2008 May 19th-20th Full Moon Float
For those of you who have known me for some time over the internet by my screen name Agent Elrond or various derivatives thereof, or for those of you meeting me for the first time, I think a few words of introduction are in order:
My other name is Grace (as in the hymn; as in Amazing). My family name means "little river" in Japanese, and that makes a good bridge to my other life: the life of whitewater rafting.
The general idea behind whitewater rafting is that you take an inflatable rubber raft, put four to eight terrified tourists in it, and send it down a river (preferably a steep one with lots of water and rocks). You also put one person in the back of the raft who steers it through the rapids, flips it right-side up if it goes over, pulls people in if they fall out, and makes sure everyone has a good time. This person is called the guide, and this is what I am currently training to be.
Now, rafting in general is pretty exciting: the river is stronger than any of you, and it can make for a wild ride if your paddlers aren't listening, fall out, or simply panic when they see whitewater. So the challenge for the guide is not so much getting the raft where they want it to be, but getting their passengers to get the raft where they want it to be. The difference between a boat with one guide and six novice paddlers and a boat with one guide and six other guides is astounding: in general, a boat with tourists in it has a least one large dump in a class IV run, while a boat with all guides (or guide trainees) can do a class V (the scale goes to VI) run and not lose a single person while their guide is doing simple arithmetic problems.
If that sounds odd to you (arithmetic notwithstanding) allow me to better explain the mentality of your typical raft guide: they are totally bat-nuts crazy. Their idea of a fun time is to go out with a bunch of other guide friends, in the middle of the night, with no lights, on a full moon.
At peak water flow.
And now, to better explain why this makes them bat-nuts crazy, a brief explanation of how a free-flow river works: a free-flow river is a river with no dam upstream; all its water is snowmelt running down from the mountains. Free-flow rivers are a little chancy, and their height depends entirely on how much snow is melting, which basically means it depends on how hot the days are. Our river, the Kaweah, is like this.
Now, it takes about twelve hours for the snow that is melting in the mountains to make it down to where the river is big enough to raft. So this means that if you go out at 9:00 in the morning you are riding on water that melted at 9:00 in the evening the night before. It also means that if you go out at 11:00 at night you are on water that melted at 11:00 in the morning that day; and since days are generally hotter than nights around here (especially in May), this means that the water comes up at night. It comes up a lot.
It changes the river: waves that were nothing before are now monstrous towering walls of frothing water. Slow, lazy calms become swift-flowing torrents. And the big rapids, the waterfalls and the washing machine waves, become beasts. You can hear them over the rushing and churning of the river, a ferocious roaring that grows and grows until it surrounds you and you hear nothing but whitewater all around.
But you cannot see them, because it is night. All you see is the full moon climbing leisurely to the top of the sky, and the gentle white froth of the waves before the nose of your boat.
This is what I mean by crazy.
They told me to come at 10:00. This is the time I am usually fast asleep, or trying to be. We had been rafting all morning on a commercial run, and I contrived to take a nap (or at least lie very still with my eyes closed) that evening. But I woke up at 9:30, got dressed, grabbed my gear, and walked over to the boat yard. The boat yard is a five minute walk across the highway from my house, so naturally when I got there no one else was.
The boats were all tucked away in the hand-made shelter of tarps and PVC pipes my boss, Frank, had made earlier that year. I found one that had been thoroughly bled of air so it was nice and squishy, hopped in it, and tried to go to sleep.
Some indeterminate amount of time later Taylor called me on my cell phone. Taylor is a trainee guide right now, because she is seventeen and not old enough. Next year she will probably start work as a Class III guide, like myself.
"Are you coming tonight?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah," I said groggily. "Actually, I was trying to get some last minute sleep."
"Oh, sorry," she said. "But it's 10:00 now, and I'm just waiting in my car. Hailey's here too."
Hailey is our friend, another trainee guide. Together the three of us have been dubbed the Kaweah Angels. Like "Charlie's Angels." It was not my idea.
"No, no," I said. "I'm here. I'm in the boats. Want me to come over?"
I did. Hailey had brought cookies. We sat in Taylor's car and ate them until another car rolled in.
