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Chapter 15: River Rafting


       "More eating, less talking." Dan presses us to hurry all through breakfast. "We leave in fifteen minutes. Stack your trays and, John, pick up the box with our sack lunches from the table next to the kitchen door."

       After we pile the last-minute rafting junk into the back, I stand by the front door of the van. I'm hoping Dan'll let me sit next to him so I can see everything. After he shoves the big side door open, he looks at me and points me to the door to the front seat. Corrie sits with Jerry, the other staff guy, in the seat right behind me.

       A couple of hours after we leave Eagle Crest, Dan drives a steady fifty-five up a two-lane road along a river. I've never seen so many tall trees. Fir trees and bushes every shade from almost-yellow to green so dark it's nearly black. Most of the year at the ranch , growing things are yellow and brown and tan, only green in the spring and early summer. When I think about home, I know getting there is the only thing that matters. I lose interest in trees and slump down.

       We turn left at a sign: Willamette National Forest, Paradise Campground . At last. I've finally reached paradise. Always wondered where it was. Dan eases the van into a parking area marked: Unload Boats Here. He turns around and shushes the guys. "Listen up, from here on, Corrie's in charge."

       Randy jumps out first and smirks as the rest of the guys climb down. What's he up to? Neil climbs down last and Dan looks like he's going to drag him out if he doesn't get to it.

       Corrie's the manager of the camp and busy with that, so we don't see her too much at Eagle Crest. Me, I think it's kind of nice having a good-looking female in charge. This is the first time I get to look her over good. She's skinny, but, boy, does she have muscles. She lifts up a big box as easy as I can.

        "First," she says, "we're going to unload the raft, the paddles and the life jackets. We'll leave the lunches and the dry clothes in the van. Jerry will drive down to the take-out place and meet us with the food." She points in the van. "We'll need that big box, too." The guys push up and grab for stuff. Randy snatches a paddle away from Sam and acts like he's gonna swing it at him.

ThinkLink: How do you use humor to cover up your nervousness?

       Corrie steps right up to them and backs Randy off. "It's not too late to send you down in the van with Jerry," she warns him. Randy perks up then and swings the paddle around again. So that's it. He doesn't want to go anywhere near the river. I bet he's more afraid of water and boats than Neil is.

       "Randy, come over here with me and hand out the life jackets." Corrie makes it an order. What's she doing giving him another chance? Maybe she's figured him out, too.

       I reach into the back of the van and grab hold of a bundle of gray rubber. It doesn't budge. Neil snarls at Sam from inside the van. "Grab the other corner and lift, dummy." The three of us pull on it, but it still doesn't move. Corrie brings the rest of the guys over and we push and pull until it's far enough out we can lift it down to the ground. She unfastens the straps around it and unfolds the mound. Sure enough, it's a raft, dark gray with a red band around the sides and a black bottom. Only, it's flat as a tire with a nail in it.

       Corrie reaches for a yellow bucket and pulls a silver canister out of it. She undoes the cap on the back section of the raft and screws a nozzle into it. Air from the can puffs the raft up. Pretty slick. She helps us lift the pipe frame down off the van roof and down into the center of the raft. She fills each section around the raft and two seats she calls thwarts .

       "Now the clothes," she says. "Cal, bring that box over here and I'll pass out things you'll need. The water here's from snow melt and it's icy cold. No jeans or cotton shirts allowed." She takes a duffel bag around the other side of the bus. We strip off our stuff and start to put on the grab-bag things, wool pants and old plaid wool shirts. Neil pokes me in the side and snorts. "Look at what we got, and get a load of what they got." Dan's pulling on shiny red rain pants and Corrie comes around the corner of the van wearing a black nylon swimsuit. I gulp and some of the guys whistle, but she acts like she doesn't hear us. She's busy putting on a wet-suit and zipping it up. Then she steps into floppy old tennis shoes.

       She scowls. "All right, you guys, stop laughing. If I need to go in the water after any of you, I'm ready. Besides, I get cold fast. Not much fat layer." Then she grins at us. "You rafters look pretty good. Line up and we'll fasten you into your life vests." Dan drops a pile of thick vests in front of us. They're faded orange and have black straps all over them. After we pull them on, Corrie clips our vests down the front and cinches up the straps on each side.

       "You look stupid as you are," Randy sneers at me.

