“I want to go whitewater rafting! Please, can we go white water rafting?”
This is all I heard from Grant during the days leading up to our Chattanooga trip. I tried explaining to him how dangerous it was. How unprepared I am to take him and Audrey on a whitewater rafting trip. How there are not going to be many places that will let a 10-year-old go whitewater rafting.
But he pleaded his case with a Rainman-like tenacity. “I want to go whitewater rafting!”
I called all the rafting places around Chattanooga and found the one that was supposed to be the safest. The Hiwassee River. It had Class 1 and Class 2 rapids, and there was one at the end that was a Class 3. Devil’s Shoals.
Devil’s Shoals. Doesn’t that just sound like a place the Grim Reaper floats around on a black intertube, waiting for his prey?
I made a reservation for “funyaks” for the three of us, and secretly began praying for rain.
It actually was raining that morning when we woke up. I looked out the hotel window and said a silent prayer of thanks, but the look on Grant’s face broke my heart. “There’s no lightening!” he said. “Maybe we can still go! I mean, we’re going to get wet anyway on the river, who cares if we get a little more wet from the rain?”
I agreed to drive to the rafting station and hoped that the staff there would break the news to Grant that all rafting had been canceled due to rain.
But when we got there, a chipper teenager named Mandy happily informed us that all rafting was ON! She had to stop kissing her boyfriend Travis to tell us this. She quickly gave us our life jackets and explained that the truck would drop us at the top and that we would raft our way back down to the store, where we would get out of the water and return our funyaks. I asked her how we would know that we were back at the store and she said what rafting people always say. “You’ll go under a railroad trestle and then you’ll see it.”
I hate it when people say “you’ll see it.” Because sometimes? I don’t see it. I really don’t.
I pressed Mandy for more details but she was once again lip-to-lip with Travis.
On the drive to the top of the river our driver Dale told us that the reservoir was over-full from all the rain and they were going to open the dam and release more water into the river. Instead of the usual 2350 cubic feet per second, there would be 8000 CFPS. I asked Dale what that meant for us on the river and he said the Class 1 and Class 2 rapid would be covered in deeper water, and it would be easier than usual to get over them. “But Devil’s Shoals?” He simply shook his head.
“Devil’s Shoals what?” I asked. Again, he shook his head.
I looked at the river, down and to our right. It looked more menacing than I remembered it.
“Has anyone ever died on this river?” Grant asked.
“Yeah but that lady, she was old and was probably going to have a heart attack anyway,” Dale answered.
Ignorance, I liked you much better.
When it came time to launch into the river I had to decide how to divide our family. We had a 2-person funyak and a 1-person one. I finally decided to put the kids together in one, and I would be more mobile in the single funyak and could help them if they needed me. As we passed our first rapids I realized I was the one who was going to need help. Since my funyak was lighter I got stuck on the rocks and had to push myself off with my oar, inch by inch. Meanwhile the kids floated on ahead of me, dutifully obeying my order not to try to help me, and yet looking seriously concerned.
I did finally free myself from the jaws of the rapid and we floated onward. It was raining steadily but Grant was right, we were so wet from the river anyway that it didn’t matter.
I want to insert here, casually and yet poignantly, that it is awful making decisions about how to divide your family.
And onward we paddled, alternating between placid stretches of stream and choppy rapids. I remained ever-vigilant, trying to keep myself and the kids safe on each set of rapids. We also laughed together and enjoyed this afternoon in nature. But Devil’s Shoals was never far from my mind. I knew it was going to be the last set of rapids before the end of the tour, before we “saw it”, but I didn’t know exactly when we were going to hit it.
We came upon a group of kayakers who had a professional guide in a canoe. “Paddlus Erectus” was stenciled in white spray paint on the side. This looked like their leader and someone who knew the river. I paddled alongside him and asked, “Do you know how much further we have to go? And have we already gone over Devil’s Shoals, or is it still ahead?” I asked, hoping against hope that maybe it was not as big a deal as everyone said it would be and in fact we had already passed it.
“You have about a mile to go and Devil’s Shoals is still up ahead,” the guide said. “Are you alone with those kids?” he asked.
“Yes I am,” I answered.
“Are you tired of this shit?” he asked.
“Yes I am,” I answered.
“Well why don’t you just stay with us?” he offered. I told him I would feel bad because clearly these kayakers had paid him to be their guide and I had not. They all said that it would be fine and they were the Tennessee Scenic River Association and we should stick with them. And so we did. And when we went over the next set of rapids I noticed that not only was I vigilantly watching my kids pass over the rocks, but at least two men from the kayaking group were doing the same. And I don’t know for sure but I think that when I went over, they were watching me too. And suddenly I felt a lot better. Suddenly, it wasn’t all on me anymore.
In the distance we could hear the agitated rush of Devil’s Shoals. Paddlus Erectus looked at me and the kids, a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Do you want to do something fun?” Before we could answer he pulled our funyaks to his canoe and told us to hold tight. Another kayaker paddled up to me and hooked herself to my funyak. We were four boats linked together, sort of like a raft. And then we hit Devil’s Shoals. It was white and frothy. We bumped and crashed over the first rocks but I soon realized that we weren’t going to crash. We were too big to crash, too buoyant to flip over. And suddenly Devil’s Shoals became an enormous, aquatic roller coaster for us. We hooted and yelled as the rapids tossed and banged us along. It was the most fun I’ve had in ages.
And then, amazingly, I actually did “see it.” I saw the rafting station and that meant our ride had come to an end. We thanked our new TSRA friends and got out of the river. We returned our funyaks and life preservers and got our keys from the store, where Mandy was still kissing Travis.
The kids and I got in the car and although it was July in the Southland we turned the heat on full blast and tried to warm up and dry off. And I amazed myself when I thanked Grant for getting us out there for that adventure.
Looking back, I realize how much this trip was a metaphor for life. I mean, how often do we get ourselves into something that is scary and risky and we don’t really want to be doing it, but also we look back and see that we are there as a direct result of the choices we made? And we find ourselves embarking on a journey that gets more dangerous as we go along but we have no choice but to keep going? And just when we think we can’t handle one more cubic foot per second, someone with a nickname soaked in Latin innuendo extends a hand and says, “Want to do something fun?”
And suddenly, the thing that was scary and risky is still scary and risky but it is also fun. It’s fun because we’re not alone.
I do want to do something fun, Paddlus Erectus. I do.