, leaving my wife and daughter to battle the beast, and possibly forever tainting my daughter’s opinion of my manhood. My wife’s was already low enough!
As we headed back to the boats, the guide said gleefully, “By the way, as we make our way around the first bend, we have cameras set up to capture your adventure! You can get the pictures later today!” Hmmm, how do I keep unbridled fear off my face?
So as all the rafts cast off, and we started down the river, I remember hearing the theme from Jaws reverberating in my head. The first minute seemed manageable. We were tossing about, but the guide was yelling instructions to us rowers and masterfully ruddering the raft. Here is the first of the photos his land-based crew took
That’s me with the bald head and beautifully sculpted arm, rowing like a Roman slave! But shortly after that, the guide started barking more panicked orders to row harder—we were approaching a big rock! Then the rock was upon us, and that’s picture 2. Where’s my oar, you ask? Where I was heading!
As you can see, everyone is screaming with delight, except the chrome-dome doomed one. Then, in a flash, I was in the water. It was surreal. My first thought was, “What the fuck?” And my second was, “Is my family safe?” As you can see from picture 3, they were, and I was gone. Have to give those photographers some credit—they caught it all in real time!
After I hit the water, and thank God missed hitting my head on a rock, I couldn’t breathe. This was mountain runoff and the water was freezing. I saw my raft, by now over 50 yards away, and heard my daughter screaming for me. And then it was out of sight. I gasped for breath and realized that most of the river was fairly shallow. So my ass was scraping on the lava rock bottom, and my water shoed feet were hitting the rocks ahead of me. I’ve never felt power and force like I felt from the river that day, and as hard as I tried to keep my feet up out of the water, my heels hit the bottom as I tumbled under the water and cart-wheeled over and over.
Each time I resurfaced, another raft passed me by. They had orders not to try to pull anyone in so as to not endanger their own boat. And so this went on for what seemed like an eternity. I felt hypothermia kicking in—my muscles were weak and I was hyperventilating. My brain was shutting down. I even tried to shoot webs from my hands like Spiderman – hypoxia triggering memories from reading too many comics as a kid.
Then I saw a large, fallen tree down river, cozily lodged near the river’s edge. There’s my chance, I thought. Never mind that the guides told us to avoid that sort of thing lest we be sucked under. Tree solid, tree safe, tree good. So each time my heels hit and I was thrown over, I made a concerted effort to kick myself in the direction of the tree. After one or two attempts, I was closer, but exhausted. I suddenly became calm and just let the water take me, assuming I was a goner. It seemed that the water had become calm as well. It had won!
Suddenly, there was a splash. A rope. A gold rope. God? Heaven? No, it was from the last raft, and the raft and I were now out of the rapids. I instinctively grabbed it and was pulled to the raft, where all of the crew helped to drag me up and in. My trunks were down by my knees, so they got a nice close-up of my shredded ass. Mercifully, no photographers! I thanked my rescuers by puking in their raft. I think a few trout came out too.
Shortly thereafter I was transferred back to my family’s raft and we drifted to the landing dock. My daughter kept saying, “Daddy, don’t go to the light!” They lifted me on to the concrete ramp, and I lay there, like an ectotherm, absorbing the sun’s warmth to raise my body temperature so that I could move. Paramedics came, and other than suffering from hypothermia and a chafed ass, I was okay. My feet, by the way, were unscathed thanks to my nerd shoes.
So, do I think you should avoid white water rafting? No, just be sure you know what class of rapids you’ll be doing. Would I do it again? Why should I? I did it the hard way, without a raft, so doing it in one would probably be a bore.