The water ran cold and swift on the south fork of the American River. Snow run-off from the Sierra Nevada Mountains made icy rapids that taunted us at the river’s edge. On a bright Saturday morning the river teamed with kayaks and rafts and was lined with spectators clinging to the rocks. People waded in calm pools along the river’s length and pelted their enemies with torrents of water squirted from toy guns. Photographers, perched high on the rocky banks, captured the battles between rafter and river on film to be sold to the survivors.
As we carried the raft above our heads to the water’s edge I felt a curious sensation in the pit of my stomach. This was not my first trip on the white waters but for some reason that I couldn’t explain this time was different. There were eight of us in my raft including the guide, a robust young woman who in the off season worked as a rescue diver. I was hoping none of us would need her off season skills on this venture. I couldn’t help, though, reflecting on the waiver of liability for accidental death that the rafting company made us sign before departure, along with our sandwich choice for the mid-trip lunch they provide.
Having defeated rapid after rapid with such colorful names as “Hospital Bar” and “Barking Dog” there were only two left until total victory but they were near the end of the trip and we enjoyed calm waters for a while until then. The water was calm, the rafters were not. This was the time for war on the river. Water cannons of every size and configuration appeared and unleashed their fury. Arcs of water crisscrossed the sky in all directions. One boat even fired pre-loaded water balloons (How did they survive the rapids?). No one was safe. It was blissful chaos with every boat being its own navy attacking whomever was in range. And who knew the handle of an oar made a perfect grappling hook to snatch an opponent out of his battle ship by the straps of his life vest? I learned quickly not to squirt an experienced guide in the face (they generally leave the water play to the paying customers), and then turn your back on him. He hooked me like a trout and pulled me right off my raft before I knew what happened. Down but not out, I was rescued by my crew to fight again.
With the war over it was time to face the last of the rapids. I sat at the rear of the raft with the guide on my right. Because these last two rapids were small by comparison she decided to “swim” this one. I wasn’t sure what that meant until she leaned back and slipped out of the raft like a SCUBA diver. Unfortunately I was not prepared for the sudden increase in buoyancy on her side of the raft that made my side dip down and expel me backward into the water. When I realized what had happened I was upside down under water and out of breath. Without her guidance the raft veered left with the current and slammed into a boulder that breached the water’s surface. My watery world moved in slow motion. Stay calm. Think. Somehow I managed to right myself but I still had only a normal lung full of air not the deep breath you would take before plunging into the water. And before my life jacket could perform its duty I was also pinned to the boulder by the current with a raft full of people above me. I could see the surface which looked within reach and yet unreachable. I pawed my way across the bottom of the raft until I reached the edge and popped up above the water. The next thing I knew I was back inside the raft. A fellow crewman had hoisted me aboard much to my relief. I didn’t notice that I had lost my paddle until someone from the raft behind ours tossed it to me as they passed by laughing. The ordeal lasted only seconds but had it been any longer I would have started to see my life flash before me.