“So, just to make sure y’all got everythin’, what will I say when I need y’all to duck?” the lethargic guide asked.
“Oh shit! Oh shit!” we all replied in unison showered with laughter.
It was the second Labor Day in a row that my friends and I went whitewater rafting. The two-hour drive to Tennessee’s Ocoee River was a sweet trade-off for the adrenaline rush we would enjoy. Let it be known: whitewater rafting is not for the faint of heart. In fact, the previous year we had experienced a couple of scary moments, but we decided to give it another try for the sake of being adventurous.
That year’s guide was a bearded, 60-something man whose grimy appearance made me wonder when his last bath had taken place. A poignant stench followed him everywhere he went. Oversized, dingy overalls hung from the man’s skinny frame. He was shirtless underneath the ghastly garment. The Confederate flag bandana tied around his head seemed hostile to us, a group of young Hispanics. Underneath the bandana, he sported a gray-haired braid. His long, dirty fingernails made even the guys squirm in horror. Whenever he spoke, prominent gaps were visible where teeth were missing. Even though his instructions were funny, his sluggish demeanor spoke of boredom at conducting a task he had performed for over 30 years. At least we knew his expertise would be useful to us in the water.
The early September day was unnaturally cool. Goosebumps covered my limbs as I latched on the life vest and helmet. Lush Tennessee greenery decorated everything around us. Tree branches swung from side to side in the chilly breeze. The water would be cold, and we knew it.
Adrenaline flooded my veins at the mere sight of the nearby raft floating on the river. When we boarded, one of my girlfriends and I sat on the second row, while two of the guys sat on the first row. The third row was occupied by two other guy friends. Our fearless guide sat at the prow of the raft beckoning us forth into the fierce river.
Freezing droplets splashed our faces as soon as the raft entered the river. Shivers ran down my back as I reevaluated the soundness of our decision to go whitewater rafting on such a breezy day, but there was no turning back at that point. Our raft continued making its course along the rock-studded river. We paddled uncoordinatedly, which made our guide’s job challenging. He, however, seemed unfazed by our abysmal paddling skills. The languid disposition in which he carried himself was almost comatose.
“Do you think he’s okay?” my friend asked after hitting her paddle against an adjacent rock.
“I think…he might be high on something,” I ventured. The guide was aware enough to give us directions as to which way to angle our bodies, yet his reactions to threats along the way lacked any real emotion. Either he had been on the brink of death repeatedly over the last three decades, or he was highly sedated.
“Oh shit! Oh shit!” his monotone voice managed to yell. That is, if the sound his mouth emitted could be called a yell. We all ducked close to the floor of the raft, as he had instructed us to do. A freezing wave struck against our exposed backs. Despite the life vest, I could feel cold water seep through to my skin.
We sat upright immediately after the hit of the wave. My view zeroed in on the upcoming downward slope, and the beat of my heart rivaled the rhythm of a drum. We would fall off the raft. There was practically no avoiding it.
The previous year’s experience taught me the river’s floor was overflowing with rocks. I even scraped my knees badly then. But, the flow of the water was significantly heavier the second time around. Fear, intertwined with adrenaline, coursed through my body. The fall was imminent.
Our raft slid down the steep slope like butter on a heated pan. The jagged course it undertook shook us while we attempted to follow our guide’s slurred string of directions. His intermittent yells of, “Right! Left! Right! Left!” were so ill-given that I always found myself leaning towards the wrong side. It is no simple task going through life as a somewhat uncoordinated creature.
Suddenly, the raft swerved to the side. It was a clear consequence of our dismal paddling. Two heavyset rocks blocked the path of our raft, which was now traveling horizontally. The raft crashed against the rocks filling the gap between them with absolute precision. My friend’s elbow accidentally hit my ribcage causing me to wince in pain. We were stuck.