       I think about how Tony handled him and I'm ready to snarl right back at him. Then I remember how much trouble Randy got me into before. He could torpedo me again, especially if he figures out how I wrecked his plans.

       Corrie gives us a look. "Enough horsing around."

       Randy snorts. "Yeah, Cowboy, no horsing around." I choke down another comeback. If they'd just lay off those lame cowboy jokes.

       Now Corrie's losing patience. "Are you guys ready to go?"

ThinkLink: Write about a time when you were a good team member. Was it hard work?

       We grab hold of the ropes and carry the raft down the path to the river. We wade out into shallow water, stepping on the little rocks and around the big ones. The icy water curls up my toes. Corrie fastens a line from the raft around a big rock and raises her hand. "Listen up. Dan will be in the right front corner where he'll be 'stroke.' You'll sit on the thwarts . They're the dividers that go across the raft. John, you're front left."

       "Neil, get in behind Dan. Sam, sit in the middle, next to Neil. Randy, you're behind John. I'm on the back, and Terry and Cal, you'll sit in front of me. Got it?" Not without a road map, I think, but I can find the front of the boat. Let the other guys figure out where they go.

       We scramble over the fat sides of the raft and sit where she tells us. The raft bounces around in the water a little, and Randy grabs the back of my shirt. I jerk around and glare at him, and he lets go. Then I see Sam squeeze up his face. "Geez, this water's cold," he says. "My feet are frozen."

       Corrie ignores him. "Listen again," she orders. "I'm going to show you how to use your paddle."

       Sam complains, "I don't have a paddle. What'm I gonna do?"

       "You'll get your turn. Right now, go through the motions with us, and when you're on the outside, you'll know how to do it."

       We practice the stroke, turning left and turning right. Corrie wades along the side of the raft, checking on each one of us. When she gets to me, she puts her arm across my back, pulling my paddle back at an angle. Damn. I feel my face get red. Corrie's old. Ten years older than me, at least. And, anyway, she's staff. Still, her arm feels hot across my back. I try to concentrate on the paddle.

       She climbs into the raft again. "If we get hung up on a rock, I'll say rock side. Everybody slide over toward the rock and the far side will tip up and we'll slide off the rock. Then you have to come right back into place so the raft won't tip over." Even I'm getting nervous now. I never counted on ending up in the water.

       "If you do fall out of the boat - and you'd better not! - lead with your feet going downstream and lean back. Let your life jacket carry you. Remember, keep your toes pointed downstream and paddle with your hands toward shore where we can pick you up."

       That does it for Neil. He tries to stand up, but the raft sloshes in the water and tips him back onto the thwart. "Maybe I'd better not go. I'll ride down in the van with Jerry."

       "That's OK, if you're sure you don't want to go," Corrie says. "I'm not telling you all this to scare you, though. These are things you need to know before we can take you out on the river. We'll take good care of you. How about it? Think you can make it? It'll be a lot of fun. I promise you."

       Neil looks around and every eye is on him. "Yeah, I guess I'll go," he says. I twist around and give him a thumb's up. He smiles, a little, and holds tight to the rope laced along the top of the raft.

       "Trade places with me," Sam says. "You sit in the middle and I'll paddle."

       Neil doesn't argue. He slides over to the center, next to Randy, and Sam takes his place on the outside. Corrie grins. "Great. We're all set. If I say 'stop', then quit whatever it is that you're doing right then. I'm the boss of this raft and you'll do exactly as I say, instantly ! Can you handle that?"

       I nod, and then I look around at the other guys. For once, no smart cracks. If she'd only get on with it.

ThinkLink: Did you ever do something that you were scared of at first, but then found out you actually enjoyed it?

       "Let's do it," she says finally. She and Dan rock the raft out into the current and climb in. Corrie sits on the back of the raft, steering with her paddle, first on one side, then on the other. We drift backward into the current. Then Corrie yells, "Paddle left."

       I watch Dan and push the blade of the paddle every time he does. It works. The raft turns and heads down the river, sliding past the rocks and bobbing over the white caps. I can feel the bump of the rocks on the bottom of the raft as we leave the shallow water. Then we're heaving up and down as we go over a little waterfall Corrie calls rapids. This is -- this is great! I dig my blade in the water right in time with Dan.

       We bounce up and down over some rocks and take a few good dips down rapids that really are white where the water foams up around them. The swoop down is like the roller coaster at the county fair. Hot damn! I scream right along with the rest of them.

