Monday, July 12, 2004

I Rafted Cherry Creek, and Lived to Tell the Tale

This weekend, I went to "Topless Torrent of Tears" a.k.a. "Keith's Bachelor Party of Death," a two-day camping and rafting trip. If this narrative seems to shift between tenses, it's because the first half was written on Saturday, immediately after rafting, and the remainder was written on Monday.

We just got back from rafting Cherry Creek, which goes up to class 5 in parts. It was an incredible experience, but one which I'm not likely to repeat any time soon.

The day started out early, at around 5AM. We're camped about a mile from the cafe/general store, in a wilderness area. We needed a special "wilderness camping" permit, all the regular camp sites were full. Fortunately, there was plenty of wilderness. There's no one anywhere close to our campsite.

People woke up on Saturday at various times and wandered out to the circle (where the campfire would be if we were allowed to create campfires -- fire hazard). Everyone is grumpy and cold; no one slept well last night. I would swear that I didn't sleep at all, but I must have dozed off somewhere in the tossing and turning.

There is a lot of gallows humor about the upcoming rafting trip. No one has been on a class 5 river before, so we don't know quite what to expect.

We pile the whole group (12 guys) into my pickup and drive to the cafe, which is also the pick-up point for the rafting company. After a bit of milling about, we get on to a school bus older than any of us, and we're introduced to our first guide, Adam.

Adam launches into a speech designed to give us some respect for the river and what we're about to do. I think the message hits home for most of us; we kind of recognize that we're in over our heads. Figuratively speaking.

After a short trip down some really terrible roads, we get to the drop-in point. Adam has explained the procedure for the day, which is that we're going to do a short trip down a relatively easy stretch of river (class 3), to where we're goin to practice some basic self-rescue swimming, raft handling, and man-overboard rescue.

Self-rescue is one of the things which is immediately emphasized. If you fall in the river, it is your job to get yourself out of the main current to somewhere the raft can pick you up. It will not come after you, as it will be busy getting itself and the people still in the raft out of the rapids.

After the lecture portion, we're divided into three groups of four, based on prior rafting experience and presence or absence of a facial hair. Our raft is guided by Adam, and has Keith, Chookie, Rick and myself paddling. Rick has no facial beard, but he's a cool guy so we let him in anyways.

The second raft is guided by Aaron (who is not a girl, as some had hoped), with Vinnie, Kevin, Wayne, and Shaun paddling. The third raft has Ben guiding, and Mark, Kyle, Chris and Mike paddling.

I'm a little nervous about the swimming test, because if they fail you go back in the van. Do not pass go (but collect partial refund). I have some confidence because I'm a decent swimmer. The test is to swim across the river (the river is moving pretty fast at this point, but there aren't any rocks to make it into real rapids) to an eddy on the other side, walk up shore for a bit, then jump back in the river and swim back.

I'm the last person to swim. No one has failed yet, and I'm determined not to be the first. I jump in the river, at a 45 degree angle to the current, as instructed, and immediately I realize that this is Different.

First of all, I'm wearing a lot of gear. I'm wearing an overall-style wetsuit, with a thin paddling jacket (like a windbreaker) over that, and a lifejacket and helmet.

Second, I hit the river, and it is cold. The water starts to suck the energy out of me, as I try to swim partially against the current. The trick is to swim at an angle so that you're swimming towards shore, but limiting the distance the river pushes you downstream. I'm tiring quickly and getting to the eddy is tough. I walk back up shore, being careful of my ankle, then jump back in for the swim back, which is even tougher. I'm already tired from the trip over, and it takes everything I have just to make it to the eddy on the other side. I get out of the main current and I just want the raft to come pick me up, but if I do that, I fail the test. Can't fail the test. So I find some more energy somewhere, and manage to make it back. They pull me into the raft (I'm the last one from my raft), and we proceed to phase two of the swimming test -- swimming under the raft.

This part looks like it's not too bad as long as you don't panic, but I'm already feeling pretty beat from the swimming. I jump in and manage to get a mouthful of water, which doesn't sit well later in the day. I turn around (you go under the raft face-up, head-first) and hand-over-hand my way under the raft. No problem! Rick grabs a hold of my left arm and pulls me in, and my arm does its fun little shift half out of its socket. Not good, Mav. I'm now next to the raft, though, so he lets go of my arm and grabs my vest. I tell him to wait for a second and he pauses, which is long enough for my arm to find its way back into place before he yanks me in to the raft.

After the test, Adam asks us how we feel. I express some confidence that I don't entirely feel -- I'm really beat after the swimming drills, and I know that the real thing is probably harder. At that point, I decided that I am not going to leave this raft.

Our raft is lead raft, so part of our job is to hit the rapids first, then hang out at the bottom in an eddy to pick up any swimmers that get tossed out of the rafts behind us. We, Adam informs us, are supposed to stay in the raft, because there's no one around to fish us out.

We head through a few sets of increasingly-difficult rapids. It's hard not to respect the power of the river after a couple of these -- when the river shoves your raft up against a rock, no amount of brute force is going to get it off of it. All you can do is try to slide it around the rock and keep on going before the river flips your raft or fills it with water.

