It was finally summer time in Colorado and I was looking forward to a long weekend trip outdoors with an old friend, my nephew, and my son. A few months before we all agreed to take an early June rafting trip down the Arkansas River, when the water levels would be their highest. We decided on a 5-day getaway in the mountains; camping, fishing, mountain biking, and rafting! Wednesday morning finally arrived. I hooked up my camper to my suburban and headed for Denver International Airport to pick up my friend and nephew. From there we would head west on I-70 into the Rocky Mountains. I could feel the testosterone levels surge in my body as I anticipated a weekend of high adrenaline activities. It was a warm June morning and I was glad we would be heading for higher elevation and cooler temperatures. In just 3 hours, I expected to be camping on Turquoise Lake near Leadville, Colorado.
But the drive to Leadville was full of its own adventures, including a trailer tire blow out on the highway, engine trouble as we climbed up steep mountain roads, and getting pulled over as we were entering Leadville. But with all that behind us, we finally arrived at our campsite at 7 PM, still time to cook dinner before the sun dropped. We decided to make a quick dinner of hotdogs and baked beans, then walk down to the lake to enjoy the sunset over the snow covered mountains. There on the side of the lake, we skipped rocks and considered if we really wanted to get in a raft after the streak of bad luck we had getting to our campsite. The next two days were full of good luck fishing and great biking and hiking. So on Friday, we drove into the parking lot of Wilderness Aware Rafting ready for a 4 hour float down the river.
As we checked in, the guide informed us that the course we chose is their toughest trip and the water was running at record levels. They were waiting for today’s water flow readings to decide if it was too dangerous to proceed. In the meantime, we received our 30 minute safety briefing and practiced the paddling commands. The guide really laid it on and was doing a good job hyping up the trip. Our guide looked like Tom Cruise, so we felt like we were entering a filming of Mission Impossible. I leaned over to my nephew and assured him that these trips are long stretches of gentle floating with periods of excitement and maybe a brief moment of terror if we hit the biggest part of a rapid, but nothing to worry about. The verdict came back that the water flows were slightly under the flow limits that would cause the state to “close the river to rafters”, so we were “legal” to proceed. During the 20 minute drive to the put-in site, the guide continued to review safety procedures and paddling techniques and warning us to be ever vigilant. Geez, I thought, this guy is really laying it on thick! Okay Rambo, you got me scared, now let’s get into the water and have some fun!
The first thing I noticed as we got into the raft, was how fast the water was moving. The view downstream revealed nothing but white water. Wow, I thought, maybe the water really is running fast today. As we approached our second rapid, the guide barked out orders and demanded a rapid and strong response with our paddling. Calm down, I thought, this is supposed to be fun. About 2 seconds later, we hit a wall of water coming off a boulder and I saw the raft rise to my left, with my friends now above me and falling towards me. A second later, I was in the water under a pile of bodies that included my son, Tom Cruise, and my nephew. Okay, this was for real! As I swam to the surface, I saw the raft to my left with only one person left inside. The raft was a-drift and headed for more rapids. To my right I saw a boulder rapidly approaching and decided the boulder was the safer destination. As I clung to the boulder, I started seeing helmets resurface, which was a relief, but Tom Cruise was nowhere to be seen. I later learned that he was briefly trapped under the raft. As I climbed to shore, I saw Tom reappear and jump into the raft. One by one, he plucked my crew back into the raft, with me stranded on the shore. I climbed up the embankment where I found an abandon railroad track and began jogging down river to catch the raft. 10 minutes later, I was reunited with raft and crew. With some apprehension and a renewed focus, we pushed off and headed further downstream. At that moment, I tried hard to remember the details of the safety briefing we received about an hour before. Let’s see, right turn means back paddle on the right side, or was it forward paddle on the right side? Maybe I should have paid better attention!
By section 5, we were a well-oiled rafting crew with a determination to survive so we could tell the story of how we cheated death. This would be a great campfire story for sure, Tom just needed to get us through the next couple sets of rapids. As we entered section 6, we had renewed confidence and we were maneuvering the whitecaps with precision. That is, until we dropped over another large boulder and into the backwash on the other side. We survived the drop! But as I looked back to see our guide’s proud smile, I realized he was no longer in the raft with us. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen. Our crew was stunned and stared back looking for signs of our guide. Surely we couldn’t have just killed Tom Cruise, he survives everything! This was when I realized that we were once again a-drift with some large rapids dead ahead. I began to bark out orders hoping some secret guide wisdom had somehow found its way under my skull. As we maneuvered downstream, I glanced back at the spot where the guide had disappeared and noticed the end of an oar now poking out of the water. Then suddenly I saw him surface, gasping for air as he tried to backstroke his way out. Refocusing on the rapids ahead, I said a quick prayer and started paddling for a calm area up to the right. We gained a bit of luck and we were able to find a calm spot where we beached the raft on some rocks near the shore. I looked back and saw that our MI6 agent was now on the surface and swimming our way, thank you God.
Tom arrived clearly shaken and out of breath. He sat on the shore and quickly composed himself. Despite his clear anxiety, he tried hard to sound positive while trying to motivate us to take on the final 3 segments of the river. The rest of the trip proved adventurous, but we managed to all stay in the raft and actually did quite well managing the twist and turns of the rapids. It’s amazing what a little fear can do for concentration! In the end, we completed what should have been a 4 hour trip in 2.5 hours. The water was moving that fast! We spent the next several days retelling our rafting story. We even paid $60 to purchase 12 pictures that the rafting company took from shore. This was one for the memory books!
I’m not sure if there is a moral to this story, but it is a story that wants to be told. I guess my take away is that life is dangerous and sometimes we ignore the warning signs of perils ahead, leaving life to chance. But if we take the time to prepare, we can navigate the dangerous waters and have some fun along the way. And whether you prepare or not, the story will be just as exciting to tell. The difference is, if you are prepared, there is a better chance you will be around to tell it.
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” – Helen Keller