It was the twins. These are Scott and Mike, and for many years I called them the Falcon Twins, because of their noses. They have always put me in mind of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek Gods, if he had excellent biceps and washboard abs.
Scott and Mike had brought a friend, Noey. Together we helped inflate their boat (a slim yellow raft called a Puma) and the big old Aire raft that had been Frank's son's playpen as a child. We lifted them both up onto the roof-rack of Frank's van and tied them fast.
The twins went to go rouse Frank, and I wander down by the river where Brian, one of our new guides, had gone to sleep in a hammock.
"Good evening," I said in a cheerful whisper.
"Hrmm," said Brian. "Grace?"
"Do you want to go rafting tonight?" I asked.
"Emfrts," he said, and rolled over.
"Well, you have a few minutes to decide," I told him. I went back up, where the twins had succeeded in dragging Frank out of bed and were cheerfully heading towards me to torment Brian.
Eventually we all piled into the van, minus Brian who had withstood Mike's flashlight, and drove off.
Halfway up the road to where we would put in Scott brought the van to a screeching halt and backed it up to a nondescript empty shop by the side of the highway.
"Aaron's car is there," he said, by way of explanation.
"I'll go get him," Mike announced eagerly, and jumped out of the van. We waited. Eventually Scott too decided he would go join in the fun of pulling people out of bed at unreasonable hours, and left.
Taylor, Hailey and I exchanged glances. Usually Scott and Mike are the embodiment of stoic composure, and rarely get excited, even when the raft they are on is, say, upside down.
Eventually the twins reappeared, followed shortly by Aaron who, with his stringy six-foot-plus body, looked rather like a reanimated mummy with bad hair.
"I was just getting ready to go to sleep," he mumbled as he literally fell into the seat next to me.
"You'll thank us in the morning," Scott said cheerfully, and he started up the engine.
We pulled into a trailer park some ways up the river, and after some meandering and scrounging we came up with a kayaker, James, of equal or greater insanity, who agreed to come along. As we were getting our gear on (a lengthy process, for the cool night air demanded many layers), Hailey produced two glow sticks, snapped them, and began twining them into the air holes in her helmet.
"Give one to James," I said, but James declined.
The water was warmer than I expected, as Frank and I discovered when we pulled the boats into it. Under two layers of fleece, neoprene, and waterproof jacket, I was beginning to feel uncomfortably warm. Which, when you are rafting at night, is what you want to feel.
We divided into a group of three and of five, with James as the kayaker the odd one out. Mike and Scott took their boat, sat Noey in the back with firm instructions not to do anything, and took off into the night.
We were some ways behind them. Partially because Aaron had to flutter around us like a mother hen, adjusting our life-jacket straps, helmets, and other gear, and then put us through basic paddle training. It was no good telling him we could follow his commands perfectly in our sleep: Aaron is one of the most careful guides on the river, with an almost psychotic aversion to getting wet.
"This thwart is loose," Taylor announced, indicating the supporting tube behind me that held the boat in shape. The thwarts also serve as essential foot-grips, so a loose thwart is a difficult thing to work with.
"Try moving back a space," Aaron suggested to Taylor, who did.
Experimentally pushing on the thwart, I discovered that not only was it loose, it was completely free of the floor, making it useless as the essential foot-holder it needed to be.
"Uh," I said. "I think we need to tie it down."
"Will you be okay for this first rapid?" Aaron asked. "Scot and Mike have the extra straps."
"I think so," I said.
We paddled out onto the river through some trees, so for the first few moments I saw nothing of the gorgeous, moonlit river, and rather a lot of boat floor and inner tube. Then we were out, and Aaron (now fully awake as only guiding at high water can make you) was screaming at us to paddle, paddle, paddle!
So we did.
"Big hole! Big hole!" Aaron shouted, and I looked up just in time to see the nose of the boat disappear entirely into a frothing wall of white water.
I shut my eyes, leaned forward, and paddled. Somewhere in the middle of it all I felt the thwart behind me go, and when we burst forth out of the other side of the wave I caught a glimpse of it sticking straight up in the raft, its left end completely free.
But Aaron was shouting again, so I braced my feet on the floor of the raft as best I could, and paddled again.
