Saturday, April 16, 2011

18 miles of biking and whitewater rafting

On Sunday I accompanied a few students of mine on a bike/paddle trip. The trip wasn't my idea, but when they proposed it, I was very happy. I knew it would be fun, and it was. I met what I thought would be a group of 15 college students on my campus at 8am on Sunday morning. We were due at the river outfitter's shop around 9am. The trip organizer and her boyfriend joined me on campus at 8am, but no one else showed up. College students always find ways of disappointing me, so this wasn't a huge shock, and I didn't let it bother me much at all that day. We arrived at the shop around 9:20am and the staff were surprised that we were a group of 3 rather than 16. I shrugged and said, "well, it's too early in the morning, it's cold, and they are college students." Indeed, most students didn't have any better excuse than "I stayed up too late last night, so I didn't feel like getting up." Before I get too flustered about the maturity level of people who insist that they should be treated like grown-ups (they will quickly grow up, but only after being coddled in college), I better get to talking about the good and fun things about our trip.

We were fitted for the bicycles we would rent. Our route was a steady, 9-mile incline along a river upon a dirt trail that used to be a railroad bed. It was a pleasant and easy ride, and we completed it in a little less than an hour. MapMyRun tells me that I climbed 240 feet in 8.67 miles.

Arriving at a parking area, we met a Guide with a pickup truck. He gave us our raft and loaded our bikes onto the truck. He gave us wetsuits to put on in a nearby rest room. I had never worn a wetsuit, but it went on easily and felt comfortable, so I'd do it again. The Guide also provided a packed lunch for us. It was only 11am but I was strangely hungry after the bike ride. Instead of leaving the three of us to eat lunch by ourselves, the company guide sat with us. This was awkward. I felt I needed to engage him in conversation, so I asked a few questions. He talked about hunting rattlesnakes in the area. "Hmmm, interesting," I said. "Is that just a hobby? What do you do with them?"

"I eat them!" he enthusiastically replied, not understanding that consuming rattlesnakes for food is a rather unusual thing to do. As we finished up lunch, the Guide began giving us instructions on paddling down the river. He suggested that at such-and-such falls, we should keep to the left, but at another set of rapids, it would be best to keep right. None of these instructions were helpful, because we had never been on this river before, and we didn't have a map that told us the names of each set of rapids. I was getting nervous, but this was unnecessary. For the most part, the "rapids" and "falls" were harmless, and I think the greater danger was running aground in shallow water, and not capsizing the raft. One exception to this was the last set of falls. The man told us that we would encounter a giant rock in the middle of the river. It would be a more gentle passage if we went right of the rock, but then we would very quickly have to cut across the river to the left in order to land at the boat launch. Otherwise, we would miss the exit point and be at risk for going over a large waterfall about 200 yards downstream. So, to avoid those potential problems, the man suggested we go left at the giant rock. He said this course "would be more fun," and we could then easily exit the river.

It took about 2 hours to raft down to the giant rock the man told us about. Early on, we decided to go left to avoid the problem of missing the boat launch and going over a nasty waterfall. I was in the stern of the raft, so I was in charge of steering. It amazed me how slight a change in paddle orientation would affect the raft's direction. I also appreciated the strength required to steer; I may not have burned much energy paddling, but my abdominal muscles and back muscles were sore the next day. Steering, I took us left of the giant rock. But then there were smaller rocks ahead of us, forming a ledge and a 3-foot waterfall. We were headed for one of these rocks and I couldn't decide whether to go to the right or left. The river took us right into the rock. "No big deal," I thought, "the water will make the decision for us, and push the raft to the right or left." But the water didn't make that decision. We got hung up on that rock; the front third of the raft was grounded on the rock and we didn't go anywhere for a moment. In our efforts to dislodge ourselves from the rock, the raft began to turn. The water pushed the rear of the raft unto another rock so that now our raft was perpendicular to the flow of the water. We were stuck again, in a precarious position! Rushing water on our left, and a steep drop to our right. The student sitting at the front-right corner of the raft looked over her side and saw the steep drop. She panicked and threw herself to the left of the raft, grabbing the student sitting in the front left corner. This changed the distribution of weight and the raft began to turn. I ducked low. The rushing water then turned our raft parallel to the river again, but this time the stern was in front and the bow in back. We went down the 3-foot waterfall backwards!

I loved it. There were so many possible outcomes to this story, and I never would have guessed that we would navigate a waterfall going backwards. With no skill whatsoever, we somehow avoided capsizing, falling into the river, hitting our heads on rocks, and getting hypothermia. I laughed in hysteria for the rest of the ride to the boat launch. The students were a little in shock, but my good attitude helped them recover fairly quickly.

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