“Let’s go to Las Vegas” suggested Rita. A few of us had gotten together for dinner and were trying to figure out how to spend the upcoming holiday weekend. “How about a mud bath at the Calistoga Springs?” piped Rita’s husband Shyam with a twinkle in his eye. To the conservatives in the room, the very idea was mind-boggling. Finally Vani announced dramatically “I’ve got it! Let’s go white water rafting!” Everyone started talking at the same time and there were loud shrieks of excitement. I had absolutely no idea what this was all about but was nevertheless caught up in the enthusiasm all around me. Plans were hatched and reservations made to go rafting the following weekend.
The American River near Sacramento, California was the chosen rafting site. We left home at the crack of dawn as it was a long drive from the South Bay. Once we got there we were all herded together with a bunch of other would-be rafters into the shack that served as the rafting company’s office. That’s when I realized that there was going to be an introductory talk as to the safety precautions we’d have to take.
“If you fall into the water, remember to get your feet up and stay on your back. Your life jacket will keep you afloat”. This was Wayne, one of the two guides. “Drowning in rivers occurs mostly due to foot entrapment.” Unaware of all the uneasy glances being exchanged he continued, “Don’t attempt to get up and walk to the shore. If you get your foot trapped, the current will pull you forward face down into the water” and here he bent forward to demonstrate what would happen. Listening to him I began to get out at this stage. It was this thought that prevented me from walking out just then. Finally Wayne’s speech done, we donned our life jackets, grabbed an oar each and headed down to the river. Once there we pushed our raft, an overblown orange rubber dinghy, onto the water and got into it. There were four of us seated on either side of the raft. Rob, our guide sat at the very back. A few words on what to expect from the river and from him, in terms of instructions (forward, back, stop) and we were on our way.
I tried to get comfortable and stayed busy trying no to hurt anybody with my oar, which seemed to have a mind of its own. Rob’s voice broke into my reverie. “We are about to hit the meat-grinder, the first and one of the fastest rapids. Hang on tight, folks!” Before we had a chance to react, the raft started to swing from one side to another as we swept through the meat-grinder, with Rob urging us to row harder. When the going got rough I gave up any pretence of trying to row and clutched Rita’s arm. Despite this I lost my balance and fell into the middle of the raft. I clambered quickly back onto my “seat” with the help of my excited friends. We were wout of the meat-grinder before we realized it and the raft steadied itself as it got onto still water.
It was now that I realized that I was soaking wet. I looked around at my companions only to find them looking like drowned rats. By this time a lot of water had gotten into the raft. While Rob was showing the others how to drain out the water, I was feasting my eyes on the breathtaking scenery around. The mountains provided the perfect backdrop. The tranquil setting as the raft gently swayed, the steady rhythm of the oard with the sound of birds chirping in the background seemed idyllic. I spotted another raft some hundred feet away that appeared to be going around in circles. Not believing my eyes I drew everybody’s attention to the people in the other raft imagining them to be in real danger. Rob reassured us that they were only having a bit of fun trying the Turnabout! Suddenly Rita yelled “Look out, team!”
We noticed strong rapids ahead of us, which stretched for quite a distance. Rob called out that this was going to be one of three rapids which were going to face in the next ten minutes. We braced ourselves for the first one and found ourselves doing rather famously, so much so that to keep up the momentum I cried out ” Come on, team! We’re doing rather well!” By the time we got through all three rapids everyone felt it had happened too quickly. Looking at our hangdog looks Rob flashed a conspiratorial grin at us. It dawned on us then that the best part was yet to come. We settled down to a steady pace of rowing on the flat stretch. Despite the outward leisurely pace there was an undercurrent of excitement of what lay ahead.
The morning calm was suddenly pierced by loud cries and screaming. As we came around a bend we saw ahead of us rafts being tossed around like pieces of paper. To my horror I saw one rafter thrown off his raft. He seemed to be suspended in space for a second and came crashing down into the water. To my relief, he made a quick recovery and floated on his back and got onto a rock and safety. Even as I was trying to shake the images of what I had just observed Rob cried out, “Here comes Troublemaker! Listen to me carefully and you’ll be fine.” ‘Was he joking’ I found myself wondering. How was it possible to hear him in the din the rapids were making and that too with my heart beating so loudly? Soon the raft started swaying violently and we were like puppets dangling from a string. I recalled then the sagely advice of a cousin the first time I had gotten on a roller-coaster ride. “If you’re frightened just scream! It will take your mind off the fear.” I started screaming and was soon joined by the rest of crew even as our hands stayed busy rowing for dear life. The next few moments were just a blur of which I have but a vague recollection. Then suddenly there was a lull – the calm seemed almost unreal after all that drama. Vani turned around with wide grin and asked me “Did you remember to smile? They were taking our photograph just there” All the tension quickly dissolved into laughter.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. On our return we were fed a sumptous meal by the rafting company. Even before we had finished our meal when Rita asked “Anyone for another round?” only I responded determinedly ignoring my husband’s “I-told-you-so” look!
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