“Life is an adventure,” I would tell my guests, “and true adventure is made of adversity.” I would like to tell folks that as rain soaked us in sheets and buckets. “Point in fact, we never sit around and tell stories about the vacation that went perfectly; there’s no adventure in it.”
Leaves, branches, bits of dirt and bark fell from the sky from no discernible direction. The underside of the clouds were like a low but mobile ceiling of giant cotton balls coated with coal dust, rolling, bounding and marching in waves. Then the trees bowed, whipped and twisted this way and that. They screamed and cried to the ground and the boulders that held them as their limbs were ripped from their torsos and carried out of sight. Then came a light, a dark and eerie electric green. The kind of light that didn’t give comfort or ease. But just like that, the light changed to a pale green, to yellow and then to bright white. The clouds became white sheets and soft blankets. The calm and stillness came so suddenly that it felt almost as violent as what had just passed.
There had been no place to hide. The woods were no option and there were no rocks or overhangs to crawl under. We had pressed our guests against a low ledge in a tight sort of huddle and hopelessly guarded them with our own bodies. Maybe only seconds had passed, a minute at the most. We all stood up, staggered and stunned by what we had just witnessed, then stumbled down to the rafts; they had stayed dutifully where we had abandoned them, untethered. We brushed off the leaves, pine needles and bits of dirt and bark, then lifted the two limbs that had fallen across the length of Paul’s boat. He had been tying a cooler in place when he left it and ran to the group; the big end of those branches took the place where he had been standing.
Obviously we were shaken, but in spite of the white scars on the tree trunks, the twigs swirling in the water with the greenery still attached, among the bark and brown bits of leaves like a liberal dose of salt and pepper, everyone began to relax a bit. We loaded up and floated out into the pool (Dead Man’s Pool, but I don’t think anybody mentioned that). Since we had just finished portaging Sock-em-dog Rapid, Shoulder Bone was no more than a float at that level. Memory’s not perfect, but I’m pretty sure that we did not stop to play at Ambush Rock or I would have remembered it as somewhat inappropriate. So we probably drifted on in our post traumatic daze. A quarter mile on, the river makes a dog leg to the right, just below class III ‘Possum Drop. The rapid is not difficult but does demand some attention. There in the pool below the last drop, we look up to the single ridge that backdrops the river in a line that runs out into the lake. That was what it had once been. Every tree was now slapped and stomped to the ground, chucked and piled into each other. Huge oaks were splintered and shredded. Never before seen rocks and outcroppings were visible. The damage went up the creek bed that defined the crook in the river and out into the lake as far as we could see, from the top of the ridge to the water. Though almost all of the wreck was on river left, two trees from opposite banks met in the middle of the river and tangled on the rocks and each other, right at or just above the surface. We couldn’t see this as we committed to the current of the last rapid of the day. Someone above the rapid had suggested that we scout first, but I for one felt too lucky and stupefied to worry. This was a short, minor class III. What a scramble! I rear loaded my crew, slid up on the trunk, shifted my people to the front and teeter tottered over cleanly. One or two boats followed my lead, some broad-sided and high-sided into the mess; one or two found refuge at a shallow rock, unloaded and manhandled their boats over. But, everybody got by without any measurable problems.
There are two things that still amaze me to this day. First, no one and nothing with us was hurt, not a scratch or a broken finger-nail; not a raft was punctured, not in the wind with the flying limbs nor against the trees crossing the river; not even a paddle got away. The other thing, I don’t remember much of any rain. There were a few of those big splatting drops when the wind picked up, there was a kind of mist as everything calmed down. But we were not wet to the point of dripping.
Several years passed and I was at a trade show, promoting the river and the three companies that ran trips on it. I was off to the side with a folding table covered in nicely arranged brochures in front of me. I had a raft and an inflatable kayak behind me, some paddles, pfd’s and helmets on display, and a few large action and scenic photos mounted on the partition wall that defined my booth. The arena was filled with flashy motorboats, shiny decked out pontoon boats, electric fish-finders, collapsible kitchens and stainless steel propane grills. Everything one might need for getting “back to nature.” For some reason I got little attention. I did my best to engage people as they walked by. Some would just shake their head and keep moving, some would take a brochure… and then keep moving, leaving me gaping in mid-sentence.
By day two I was really bored. I put on a pfd and helmet to get attention. I waved a paddle at people; balanced it on my chin in the aisle. Nothing. Dejected and near the end of the day, I just sat. Finally some guy walked over and was looking through the literature. No eye contact.”I’ll go for the soft sell approach”, I thought. I gave him a little time, trying to gauge his interest. No eye contact. Then I casually asked, “Ever been rafting?” “Yeah,” he gruffed. I paused patiently.”Where’d you go?” I asked. He tapped the brochure in his hand against the ones on the table and said in a slightly elevated voice that explained his only compulsion for stopping, “Chattooga.” Still no eye contact. Then in a matter of fact way he said, “Nearly got hit by a tornado.” By the time he looked up to gauge my reaction I already had a sly grin and wide eyes. When he met my gaze he exclaimed, “You…you were there!” We jabbered and gestured non-stop for more than a half hour, like long lost friends that had seen the same miracle. We had. People started picking up brochures, but we didn’t let up; maybe they thought they were missing something. They had. When he had to leave, I asked him one last thing, “Did it rain?” “Not much, no,” he said.
Next time it rains on your crew, just tell them like I do, “True adventure is made of adversity.”