Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Last Rafting Trip

I mentioned before that whitewater rafting was one of my activites in the mid-seventies. We knew no one doing this kind of thing, and had to search out everything we needed to do it- without the internet, of course! The raft had to be ordered from out West- from Montana I think. The huge gray rubber raft was like a creature from another time and place, far, far away.

In addition to the raft itself we had to find life jackets- they were beautiful, lightweight and bright yellow. They were nothing like the heavy orange canvas lifejackets I wore as a child on the lake. This was a new exciting time for outdoor gear. I used to ponder and ponder the REA catalogue as if I were studying a sacred text. The oars were also lightweight and nothing like the heavy wooden oars used for canoeing. At the time, plastic river sandals were hard to find, but we finally scored some. They were just right for protecting your feet, and the rubbery texture was essential for jamming your feet under the sides of the raft to help anchor you and keep you inside and seated. Then you could wedge yourself and use the leverage to increase the power of your stroke with the oar. I learned a most valuable lesson on life on that raft: "Keep your oars in the water". Think about it.

So off we went to try it out. We never attempted the Locust Fork of the river nearest to us in Birmingham, since it was only navigable after heavy spring rains. We went off to North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to raft. I think we did Section 4 of the Chatooga River first. It was challenging- it took all day, and there were Class III and IV rapids. We had no guide, and no real idea of what was around each bend so to speak, but we were foolhardy and adventurous enough to go for it. The river in that section alternates between rapids and calmer stretches. Some areas have to be walked around. There was also a deadly rapid that had claimed many lives- sucking people down in a hole that held them until they drowned. It was off limits, and we abided by the rule. We made it down the Chatooga just fine, and at the end of the day paddled blissfully across the placid lake back to my truck/camper. Ah, what a feeling!

The Nantahala River is nice and easy compared to the Chatooga, so after getting that one under our belts we tried out the Ocoee. The Ocoee doesn't mess around. You get on the section of the river with the Class III's and IV's and you don't stop or even know what has hit you until you come out the other end. It was killer, and also didn't take as much time as the Chatooga. The Chatooga is nicer in that the scenery is gorgeous, and you are rafting through a wilderness area. The Ocoee runs next to the road a lot of the way, so it is different- but the ride is so wild you don't know or care if you are in the wilderness or in the middle of Manhattan- there's no time to think about it.

So we went back to the Ocoee a lot and took along unsuspecting friends to enjoy the experience with us. We needed a 4 person crew for each trip. We also camped out, enjoyed the outdoors and explored the areas nearby. We spent every available minute outdoors in those days.

The last trip was like any other. We brought along our Ananda Marga friend and crashed and plummeted down the river as usual. By this time we knew the river and where the big hidden rocks were and knew how to avoid them and also get the best ride. As we were nearing the Class III rapid near the bridge, we were coming up on a big hidden rock and for some reason we hit it too dead on. The front of the raft rose straight up and I remember thinking "this is gonna hurt". It threw all of us out backwards into the rapids, then hurled us down an 8 foot drop.

Oh yeah, another good thing about the Ocoee is that there were usually other people around- sometimes watching from the road, and sometimes fellow travelers who were also rafting, canoeing or kayaking.

I distinctly remember going under for the third time, thinking "this is it", when a kayaker yanked me up to the surface. I was happy to be alive, and then I looked back at the bridge and saw where my raft was- wrapped around the pylon with tons of water rushing at it, pinning it to the pylon. It was hopeless to try to get it, and we all knew right then and there that that was the end of the rafting trips.

We had done it, had mastered it, and the river had reclaimed the vessel for itself and we respected that.

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