I met a river monster who feeds only on terror, and he was charming.
I’ve been white water rafting a couple of times before. Lovely excursions on a sunny day with friends and family. Always group trips with a guide who knew what we were going to see and do. At no stage in any of those trips was I afraid. I may not be a water person, but I know how to swim. I know that if I fall into the river, I should try and stand up in the water before I even start considering panic. So this latest trip, occupied the same space in my head before we started. A relaxing, fun day with friends on a beautiful river. They didn’t tell me about the monster traveling the river feeding on the terror of the unsuspecting tourists.
Outside the rafters shop, we started off with a lecture about safety and gear as the cars whizzed by on the road 4 feet behind us. I should have realized right then that something wasn’t right about the whole set up. Who lectures people about safety while having them stand with their back to a rural highway? 2 steps backwards and their clients would be doing smashed strawberry snack-cake imitations. I was lulled into a sense of security and amusement by all the safety gear we were required to wear: full wet suit, wet suit booties, splash jacket, life vest and helmet. Who needs all that stuff to go down a river in a giant raft with a guide? We all got our load of gear and suited up on the lawn. I’m not sure theres anything that can make me feel more ungainly, awkward and cause serious adolescent flashbacks than trying to put on a wet suit on a green lawn filled with frigging teenagers showing off their bikinis. But, whatever: white water rafting with friends who are funnier, wiser, kinder and wittier than teenagers ever were. So, fully outfitted and quickly overheating in our rubber suits, we boarded an ancient school bus and headed to the river.
Off the bus in a sunny park, we heard another safety lecture from a stout man who could have bench pressed the school bus. Two things were really clear: 1)The leading cause of head injuries on rafting trips is the oars of other rafters and 2) ‘Aggressive self rescue’ is a euphemism for ‘Don’t be an idiot, if you fall in the water, start swimming’. And with those two gems, we trooped down to actual water.
Three minutes after splashing into the river I was grateful for my silly wetsuit and splash jacket. The water was in fact glacial even on a warm sunny July day. The first hour was a joyous ride down a river surrounded by high stone walls and the most amazing variations on water color. Blue into grey into green and eddying back to blue then bright white where the rapids reflected the sun. There was no sound of traffic or crowds. I forget how accustomed I am to city noises to until they’re completely gone. I could actually hear the light breeze rustling through the trees on the riverside a few times.
The guide for our raft was a slim tall man with red hair and a well worn set of gear. He was charming and sounded like he knew what he was doing. He even pointed out interesting things about nature as we went past. We listened to him with some interest right up until he explained that the pipe crossing over our heads was a migratory tunnel to support nocturnal woodchuck mating patterns. After a hysterical story from one of my companions about carnivorous water mammals (told with a completely straight face) he stopped trying to convince us he was a wildlife expert.
We went through some fun rapids and cold water splashes before we pulled off with the other rafts onto a muddy section so we could talk about going over the falls. Up until then, I was convinced that ‘the falls’ was just a slightly bigger rapid that the guides were legally obligated to talk about. Yes, I saw the falls as we walked past, but I didn’t understand. It didn’t occur to me that you would take a raft over a 15 foot waterfall on purpose.
As I listened to the third safety lecture, I started thinking that this was insane and by the end I was completely convinced.
“Going over the falls is risky” …That makes sense…
“If you fall out of the raft going over the falls, you should swim to safety” …That’s sensible…
“There will be people on the shore with ropes at the bottom of the falls. If you need them, they’ll throw a rope and pull you to shore.” …That’s a good precaution, I approve of the forethought…
“If they look right at you and don’t throw the rope its because someone else needs the rope more than you do, you should swim yourself to shore (Aggressive self rescue)” ...well that’s mildly concerning, how often does that come up I wonder….
”Be aware that water recirculates at the bottom of the falls and if you fall out of the raft and get sucked under, you could get recirculated with the water” …Well that sounds bad….
“The smaller you are, the more likely that is to happen“ …uh oh….