“Alright y’all, we got ourselves a situation in our hands,” the guide’s reaction remained stoic, “y’all girls gotta get off the boat so that the boys can push it outta the gap.” His instructions made sense, but I felt uneasy about getting off the raft. Still, we had no choice. We all stepped out of the raft, and us girls crawled on top of the rock. With such a heavy current, it was impossible to remain standing in the water. It would have knocked us down. The guys were able to steady the raft on the water, and we continued with our adventure.
The path in front of us seemed to have steadied for some time. We even found ourselves bored with our low-impact rafting. The guys had been hoping for a more tumultuous journey, and they were not happy at the prospect of having experienced the height of our rafting so early on. The guide continued throwing ill-timed directions our way with the occasional, “Oh shit! Oh shit!” here and there. Just when I thought our trip was coming to a safe end, a plethora of jagged rocks emerged in the horizon. Our raft was headed straight for them.
“Umm…Jim? Don’t you think we should stray away from those rocks up ahead?” I suggested to our guide.
“Look, little lady, if I say y’all are in danger, then ya are. If not, then ya keep goin’ down the same path, all right?” he responded with a country accent that would have made Dolly Parton cringe.
One of my guy friends agreed with me, “She’s right. We have to get out of the way or else we’ll flip over!”
“What’d I say? Y’all city folk got ya heads up in the clouds, I tell ya,” Jim replied monotonously. The argument between the guys and our guide continued as I watched in horror the eminent approach of the rocks. Their increasing proximity made their imminent threat grow. When I realized we were definitely headed straight toward them, I urged my friends to paddle to the opposite side.
It was too late. Our raft struck one of the rocks and flipped into the water. We were all plunged into the freezing river, which was even colder than in my wildest nightmares. Oh shit! Oh shit! Indeed.
I tried swimming underneath the overturned raft to free myself to no avail. My body was entirely blocked by the heavy raft above me, the seats of the raft on either side of me, and the humongous rocks below me. With every bit of strength I could conjure, my arms pushed the raft up. It did not budge. My face was completely submerged in the water unless I tilted my head back. Two of my friends’ voices yelled my name in desperation from the shore. They sounded distant, but not unreachable. I screamed for my friends to help me at the top of my asphyxiating lungs. I had swallowed enough river water to keep me hydrated for over a day, and my breathing became heavier each instant I remained submerged.
Using my body weight, I flipped my legs upward and kicked the stubborn raft. Again, it was immune to my efforts. Instead, I accidentally banged my head against one of the rocks next to me. Fiery pain burned my head, as it had never experienced such a sensation. The impact caused my vision to become even foggier in the murky river water. I could feel my strength waning and my consciousness slipping away. The distress in my head forced my eyes closed despite my forceful attempts at keeping them open. Panic, unlike any I had ever or have since experienced, overwhelmed me down to the tips of my hair. All I could think was: This cannot be the way I die. I refuse to waste my life like this.
Just as the last sparks of my resolve were dying, I felt the weight of the raft release me. “Laura! Oh God, you’re all right!” My eyes snapped open and were greeted by the sight of my friend’s face of pure relief. He pulled me out of the water with gentle firmness, and I noticed another one of my friends was fiercely arguing with the guide. Apparently, our incompetent leader thought it would be funny to sit atop the overturned raft and ignore my cries for help. No wonder the raft was inconceivably heavy.
My friends insulted him and did not stop short of accusing him of attempted murder. The sight of the careless guide made bile run up my throat. That is how much the man disgusted me. One of my friends hugged me consolingly, and only then did I notice my entire body was shaking. Cold and terror had intertwined to make me shiver.
Thankfully, the accident occurred only a five-minute distance away from where we were to disembark. I remained silent as my friends continued to argue with the guide, who avoided my gaze at all costs.
When we disembarked the raft, I was finally able to breathe again. I looked up at the trees and heard birds chirping. Two thoughts crossed my mind: I am so lucky not to have drowned, and I will NEVER go whitewater rafting again.