When you get knocked out of your raft into whitewater, our tour leader is explaining, it’s important to assume the whitewater swimmer’s position: Floating on your back with feet pointed downstream, using your hands to propel yourself toward the raft and your feet to stop you from crashing into rocks.
Unless, that is, you’re approaching a “drop,” a smallish waterfall of 3 feet or so. If that happens – and apparently it can on this 5-mile stretch of the Pigeon River that begins at the Tennessee-North Carolina border – we’re to assume the cannonball position, hugging our knees to our chest.
Why are we doing this again? Whitewater rafting wasn’t anywhere near the top of my bucket list. Heck, I’m not even sure it was on there at all. But when we ventured inside the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Gatlinburg last week and saw a $25 promo for this excursion … well, for the price of a steak dinner, why not give it a try?
Fourteen of us piled into an old school bus filled with other rafters and guides, all of us in helmets and life jackets pulled so snug we can hardly breathe, holding onto our paddles by the T-grip so we don’t inadvertently whack anybody in the face as we’re toted a few miles to the put-in.
We’ll be paddling through Class 3 and Class 4 rapids on this trip, with Class 1 being calm as bath water and Class 6 Niagara Falls.
We split up into two groups of seven, with most of the teenage grandkids filling one raft and Grandpa, a few of us parents, my niece Monroe – who barely makes the 80-pound cutoff – and my most skittish kid, Cassie, in the other. (In this case, however, she’s less skittish than her usually tough-as-nails little sister, who declines this trip due to the fact that she tends to throw up on any carnival rides even slightly more intense than a merrygoround.)
Our guide, Ira, goes over the paddling commands: Forward 4 (or whatever number he deems appropriate), Back 2, Right 2 (when only one side is to paddle), All Forward (paddle like heck until he says to stop).
Oh yeah, there’s also the “Brace yourselves!” command, when we’re to lean into the raft and make sure our feet are hooked under the rubber seat divider in front of us.
We get into our positions, with one butt cheek on the outside edge of the raft and one on the “seat.” Ira pushes us out into the river — at the site of a power plant dam that’s currently releasing enough water to make for good flow – and we’re off.
We don’t have long to wait for the first rapids.
“Hook your feet!” yells Ira.
It feels like we’re in on a Tilt a Whirl in the middle of the river, spinning around as water rushes into the raft. Adults and kids alike giggle like maniacs, and we don’t lose anybody. So far, so good.
One thing we discover on this “bonding experience” is that my sister is apparently hard of hearing. She’s in the front on my side, the leader whom we’re supposed to synchronize our strokes with, but never seems to hear the paddling commands until we’re already a couple of strokes in.
Cassie, sitting just ahead of me, is the first to lose her perch. Luckily, she falls into the middle of the raft instead of in the river. Later, the same thing happens to my sister-in-law Dawn. But we’re having fun, and after a while we begin to relax and just go with the flow, counting on Ira to maneuver us around the scariest looking obstacles and warn us before things get too dicey.
When the kids’ raft suddenly sneaks up on us from behind, a full-scale splashing war ensues. Even our guides get in on the fun.
Finally we come to a smooth stretch of the river. Ira tells us we can hop out and go for a swim if we want to. In fact, he encourages it. “Asta la vista, Mom!” shrieks Cassie as she giddily spills over the side. The water feels incredibly refreshing on a 95-degree day.
Later, after Ira hauls us back in the raft and we deal with a few more rapids in route to the landing canal, I ask him if he sees many snakes on this river.
“I’ve seen some,” he says, “but I don’t know much about them. I do know that one time they got into a raft, crawling up through the holes.”
Yeesh! Would I have plunged into the water had I known that? I’d like to think so. A week spent on trails, climbing over rocks and logs, has desensitized me somewhat to my innate scaredy-catness.
Sometimes you have to set your worries aside and live a little. This was one of those times.