“The only way out in that circumstance is to tuck yourself into a ball and let the water shoot you out the bottom, don’t struggle”… oh sh*t, I’m gonna die…
I looked around at all the calm happy people and thought, they’re all relaxed, the guides do this literally twice a day, it’ll be fine. I’m panicking for no good reason.
For the next ½ hour or so, we practiced the “procedure” for going over the falls as we went through smaller rapids. When the guide said “Get Down!” we each grabbed the rope around the outside of the boat in the same hand as our paddle, jammed one foot over and one foot under a strap that ran under the inflatable support in front of us, then reached over the inflatable support behind us and grabbed the strap the people behind us were holding with their feet as we moved our buts down to the bottom of the raft and assumed a sort of frantic upright fetal position. The whole thing should only take a second or two to do as we rushed towards the falls because we’d be paddling right up to the last second to build up the speed that would keep our raft from flipping as we went over.
When we got to the calm just before the falls, all the rafts pulled off to one side to let the people who wanted to walk around the falls off at the shore. Then our raft rowed across to the other side to act as a sight line for the other rafts. From where we sat, we couldn’t really see the falls, we could just see the bridge over them and a little white froth where they had to start. As we watched the first raft in our group raced towards the falls, I heard the guide yell ‘Get Down’ then they were gone. And a second later, we saw 1…2…3 ropes arc into the sky towards people who had fallen out their raft. The ropes that wouldn’t be deployed unless people couldn’t swim to shore. As I sat there, I was seriously considering jumping out of the raft and swimming across the river so I could walk around the falls. Because who goes over a waterfall in an inflatable raft with nothing but a twizzler stick of a paddle and a thousand year old life vest as their only defense on purpose?! Only crazy people do that. And as I took a second look to make absolutely sure the water where we were wasn’t strong enough to pull me into the falls, our grinning funny guide said ‘Let’s Go!’.
I glanced back at him and saw an inhuman grin on the guides face as he pulled a green mouth guard out of his pocket and popped it into his mouth. Why did he need a mouthguard and why didn’t we need one? What the h**l was about to happen. And with that thought, more adrenaline shot into my brain. Then we were paddling as hard as we could towards the falls. Not away from the falls like sane people would: Toward the falls. I heard the guide say ‘Get Down’ and grabbed the rope and the strap and slammed into the bottom of the boat and screamed. Because what else can you do with that much adrenaline?
Screaming while going over a waterfall is fine, but if you’re still screaming when you hit the water at the bottom, you choke. Important safety tip for someone else to learn from. I hope I’ll never need to know that little nugget of wisdom again. While I was still choking and sputtering and swearing my undying love for blessed oxygen, I popped up and started rowing with everyone else because there was a flipping boulder on one side at the bottom of the falls and we were headed right for it. We hit it and sort of ground along it for a few feet before we were into the clear water on the other side.
We drifted for a little ways down the river then pulled off to pick up the smart person who’d decided to walk around the falls. While we sat there, in the calm water I was shivering so hard the guide asked me if I was cold. Nope, not cold. Just the totally predictable shakes that come from being completely convinced for a few seconds that I was going to die a bubbly frothy white water death. As I glanced back at the totally relaxed guide I felt a spike of ice go up my spine. I’d been merrily rafting down the river with a mythical creature for hours and not suspected it. He wasn’t frightening to chat with. He’s really quite charming. And of course, no one ever suspects a gawky ginger of being a monster that feeds on terror.
We drifted quietly downriver for a while, there were a few more rapids, then we were pulling in to the shore and hauling the raft back to the bus. We rode back to the shop and peeled the wetsuits off before heading towards town and food and normalcy and away from the ‘people’ who run the rafting tours. The next group of rafters didn’t see us leaving because their backs were to the road, listening to the ‘safety talk’ as we drove away. The guides were standing around, smiling, waiting for their trips to start and their next meal on the water.
You’ve been warned. Travel the rivers at your own risk.