       After a while, we pull in for a pit stop. When we climb back into the raft, the guys in back change places, but Neil says he'll stick to the middle. Randy's right behind me and Sam takes the other side.

       We slide back into the river. The water smoothes out now, we coast along, and I have time to look around. A few white clouds feather up over the trees downstream, but up overhead the sky's bright blue. Spring's finally here. Tall fir trees line both banks of the river. Some of them have strings of gray moss hanging down from the branches. Under them, small trees and bushes have new yellow-green leaves coming out. I take a deep breath and try to sort out the smells, but they're all mixed up -- the water, the musty forest and my wet wool pants. The water is so bright from sun sparkles I have to squint my eyes.

       I look back at Neil. Even though we're through swooping, he's hanging onto a rope along the thwart and he looks like he'll squeeze it in two. He's grinning, though. We bob along without paddling, just watching the water, looking for fish, seeing the sun on the bottom rocks. They picked a good name for this part of the river. This really is paradise.

       "Rocks!" Corrie yells. We slide over to one side and the raft lifts up on the high side. Neil slides over into Randy and Randy shoves back. The whole raft flops up to the other side. Dan and Corrie lean over hard and it comes back up straight on the water. Geez!

       "Don't panic when we hit a rough spot," she yells. "We're almost to our takeout place."

       I look around at Neil. He's real quiet. "You OK?" I ask him.

       "Sure," he says, trying to look real cool. "Just lost my balance. This ain't as bad as hanging from that rope, yesterday." Randy whips around and glares at him. "While Dan was pulling me up," Neil says a little shaky.

       "You did that on purpose, yesterday, I know it. I just gotta figure out how. You never did mean to go with me, did ya?" Randy half stands up and grabs for him.

       I look around quick for Corrie. She's steering for a sandy place at the edge of the river. Dan is paddling and trying to see what's going on at the same time. I pull my paddle into the raft just in time to see Randy stand up and pull Neil up with him. Then we swoop over a dip in the water and Randy starts to fall. I grab his arm and he lets go of Neil. Randy goes over backwards into the water. I feel myself going in, too. Cold water covers me and I come up spluttering . By this time we're out of the main current and when I stand up, the water's just knee deep.

       I look around. Everybody else is out of the raft by now and Dan pulls it up on the bank. I grab Randy by the shirtfront and heave him up out of the water. I growl at him, real soft, but mean, like I think Tony'd do. "Back off of Neil. He's my guy. Don't mess with him."

       Randy flails around, trying to get his balance on the slippery rocks. "Sure. Sure," he says, "Just get me out. I'm gonna freeze to death."

       Corrie wades over to Randy and me. Randy sputters and snorts, but he doesn't snitch . Corrie stands between us and stares him down. "Looked to me like John was trying to save you from going over. How come you stood up in the raft? What's going on?"

       Randy looks like he'll explode at the part about me saving him, but he just wades out onto the bank and takes off his wet shirt. Corrie looks at him and at me and she wades out too. By now, my feet are freezing and my legs feel like dead tree stumps. I climb up out of the water and wait for the ax to fall.

       Dan corrals us all up on the beach. "Get out of your wet clothes. Jerry put your dry clothes over behind those bushes." Dan gives me a look. "You're always on the spot, right?"

       I shrug, like I don't know what to say. I really don't. I'm fresh out of excuses. Dan turns away and walks back of the bushes with the other guys. I stand there wondering whether this'll mess up my chances of leaving Eagle Crest. Randy's putting on dry clothes, Corrie's gone off behind the van to change, and I'm shaking all over in these sopping wool pants and tennis shoes, so I hurry to change too.


By the time the van heads back for Eagle Crest, I figure they're taking this as just another accident. I lean back in the seat next to Dan, and look out at the trees and the cabins along the river.

ThinkLink: When have you experienced that little "hum of feeling good?" Did it ever happen right after a scary time?

       I start to feel funny. Not car sick, just funny. Then I figure it out. The hum is back. When I was little, when everything was fine, or when I was playing or walking through the fields, whenever things were real good with me, it was as if I could hear a little hum in me, somewhere in my chest or stomach . Not a song, no words, just a hum of feeling good.

       I realize it was back there on the river, all of us digging paddles into the water at the same time, bumping over the rocks, looking at the foamy white water, looking at the trees from a fish-eye's angle, that the good feeling, the hum came back.

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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