It was a cloudy, humid morning, like almost every day started as of late. I pulled on my lifejacket and looked at the guests across the field, listening to their trip speech of the morning. Many were wearing spash jackets, but a few braved the morning chill in their bathing suits and tank tops. Tommy gave a nod and a gesture, and the crowd dispersed — some to their cars, others to a last minute use of the “real” bathrooms. I pulled myself up the ladder and on to the bus.
It was my first trip of the season, and I was excited. The river was 1.7 feet, and potentially rising from the rain the night before. It was the best water I’d seen since I’d been rafting almost two years before — 1 year and 9 months, to be exact, since I’d guided. And though I wasn’t going to guide today (everyone needs a refresher course), I was eager to hit the water.
Almost as soon as we got on the water, the clouds dispersed and the morning mist lifted off the river, creating a beautiful image which is typical of the Chattooga River, especially in early summer: the sun glinting off the water as we passed under the bridge, the birds singing, some mountain laurel still blooming, and the mist was sill rising through the trees.
We went through Woodall Shoals with little problem — skirting the hole and taking the cheat shoot on the right hand bank. Hunter was our guide, and though we were using the demo self-bailing raft (one with holes in the bottom, so the water drains out, if you don’t know what that meant), which is heavier and a little unweildy despite being made by DIB, we navigated through all the shallow rocks with little problem.
Right around the corner was Seven Foot Falls — and the butterflies of nervous excitement rose in my stomach, as they frequently do at the beginning of the year — not because I was scared, but because I was so eagerly anticipating the technical difficulty of the sneaky boils of water, and the incredible rush of a controlled seven foot drop sideways to the left…
Hunter flirted with the left tongue and I thought there was a good chance we were going over, so I high sided and kept my balance — and wham, we were through, just like that…and I have to admit, I appreciated the self-bailing raft for its amazing ability to drain the gallons of water that other rafts were collecting.
Lunch as Raven’s Chute was like always — something I’d missed so much. Just a simple deli-style lunch next to the river, with all the acoutrements and condiments you could ever want for a Dagwood-style sandwich. We started bringing more types of cheese, I’d noticed…but the gorp was the same, and oh how I love that gorp. Raven’s Cliff stood above us as we ate, and a couple boaters ran the chute, showing off for the guests.
Then the Five Falls. I’d anticipated this section of the river all day: five class five rapids in a row, with the highest class of rapid you can even run being a class six. There had been some debate about whether we should bowguide Jawbone because of the water level, which would have meant we wouldn’t be running Sock’em’Dog, the biggest and baddest rapid at the very end. I was hoping for the opposite, and when we got to the beach right before Entrance, the first rapid, we got the goahead — no bow guiding Jawbone, and go ahead and run the Dog. My stomach clenched — that same nervous excitement from Seven Foot, amplified ten times. This was it. The five falls, right on that tricky water level where it was anyone’s best guess what the water level was, and we were throwing precaution to the wind and taking the more challenging, more exciting route.
In the end, we probably should have bow-guided Jawbone, as Schlim was fast to point out after he ran the rapid. The water level was maybe just a little low for the self-bailing raft — we scraped a rock at the top of the slide in Jawbone and nearly went down backwards into Decapitation Rock, then bounced off the F-U rocks and bumped up against Hydro — something which does more than just give me a few little butterflies. But Hunter handled the boat well and turned us around, sending us down the left (and better) side of Hydro just as I was ready to leap and high-side the raft.
Then it was Sock’em’Dog. The hydraulic at the bottom had gotten stronger over the winter due to the addition of what we think is a log — at these water levels, that means the hole will suck you back in and send you to the cleaners if you run it the wrong way. We were the last raft to run, and I kept watching the rafts speed through like rocket ships and disappear behind a rock outcropping, only to wait a split second before they appeared a little smaller, a little farther away, and all intact…and then it was our turn.
We pealed out of the eddy and the water was so much faster that it pulled the raft along and I almost thought we were out of control. A few strokes to put us on course, a few more to get the speed necessary to punch the hole, and then Hunter’s voice boomed out — so low it almost pervaded under the sound of the water, rather than over: GET DOWN! I moved to get down, but the raft was faster than I’d expected, and I caught a little air before slamming into the rubber, safe from being thrown out of the raft. Success.
Finally, the lake ride out: basking in the sun, eyes closed, propped up on the bow of the raft. A beautiful way to end the trip.*
*For the record, my favorite part of a trip is actually changing into dry clothes, because it makes me feel clean and allows my body to relax after such a physically intense day…and many, my dry clothes were glorious…