Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Spun Out

Although I live in the woods, I am still a Brooklyn boy at heart. I've never gone spelunking, parachuting, or rappelling. But in my third year of recovery, I agreed to try whitewater rafting. I had floated in a canoe down the Yukon River in Alaska and bounced along in an inner tube down the North Fork of the American River, had paddled a sea kayak in the freezing waters of the Pacific Northwest, but the notion of dropping down a wild canyon in a raft seemed just a little too daring--until I was invited by the mayor to tag along on a two-day trip down a tributary of the fearsome Snake River in Idaho.

The mayor had a grown son who ran the raft trips down the class four rapids. He knew what he was doing, the mayor said. All I had to do was put on a vest and helmet, sit in the raft, and row when directed, he said. The mayor said his son knew every bump and curve of the Lochsa, could do it in his sleep.

The river begins in the Bitterroot Mountains and descends through forty rapids over the course of 20 miles. It runs unimpeded along dense groves of cedars, spinning through holes as large as a ranch house, with aptly named rapids called House Wave, The Grim Reaper, Bloody Mary, and Termination.

As we drove across Washington State to the Idaho border the mayor and I talked recovery. We talked about God and how the majestic plains of southeast Washington flowed like a golden sea in the sunset. We camped at dusk and woke to the smell of fresh coffee and bacon, and the chugging air compressor that was filling our rafts.

What the mayor did not say, or did not know, was that his son loved to smoke as much marijuana as he could along the wild river. And when we reached our first beach for a drinking water break, our guide whipped out his pipe and begin to choke down clouds of sweet smoke. I passed, but two other people on our raft took a hit or two before we climbed back in the boat.

The mayor had long since gone ahead in another craft, so I was stuck in the front of our raft for the duration, which now played out in a cascading series of gut wrenching drops between walls of water. Our guide's advice: no matter what, stay in the boat.

He took a last blast of pot before we turned into a rushing artery that raced up to a wall of granite where it bubbled and descended into darkness. We followed. The roar seemed to ebb as we smacked bottom and jetted out into another series of short, gurgling drops, each new bend curving green and white over mossy rocks into a curtain of spray.

It was like landing on concrete, and when my eyes cleared from the mist I saw that my companions had been thrown from the raft. Only my guide, grinning and whooping, remained aboard, jerking at the rudder, trying to free us from the whirlpool into which we'd careened rather haplessly at the bottom of a sudden drop.

I held fast to the raft, straddled out, legs tucked into the lines at the back, head high as the world raced by in a nauseating fury. My guide shifted his weight, but each time we completed a revolution, the raft slid back into the center of the whirlpool and twirled again and again.

On the rocks above, kayakers tossed us lifelines, but none came close enough, and my guide pitched against the side, jerking wildly at the yoke. "You're doing great!" he shouted above the roar. "Keep it up."

I had no idea what I was doing that was so great, nor what to keep up. With each spin, I saw my fellow passengers ahead on a sunny rock, dripping dry and laughing. I thought of hopping out to join them, but the force of the spin pinned me at the bottom of the raft. At the end of each orbit, my guide tried to knife us out into the current. He stood and for a moment, I feared he'd leave me there.

With a sudden lurch, the raft skipped out into the stream again and my guide aimed us for the bank where our companions waited. I climbed out, my head spinning and a sour ache in my belly, and found a rock to call my home. I wasn't moving.

But my guide raced up and offered a high five. "You rock," he said. "You can run with me any damn time!"

Years later, I still have no idea what I had done to please him so. But when we took out at the end of the run, I found the mayor and advised him to reacquaint himself with his son. I was taking the next day off, if he didn't mind. I was going to sit by the side of the Lochsa and meditate on the blessings in life, even if that made me a wimp and a city boy.

But, you know, I couldn't wait to try it again.


Char said...

fortune favors the brave?

A Cuban In London said...

You know what? I just had my breakfast and dared to carry on reading your tale beyond the cautionary first sentences. I have to admit that I am brave. I don't know how I haven't thrown up my first meal of the day. Your anecdote had my head spinning and I swear that in the last couple of minutes my hands have shaken and stirred involuntarily.

A wonderful essay. Many, many thanks. You keep writing, Brooklyn boy and the 'Hombre de la Habana' will keep reading you:-).

Greetings from London.