White water rafting. It’s the family vacation thing to do. It’s almost a cliché, until you actually do it. Many times I have bought into a vacation idea or adventure, fantasizing about daring do and “burning the fat off our souls” as Hemingway has said, but they usually do not live up to one’s expectations. White water rafting was the exception for me.
I booked a three-day adventure on the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle, PA over the summer. I’m a full-time, single dad of three teenage kids (well, two teenagers, 17 and 14, and one on the cusp of teen anyway), who go out to relatives throughout their summer vacations. Partly to just visit and spend time with family and partly to give dad a break. They usually get up to some fun hijinks whilst out in the mid-West, and Dad doesn’t often have the time or money, or both, to compete. I try, though, and we manage to take a week off together and do something. On year was simply the City Pass for Philly, which included the Franklin Institute, the Camden Aquarium, the Philly Zoo, and a choice of some other historical and interesting sites. We’re only 20 minutes away, so each day had something fun and it didn’t break me. This year I actually managed to save enough money to not only go out to Ohiopyle, a 4.5 hour drive (which was actually fun; there’s a stretch of 76 that’s 70mph…WOOT!), and not only go rafting, kayaking and zip-lining, but also camping. We stayed in a cabin with more electrical outlets than you could shake a stick at for our phones, but what the hey, we still had a campfire, so it’s camping, dammit!
The rafting part was two days; first day, an easy introduction to rafting on class I & II rapids on an 11 mile section of the Youghiogheny River. Nice and easy, learn how to maneuver the raft, get acclimated. Day two was class III & IV rapids; the real deal! Last day was really just an “adventure” park with all kinds of obstacles to tackle and a zip-line of like 200 feet in the woods; meh. So the dumbass who made the reservations…me…picked the wrong section of the river for the first day. So day one, was now day two; trial by rapids. The guide even asked if anyone had a) ever been white water rafting and b) were not confident they were up to the challenge. We all laughed nervously, paled, but sacked up and got our gear on.
After a lecture on basic safety and how to maneuver the raft (luckily we had a guide in the raft to bark out orders), we hit the river. First rapid, my daughter’s in the drink. My oldest son and I are in the front and my daughter and youngest were right behind us. There was a father and son in the back with the guide. We hit the first rock and she jettisons out of the raft. I see her eyes bugged out in fear looking up and like an idiot I jump across the raft to save my baby (“the rapids ate my baby!” [in a horrible, Australian accent]). We got her back in in a millisecond, but all my fears came to bear and I’m thinking, “we’re all going to drown in this river whose name I can’t quite wrap my tongue around.” No time! We’re off down the river to multiple rapids. They take pictures later down the river for family keepsakes and, ironically, we’re all digging in with our oars, rowing for our lives, but my daughter is the only one beaming her smile at the camera. It reminded me of the Far Side cartoon with the guy pushing a wheelbarrow in Hell while one devil says to the other, “we’re just not getting through to that guy.”
Lucky for us, some of the most difficult rapids are right at the beginning, conveniently placed for those of us with no experience to learn or swim. We make it through, though I almost fall out, my oldest grabbing by life jacket in the nick of time, keeping me from tipping out (I’m a large man, and I can’t imagine that, even with everyone’s help, I’d be pulled back into the raft). I return the favor and we’re doing this back and forth all day (I saved him 3 times and he saved me 2). The most dramatic save was at the most dangerous part of the river, Dimple Rock. I’m convinced that Dimple Rock is named after the crease it put into the skull of the first person to “kiss the rock.” Right before we entered the rapids, the guide swaps me and my oldest so I’m on the left and he on the right. I didn’t question it at first, but basically he was willing to sacrifice me to the rock because I was the biggest person on the boat; cushion for the blow. Unfortunately, we did not hit the rapids at the perfect angle, and “kissed the rock” in the middle of the raft, spinning us, in the middle of the rapid mind you, and sending my oldest almost out of the raft. I grabbed him by the ankle and just pulled him into the raft before his head would have smacked into Dimple Rock (at the velocity his head was travelling it would have been more like “frenching Dimple rock), as we came around the corner and down the chute. “Just like when you were born. I caught you by the ankle as you slid out of your mother’s vagina and hit the floor, saving your life,” I extolled to the rest of the raft.
