For Father's Day this year, Jen surprised with something I never expressed any interest in doing. But like the great friend (and wife) that she is, she knew it was something I'd be interested in doing. What she surprised me with was a trip down the Sauk River in a raft. At first, I didn't know what to say. I love water and swimming, and I love the outdoors. Actually, I think I was more surprised that SHE wanted to do this with me. High adrenaline outdoorsy stuff isn't really her bag. Regardless, the gift was a good one, and I was looking forward to going.
It took a couple months to get the scheduling right because I work Saturdays and there was another couple we were going with. Yesterday, July 20th, was the day we finally decided on. We piled into Lindsay and Sean's minivan, put on a movie, and went on the two hour drive to the Sauk River boat launch where we'd meet the river tour company.
I wasn't apprehensive. I wasn't excited. I just was. I didn't have expectations (except that I'd be getting wet). I was determined to have fun, but I was also determined to stay safe. I'd watched the video sent out by the tour company, and it was clear to me that this wasn't a leisurely float down the river. Danger was present, but the video showed a river that didn't look all that intimidating.
About one minute into our adventure I realized how wrong I was.
After gearing up with life jackets and helmets, we went through the safety drill, quickly learning about signals and commands that our guides would issue. Afterwards, we loaded into our raft, and eager to just have fun, I took the right-front position. The rest of my group lined up behind me, and it was a little weird that I couldn't see Jen.
When we started off into the Sauk River, the feeling was a strange one. I'd been on rafts and row boats before, so I knew how to paddle, but never had I been on a river before. Our guide called out commands, I listened and responded as best I could, matching strokes of the paddle with my left-front partner, John.
In moments, we hit to the first series of chunky rocks and water. Our guide called out commands fiercely. The raft hit a rock, the boat shuddered, and the next thing I knew, Lindsay's husband Shawn was in the water. And not just Shawn, our guide was in the water, too, scrambling to get back on board. He climbed on for only a moment before another rock sent him flying out into the water again. It was truly a WTF moment for me. Our guide was gone. I saw Sean probably twenty feet behind us, tossed among the rocks as his flip-flops skidded past us.
Eventually, we rescued our guide and pulled him back aboard before sliding to the side of the river. He apologized, telling us he'd gotten a little cocky, but that didn't make me feel much better. Behind us, Sean had gained the rocky bank, and he had to climb towards us barefoot. When he finally reach us and climbed back on board the raft, I felt victory. We'd overcome the first obstacle. It was difficult to imagine things getting worse, but I had a sick feeling in my stomach nonetheless. It was the same feeling I had during my first mountain biking trip. Looking down that rocky trail felt much the same as the river ahead us us. Uncertainty. Fear. A feeling of wanting to give up rammed up hard against a feeling of determination.
We continued on for about another mile or two. Rowing became easier, and the commands issued by our guide became clearer. I kept trying to focus on the adventure even though my mind kept screaming that this wasn't fun. You don't know what you're doing! You could fall out! But I kept going. I wanted to have fun.
Then we hit the rapids called Jaws. We'd been warned about this rapids. It was the rapids our guide told us they always worried about. I listened to the commands shouted by our guide as we started in. The water crashed around us. I rowed. I listened. Rowed. Leaned in. Rowed.
Then I saw the rock. We were headed straight for it. Our guided was shouting commands, but there was no time to hear or respond. We hit the rock, and the raft went vertical. I tried to hang on to anything, but there wasn't anything I could do but go into the water.
I went under. White water thrashed in my face and ears. I needed to breath but I didn't know which way to find air. My lifejacket knew the way, and I surfaced underneath our overturned raft. I was alone. I started to panic, but I tried to remember what I needed to do. I grabbed reached blindly for the outside of the raft, grabbed onto the outer line, and pulled myself out from underneath the raft.
Where was Jen?
Our guide appeared atop our raft and shouted to let go of the lines so he could right it. I let go. The water carried me away, pummeling me, tossing me every which way. Our guides told us to keep our feet up, and I tried to do that, but I couldn't catch a breath. Several times I kicked my feet up, water rushed into my face, I bolted upright to try to breath, then repeated the sequence.
I'm in deep shit.
I managed to look behind me. I thought I saw Sean and a couple others from our raft clinging to rocks along the bank. I saw Jen up on one of the rafts, face down, not moving, but I knew it was her. At least she was with people who could help her, I thought. Not like me. Floating down the river. Away from the others. Gasping for air.
The waters slowed slightly. It rushed past but not as violently. I saw the lead raft up ahead, banked among some rocks. I kicked and struggled, fighting to reach them. I shouted for help, and they reached out and pulled me up. I laid on the raft then, shaking and gasping. Am I really here? Or am I out there in the water, drowning?
Anything I was thinking quickly evaporated as another survivor floated down the river, screaming for help. It was Lindsay, I realized, and whatever I was thinking faded to black. We pulled her up, and I helped calm her down. She asked me over and over about Sean and Jen, and I told her they were okay, but I really couldn't be sure. We waited.
Several minutes passed, and eventually the lead guide announced that everyone was rescued, just separated. Eventually, we all reconnected. Jen was safely aboard the smaller raft, and she was determined to stay there, but the joy I felt at seeing her overwhelmed me.
If there'd been an easy way to bail out on the rest of the trip, I think I would've. It wasn't just my fear of the rapids. It was my fear that I would somehow panic moving ahead, or seize up with fear and somehow hurt or even kill everyone else on the raft. But our guides told us we'd be okay. That was the worst of it they said, but there were still more rapids ahead. If we really wanted to bail out, they'd have to evac us. Sean, Lindsay, and I all agreed there was nowhere to go but onward.
The rest of the trip wasn't anywhere near as dramatic. We hit some rough waters, and we got hung up on a rock again, making me think we'd be going over again, but everyone on our raft had done that once before, and we were determined to not do it again. The further we went, the more comfortable I got with the river. Very slowly, I began to have a little fun.
When the trip was over and I was able to reunite with Jen at least, the feeling was pretty surreal. It turned out Jen had an asthma attack after we tipped, and John, my left-front partner on our raft, and thrown her up to safety. I don't think she'll ever be going on a trip like this again.
Me? Well, I can't say I'll rule out never going again. Most of my fear came from uncertainty. Now that I know a little more of what to expect, and how to react, I think I could probably handle another rafting adventure. But maybe next time, I'll try a level 2 river instead of a level 3.
Also...I lost my sunglasses.