Thursday, June 7, 2007

Whitewater Rafting

White-water rafting. In Alaska. At 6:30. P.M. Well, it seemed to make sense at the time we booked it -- what with the midnight sun and all. It would definitely still be light for hours. Of course, that didn't mean it would be warm. The river (the name of which escapes me right now, but in a Native Alaskan dialect, it means something like "two rivers, good campsite") is fed from two glaciers, and keeps itself (year-round) at a brisk 35 degrees. We would be issued drysuits. Not wetsuits, like on rafting trips in other climates, but drysuits, which (in theory anyway) keep everything but your face and hands completely dry during the trip.

Let me say right now I really didn't think my parents would go for this one. Back in April, when we were booking the excursions, I looked at the list of Denali excursions and totally went for this one. My dad (in what I can only imagine was a desire for togetherness) then proceeded talk my mom into doing this. The river had class 3 and class 4 rapids, which aren't for the faint of heart, but Dad convinced Mom that they'd rafted on class 3 and class 4 rapids before (I was skeptical of this, but he was pretty sure of it) so she figured she could handle it and signed all three of us up. Now, there was an alternative excursion where you just float on down the river while a guide works the oars and you just sit there in your drysuit enjoying the sights -- we didn't want that. We signed up for "paddle rafting," where everyone in the raft has a paddle and you paddle your way through the rapids following the guide's commands.

So. We pile in the van at 6:20 and head on out to the rafting establishment. I've said before that few people on this cruise were actually adventurous, and this was the case again. It was just the three of us and one other couple. The other couple hadn't decided whether to paddle the raft or just to take the oar boat down, but we sorta talked them into joining us the paddle raft. When we arrived at the rafting place, we expected to meet a bunch of other people (from other cruises), but it was just the five of us.

We got in our drysuits. The rafting guy eyeballs your body frame and issues you a drysuit. I reckon these sizes have to do with your perceived girth, as they have nothing at all to do with your height. But, the beauty of a drysuit (as opposed to a wetsuit) is that it doesn't have to fit well, it just has to cover you -- over your clothes. So they just make the little buggers suitable for really tall people and figure the shorter among us will just deal.

I slip my legs into my drysuit and my legs stop but the drysuit keeps going. Eventually I discover rubber feet (like footie pajamas) at the bottom. I bunch the drysuit at my legs, put my size 5 feet into the size 16 rubber feet, wrap the excess wherever it will go, and jam the wrapped feet into rafting booties. After substantial bagging of material around my arms, my hands finally reach freedom through very tight rubber wrist openings. It's good that they're tight -- that's what keeps the water out. With the addition of "brain buckets" (my mom had never heard that name for helmets), we're good to go.

We drive out to the river put-in point, walk unsteadily over to the raft, and listen while Jason, our guide, gives us the standard safety lecture. Except, it isn't the safety lecture I'm used to getting. This is the long form of safety lectures, the 1040 of safety lectures with several Schedules attached. It goes on for, like, 20 minutes. If you fall out of the boat, don't put your feet down ever ever ever. There are lots of "foot entrapments" in this river (like submerged train cars) and if you get caught in one, you likely won't be able to get out. There will be an oar boat (with no passengers, just a guide) in front of our paddle boat -- in order to pick us up if we fall out of the paddle boat and can't get back to it. If you can't make the oar boat either, you're in what Jason calls an "AMF Yo-Yo" situation, standing for "Adios, My Friend, You're On Your Own." (Jason said that was the "clean" version of what it stood for. I smiled at what I assumed was a joke, but I was so caught up in the whole not dying thing, I didn't put it together until I was back at the hotel.) After Jason had scared us with directions on how to swim to the shore with all our might, crawl on up (no point in catching a foot entrapment right by the shore), and to ignore the pain of any potential injuries to stand up so we can be located ... well, I wasn't sure all the drysuits were still dry.

With trepidation, we all filed into the raft for what we were sure was going to be a rafting ride down the river Styx. My dad and the other dude took the front positions. Jason told them they needed to coordinate their paddling by looking at each other. They quickly decided that it worked better if one of them called out strokes, so my dad starting yelling, "Dig! ... Dig! ... Dig!" like we were all chained together in the galley of some prison ship. The good news -- the really good news -- was that Jason was outfitted with a set of long oars. So he did most of the steering, and only asked us to forward paddle in order to give the raft some momentum. I've only rafted with a guide who had a paddle like us; but this was a welcome change as this group felt like we needed all the help we could get after the safety talk.

The first rapid was apparently the scariest (isn't it always that way?) -- largely because a new rock had recently taken up residence in the middle of it, changing a perfectly good starter rapid into a "3 plus" that the guides didn't have a whole lot of experience with. It wasn't scary because of any big drops -- it was scary because of the small drop followed by the ten-foot wall of water we had to paddle right into. It hit my dad smack in the face ("a glacial facial!" Jason said, cheerfully) and managed to defeat the rubber wrist hole of my drysuit, sending a stream of icy cold water running down my sweater as far as my elbow.

Mom was fairly certain that she'd never rafted anything like this ever before.

The other couple, who had claimed rafting experience, admitted that they'd only been on a "family rafting trip" where forty adults and kids were all in the raft and didn't have to paddle all that much. It dawned on me that, next to the guide, I'd had the most rafting experience of anyone in the raft (i.e. two whole times). I was heartened by the fact that none of us had fallen out on that first rapid, and was also very thankful Jason was back there with a set of oars.

We continued down the (sometimes surprisingly narrow) river, with Jason expertly navigating us safely around rocks and through rapids. Sometimes, conditions were so wild that Dad was yelling a stroke but he was so far in the air that there was no water under his paddle. (Jason said that's called a "Scooby paddle" -- after when Scooby-Doo would run in place in the air.) We did skip one rapid by going around the side where the water was calmer. (He told us they didn't "raft that one commercially." At the time, I believed him, although, in retrospect, I guess we'll never know if he had just decided we weren't up to it.) We made it through with no raft-flips or people overboard. The other guy cut his finger on the rope around the raft, but otherwise, there was no bloodshed. (And the drysuits held, except formy one sleeve, which was good and wet.) I was grinning like an idiot during the whole thing. So was my mother, actually, although she denies it. Couldn't see Dad's face, but after getting the brunt of the water in his face, I can understand why he might have been less than thrilled with the experience. (And I could have sworn he had more white hairs when we got out than when we had started.)

They take a picture after you get through that first rapid -- it will either be an action shot of your raft flipping, or a picture of a raft full over very happy people. Either way, I bet it sells. Mom bought ours (which, as with all the other photos, I'll scan in later).

Got back to the hotel around 10. Still light outside. All the hotel's restaurants were closed, so we couldn't get a victory hot chocolate or anything. I went back to my room and had a victory hot shower instead.

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