We all managed to stay in the raft for the rest of the five hour journey, except for a stop at a big rock, where folks in the rafts got out and took turns jumping off of and into the river. We also learned that “swim breaks” between rapids were really bathroom breaks. At the last rapid our guide congratulated all of us for braving some of the most challenging class III & IV rapids in the country, and as we went into the last rapid asked, “should we do this easy or hard?” Like idiots, we all replied “HARD!” (My daughter claims she said “easy,” being the only one of us to go into the river). So we did it the hard way and as soon as we set ourselves up to enter the chute, I realized it was a mistake. I could see the orange-ish rock in crystal clear detail (even now), waiting for us under the current. We hit the rock with the front, right side of the raft right where I was perched. I even managed to “lean into the raft” in anticipation of the impact, but to no avail. I went ass over end into the river. I was soaking wet from the spray and the water coming into the raft at every rapid, but nothing prepares you for that shock of cold fresh water when you’re not expecting to be submerged. For a brief moment, you’re all alone in the current and cold, reaching out for the raft though you’re not quite sure where it is. As predicted, it was a herculean effort on my and my raft-mates parts to get my fat ass back in the raft. We did it though, and I lay there huffing and puffing, looking up at a cloudy, drizzling sky waiting for either the pain of some injury to kick in or the heart attack. Neither came and we were right at the take out point. We lugged our raft (easily the most difficult part of the day being fat, out of shape, and spent from trying to pull myself into the raft) up the hill to the buses.
We picked up pizzas in town (I was not doing campfire grill shit after that day), and headed back to the cabin. Though tired, we did light a fire in the drizzle and hung out listening to music and chatting about the day. Smiles all around. My oldest son wanted us to go back and do that part of the river again tomorrow instead of the easy part, but I was not about to. Don’t get me wrong, it was amazing and I’m glad I did it. I look forward to doing it again in the not too distant future too, but I was not ready to do it again the next day. I looked forward to an easy day, and was not disappointed.
For all the excitement and exhilaration the class IIi & IV rapids had to offer, that’s all we did. Rarely did we get a chance to just enjoy some of the most beautiful and untouched scenery PA has to offer. And rightly so, white water rafting is supposed to be exciting. I had mentioned to our guide my mix up in booking the trip and he commentated that the next day was going to be decidedly less exciting, but still a lot of fun. He suggested that instead of a raft, we switch to individual, inflatable kayaks, “duckies,” for the middle or easy section of the river. And right he was. These were easy to maneuver, virtually impossible to tip, inflatable kayaks. Very comfortable too. The worst that happened on our trip was a torrential downpour and getting stuck in shallow sections of the river, which were easy enough to get out of by simply standing up and pulling the kayak out or putting one foot out and one in, while pushing it like a scooter. We did hit some fun rapids, which we were fully prepared for due to our trial by rapids the previous day. Navigating through “waves” and “hydraulics” (the opposite of waves; holes that suck you in and keep you if you don’t hit them head on and with enough velocity) was a blast, though all but my oldest son got pinned at one rapid. We eventually broke free.
Those were fun moments, but what really put the zap on our heads was the beauty of the landscape. We wound our way through unspoiled mountains on the river. Here and there we encountered some groups on the raft tour and a few fishermen, but otherwise the river was ours. No houses, no parks, nothing but forest and mountains, interrupted by a few old bridges and a mail cable, which crossed above us, no longer in use. 11 miles that took us nearly five hours to navigate. Three quarters of the way through, we hit a downpour. You could see the wall of rain coming down the mountain, and the sky went from sunny and dry to dark and wet in an instant. We laughed and laughed and just kept rowing, unable to distinguish rapid from calm.
As I recount it, I get a sentimental tear in my eye as it is one of the few moments of pure joy I have in my memories. Sure, I have the big moments we all naturally feel; first love, marriage, sex, births of our children, but these are rudimentary in comparison. This was unexpected, overwhelming and it stays with me, crystal clear like the river to this day. Me and my family; the people I hold dearest, paddling down our river, unsullied by the world. Not “… beat[ing] on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” but coursing with the current, lost and reveling in our moment.