"Stop! Stop!" Aaron yelled, then: "Back-paddle! Back-paddle!"
And, back-paddling furiously, we shot out of the rapid and ran straight into a willow bush.
"We need to tie this thwart down," I said, picking leaves and twigs out of my helmet.
We pulled the boat out of the water and up onto a low bare rock where Mike and Scott were waiting, tipped it on its side, and proceeded to carefully thread a strap through the flap of the thwart and weave it into the stitching on the side of the floor.
All told, it must have taken half an hour, and when the boat was in the water again there was no sign of our kayaker, James.
"I knew he should have taken one of your glow-sticks," I said to Hailey, scanning the dim white water for a black blob resembling a a human.
We found James, perched in his kayak on a rock above the river a little ways down. When he saw us coming he let out a whoop of relief and pushed off into the water.
"I thought someone had gotten hurt," he told us later. "You guys were up there for so long. I saw Aaron's boat come out of the rapid like a bat out of hell and straight into the tree, but I was already too far downstream. I was waiting and waiting, and then I started nodding off
and then I was afraid you'd passed me!"
The river had changed with the night. Bumpy, rocky rapids were now smooth torrents with deep waves. We fairly flew down the next set of rapids, faster than I had even been in a raft, through water we could barely see.
"I know there's a big hole here somewhere," Aaron said from the back. "Paddle forward
But it seemed the high water had flushed out all the big holes, and all we hit were towering waves, sometimes having to paddle up one side, crash through the breaker at the top, and then paddle down the other. I hardly got a chance to admire the sparkle of moonlight on the dark water or the way all the night scents of the river rose up and were intensified in the damp air; all I saw was the foaming water, and the only way I could tell what was coming was to feel the boat as it surged and fell, rose and tugged, swept sideways or spun around.
There is a rapid on the Kaweah called Suicide Falls. The name is deceptive: many people have drowned in the Kaweah through their own stupidity or lack of safety, but never a rafter, and never at Suicide. But it is a big rapid, a Class IV normally, but that night it sounded like a Class V, the highest possible runnable rapid. The sound of all the crashing water rose up from the river below us, like the growl of an angry beast in the background.
In the dark, and in the cool night, we took a mellower line around the falls, and around the huge, recirculating wave at the bottom. It was the wave, endlessly circling and swirling, that you had to be afraid of; if you fell in one of those things you wouldn't be coming out for a long time. Looking back up the river at it all I could see was a frothing, whipping, boiling mass of white water, sending sprays up into the dark air. And even though it bore no resemblance to anything remotely animal, in my imagination it looked like nothing so much as the jaws of some giant monster, constantly snapping and crushing.
One of the interesting features of the Kaweah river is that it flows right through our town, which is fittingly called Three Rivers after the three forks (North, South and Middle) of the Kaweah. Because of this there are many restaurants and retail establishments on the river, one of which is the aptly named Riverview Bar.
The lights were on as we went past, and much to the delirious joy of the friendly drunks on the balcony we stopped and got off for a drink.
That is, the guys got off for a drink. Taylor, Hailey and I, all being under the requisite 21, were resigned to the lower deck below the bar. However, I did contrive to creep up to the steps and stand just outside the door where the others had gathered, drinking beers and chatting.
It was an odd sight: in the warm glow from the bar lamps their wet gear and lively figures contrasted sharply to the lumbering, dim hunks of tipsy patrons. It was also pleasant to see that, for once, the guides (who, though being perfectly intelligent were not known for their verbosity) could at last get a chance to firmly toast someone in a bout of verbal sparring.
After a time the fellows on the upper balcony overlooking the deck where Taylor and Hailey sat noticed them. One leaned over the railing and called down his greeting, oblivious to the fact that they were, in fact, young girls.
"Hey, hey!" One of them called. "Are you with the rafters?"
They replied in the affirmative.
"Oi," said the man. "You guys have got some major balls!"
"Damn straight!" Taylor shouted up, while Hailey tried to hide her face in the table.
Eventually one of the friendly patrons by the door noticed me and, perceiving my dripping hat and life jacket, came forward to shake my hand. He had a little trouble finding it, but once he did he noticed something vaguely feminine about me and exclaimed, "Hey, you're with these guys, right?"