In one of the earlier rapids, Ben's raft hits a bump that sends Mark flying, and on his way out of the raft he takes his brother Kyle with him (intentionally? the world will never know...). Kyle gets picked up at the bottom, but Mark apparently had to ride the next set of rapids on his own and got picked up after that. A little later, my paddle gets caught on a rock in one of the rapids, and pulls me off balance. Some instinct tells me to let go of the paddle, which is probably the only reason I stay in the raft, but I'm still off-balanced and kind of wind milling on the side of the raft. Adam and Rick grab me and Rick yanks me back into the raft. The paddle is a gift to the river gods, but we have two spares.

After a couple of hours, we hit a series of rapids called "Skull" (all the significant rapids have names), which gives us the most trouble of the day. We go through a complicated set-up to get us lined up to go through the Cattle Chute, and make it through okay, but in Aaron's raft, Vinnie gets tossed into the river. After the rapids, he swims back to the raft with one arm, and they haul him back in. He doesn't look good -- he just lies on the raft like a dead fish. The other two rafts are called over, and the first aid kit is fished out. It turns out that Vinnie has re-dislocated his shoulder. After a bit of maneuvering, the guides manage to get his arm back in its socket and put a sling on it, but somewhere in the spill he managed to get his foot caught in a rock, and his knee and ankle are both hurt and swelling. The guides want to hike him out, but it quickly becomes apparent that Vinnie can't even stand, much less hike out over the rocky and extremely steep terrain.

There are no radios or cell phones on the boats, and they wouldn't work even if we had them. At this point the river is at the bottom of steep valley that goes up about a thousand feet on either side. Nothing but a satellite phone could get a signal in here.

The only option is to call 911 and have them hike or airlift him out, and an airlift could require some tricky flying -- the canyon is narrow and no doubt has some fun air currents. Either way, the only way for us to get the message to them is for someone to carry it.

While we're dealing with Vinnie, a group of kayaks comes by. Adam knows one of them, who agrees to go ahead and call 911 for us (as an aside, he apparently got the description of the injuries wrong, though, and reported them as "neck and back" injuries, which sent the rescue folks into a panic. The paramedic was not happy when he got to Vinnie and found that his neck and back were just fine. Maybe that's why he stepped on Vinnie's leg when they 'lifted him out...).

We leave Vinnie with Kevin, so Aaron's raft now only has two paddlers, and we head on down the river. The mood is definitely somber -- Vinnie's injury has just injected a healthy dose of reality to the proceedings -- but this is a group of guys heavily into adrenaline, so they bounce back pretty quick. Personally, I take my earlier decision and make it my mantra -- I am NOT leaving this raft.

We hit a few more good rapids, and I'm starting to get in the swing of things. I think I may be shorting my raft a little bit on the paddling, but when we hit the deep rapids I scoot in a little bit, which gives me some extra bracing if (when) the raft suddenly gets lifted up on one side. At one point the whole raft gets rocked back, and I get tossed back into Adam's section while Rick lands on my legs. Unfortunately my foot is still caught in its loop when this happens, so I re-injure my ankle, and it's pretty tender for the rest of the day. Later, we get stuck against a rock and Chookie gets thrown out of the raft, but he lands with this feet on the rock, holding on to the side of the raft. Adam's yelling at me to grab him, but I'm trying to keep myself in the raft. After a couple seconds Keith reaches over, grabs him, and yanks him back in.

Around noon, we hit a spot where the rapids are too difficult, and we have to portage twice. On the first set, the guides take the rafts through empty; on the second, the guides get out too, and float the rafts down on ropes. In both cases all the paddlers get out and get to pick our way through the rocks to the other side. I take these really carefully, because I don't trust my ankle (or my sense of balance, which isn't particularly good this day), and think "I'm getting old" -- I remember when I was a kid I would dance across the tops of rocks worse than these without a care in the world.

At the second portage we snack on some trail mix and M&Ms, then get back in the rafts. There are only a couple big rapids after the portage, but one of them is a 10-15 foot drop off of a wide waterfall, which is a blast. I think Adam calls our first "over left" at some point in here as well.

We get to the haul-out and everybody helps carry the rafts up the hill to the trailer. We strip out of the wetsuits and gear, and transfer all of our clothes from the suburban to the old school bus (not sure if it's the same one, but if not, it's certainly not any newer). We get in the bus, although we almost leave Aaron behind (Ben and Adam are travelling with the rafts), and break out the victory beer. The bus starts grinding its way up a long, narrow dirt road carved into the side of the canyon. The bus ride back takes about 45 minutes and is quite possibly the scariest part of the trip. The bus is bouncing so badly that the couple times I try and take a photo, they come out completely blurred. At one point, the driver downshifts and hits the brakes, and the bus starts sliding backwards. It only slides a foot or two, but it's enough to stop all conversation on the bus; while the canyon wall isn't straight down, it's close enough that if the bus went off the edge, it wouldn't stop until it landed in the river. At this point I think that it would be ironic if we survived the rafting trip only to die in the bus on the way back. Since I'm sitting directly behind the driver, I decide it's probably a thought best kept to myself.

The bus finally hits pavement less than a mile from our campsite, and drops us off at the store. The guides pull out the cooler of beer, and set up some snacks/lunch. We have a laid-back lunch party with us, the guides, and the people at the store (it's a little unclear who actually works there and who's just hanging out). Adam gets in contact with the sheriff, and we try and figure out where Vinnie's going to end up. I go in the store and beg some paper and a pen off the guy behind the counter, so I can write some of this down while I still remember it.

I'd like to thank Ben, Aaron, and Adam, who got us (well, 10 of us) down the river safely, and made sure that we connected with the emergency folks. I would especially like to thank Adam, who managed to keep all four of us in his raft.

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