"Yep," I said.
"Wow, so are you the only chick here?"
I chanced a glance back at Hailey and Taylor, who were both lounging by a table and obviously trying to pretend they were elsewhere.
"Well, sort of," I said. "We have some others but
they're more like dragons."
Frank, who was standing a step above me glanced down, an eyebrow raised.
"They have horns," I said, firmly pushing my face into a serious mask. "And claws, and sharp teeth. I don't think you'd like them. We had to tie them up in the boats."
"Are you being serious?" the man said, grinning ear to ear.
"Absolutely," I said.
"That's awesome!" And, with a little fumbling, he found my hand again, shook it, and tottered back inside.
I have since wondered if perhaps people would get more cheer by simply going to bars and observing drunks, rather than going to bars and getting drunk themselves.
No one was walking tipsy as we made our way back to the boats, but that didn't stop me, Taylor and Hailey from teasing them mercilessly.
"Just you wait until next year," Frank said, elbowing me in the side.
"I shall go as a strict observer only," I said piously.
Mike produced Hailey's cookies, and Scott a box of brownies, and we all crowded around.
"Ah, those are special brownies," Mike said as I reached for them.
"Yes, those are green brownies," he said.
I peered into the box. They looked dark gray, like everything else in the moonlight, and smelt of chocolate mint.
"Mint?" I asked, confused.
"They have grass in them," Scott explained.
I put the box down; everyone laughed. I was going to make a crack about not wanting to eat horse food, but thought better of it and punched Scott in the shoulder instead.
The upshot of the whole stop was that I got to convince James to take one of Hailey's glow-sticks and, after trying stick it into the straps of his life jacket, his ear, and his nose, he eventually settled on threading it through his shoulder strap.
"I don't think it'll stay if you go swimming," I said.
"I'm not going swimming," James said. I didn't argue.
And he didn't, at least not that I could see. Though we went though two large rapids and a big surf hole he never lost it, and it was a relief to see his little light, bobbing cheerfully among the foaming waves instead of having to strain our eyes into the dark.
Above the last big rapid Scott and Mike took their boat for a surf. This is where you paddle up into a recirculating wave so the water catches the boat and holds it there. It is very fun, as long as you don't fall out.
It was perhaps one of the strangest sights: a pale yellow boat with three dark shapes in it, under the full moon, spinning and splashing in the middle of the dark, rushing river.
After the last big rapid Aaron got out, citing the fact that we were close to his house and he wanted to go to it as his excuse. We said goodnight (even though it was getting on to 1:00 in the morning), and left him to wander up across the stony beach.
We were now on the lower stretch of the river, which in the daytime is a calm, relaxing float with some good waves. In the night it was a torrent: the boat went faster than ever, and one of the good waves was so tall it felt as though we were paddling straight up for a time. Then, when we made it out, amidst me and Hailey mutually rejoicing, I heard Taylor scream, "Frank's out! Frank's out!"
And there was Frank, cheerfully bobbing down the river in front of us, his paddle in hand. He waved.
"We have to get him! We have to get him!" Taylor shrieked. Hopping in the back she steered the nose around and Hailey and I paddled him down.
We got him in the boat just above the next wave, and went crashing through it.
"The water's warm," Frank said happily. "Want to give it a try?"
But no one else did, though several times we were in danger of getting scraped off by the low hanging branches.
James was waiting by the take-out, waving his glow-stick like an airplane runway signal, though in the dark it looked more like a strange glowworm. Hailey and I were laughing so hard we almost missed the backwater.
Brian was still asleep in his hammock as we made our dripping, laughing way up the grassy bank to the boat yard, and the moon had migrated to the other side of the sky and now hung low above the mountains.
"2:12," Scott announced, citing the time. "A good run."
"Next year," I told Taylor later when she dropped me off at my house, "I am going into the bar. It looks fun. I might punch somebody. You know, classic bar brawl?"
Taylor laughed. "You would, wouldn't you?"
But that is for next year, and now it's time for me to get back to my other life.
May 20th 2008
Three Rivers, California.