Tuber training

I typically like to stay away from controversy in these pages, mostly because I'm a big wimp and prefer not be accosted in the produce aisle over something I don't remember writing in the first place. But every once in a while, an injustice arises that is so obviously unwarranted, I can no longer stand by, pretending not to notice as one fun-loving segment of our society is victimized for its preferred and completely harmless mode of recreation. That's right, I'm talking about tubers.

OK, so they may not appear to be the sharpest or courageous of adventurers. But to be fair, I think Durango (or any town where one can't swing a bicycle pump without hitting at least five professional athletes) tends to take itself a little too seriously in this regard. Just because someone happens to be wearing jean cut-offs and towing a Styrofoam cooler of Keystone Light and a Ziplock of Kool menthols doesn't mean he's any less of an outdoorsman. Besides, braving Smelter Rapid in a downpour wearing nothing but an old tractor tube and a soaked cotton T-shirt, while holding a koozy and Bic lighter over one's head, commands a certain amount of respect, not to mention coordination. One false move, and we're talking surgical removal of the air stem.

Perhaps I am a tuber sympathizer because I grew up in the Midwest. Lacking the gradient for any real gravity sports, tubes figured heavily in the recreational landscape year round. My first tubing experience came at a local tubing "hill," probably because "icy death luge" was a tough sell. It involved riding up a ratty old tow rope and then careening down in with nothing separating you from imminent death but a flimsy piece of rubber and a few strategically placed trees. Let me clarify, this was not the controlled, sanitized "snow coaster" of today's ski resorts, whereby tubers go single file down a well-manicured, barely vertical "hill," with a soft, friendly berm at the end lest anyone have too much fun. This was wild and wooly, freestyle tubing at its best, where bloodied faces and broken limbs were regular occurrences. Summer tubing was a similar venture, only involving water in its liquid state and frequently employing the use of high-powered in-board motors.

By the time I reached adulthood and moved to Colorado, I considered myself a sort of expert tuber. Thus, when a few friends (also Midwesterners) suggested we float the local river during peak run-off, I didn't think twice. Granted, I lived in Steamboat at the time, and the Yampa River is a mere wisp compared to the Animas at peak flow. But I would argue that what it lacks in heart-pumping excitement, it makes up for in heart-stopping cold. While we did not have the intellectual wherewithal to wear personal flotation devices, we did at least don some old wetsuits. Needless to say, as soon as we hit the icy torrent, the flotilla of fools was broken up like a popsicle-stick sailboat on the high seas. Visions of a leisurely float were replaced with visions of death as I struggled to steer my rudimentary craft out of harm's way and remain upright. I finally lost it all in something appropriately called "The A-Hole." By the time I was spit out and reunited with my tube, I clawed my way to shore. I arrived miraculously intact, with a much better appreciation for whitewater and the gift of life.

Of course, one of the reasons I survived my brush with the Darwin Award was a solemn vow that, as soon as I set foot on dry land, I would check myself into a bonafide whitewater program. This soon segued into the more refined river sports of rafting and kayaking, which involve lifejackets and protective headgear. I guess you could say this somehow made me better than the rest of my rubber river craft brethren. And I'll admit, over the next few years, I may have gotten a little high and mighty on my Hypalon, snubbing the mere thought of actually navigating a river with my butt dragging in the water.

But then I had kids, itself an exercise in humility and self-sacrifice. As a result, I soon became OK with all sorts of heretofore unthinkable and horrifying things, like reaching into toilets, eating baloney and American cheese sandwiches, and owning a minivan. As such, I have even grown soft to the idea of tubing. Summer's too short and much too hot for hard shells and drytops.

So, on a recent summer afternoon, I returned to the scene of the crime and plunked down $30 to get back in touch with my tubing roots. I must admit, I was a bit uneasy - mostly because it required me to parade through a busy tourist town in my bathing suit. But, I also was a little nervous, because this time, I had the added responsibility of my nonswimming, overly active preschooler. Cinched tight enough in his lifejacket to cut off all blood flow to his head, and wearing a pair of ratty, oversized aqua socks, we hit the water. OK, being that the water was slightly more than ankle deep, we hit more rocks than anything.

But, I didn't want to take any chances and immediately assumed the death grip on Baxter's tube, who at the age of 3, already had learned how uncool his mother is. "Mom, let go," he pleaded. Which I did, only to latch back on as soon as he turned his head. The float was pretty uneventful until I recognized the horizon line of my tube-shredding nemesis: The A-Hole. Adrenaline surged as I wildly backpaddled like a high-centered turtle to keep myself and my offspring safe from its constrictive grasp. A barrel roll would have been dangerous given the 4 inches of water, so I bravely stood up, bravely risking a potentially humiliating bikini bottom sag, to wade across the rocky channel and deliver us to safety. Or so I thought. Seems in the years since my first fateful voyage, there had been the addition of the B- through D-Holes. I vigilantly managed to escape the wrath of A through C, and will admit, was feeling a little cocky headed into the D-hole. And that's when disaster struck.

Somehow, Baxter's foot slid in the small gap between the tube and the seat and was now dangling in the river. He was frantically trying to pull it back through, but the aqua sock kept catching. Heeding his cries for help, and envisioning a deadly leg trap, I relinquished the death grip in order to free the foot. With Herculean effort, I got on his downstream edge, reached under the tube and removed the interfering shoe, or sock. He pulled his unencumbered foot back into the tube just as he went over the drop sideways. The complete lack of momentum and mass was just enough to hold him for a brief moment. He looked at me, eyes wide, and began screaming.

Poor tyke must have been terrified, I figured, probably scarred for life. I paddled closer to try to console and comfort him.

"Are you OK, buddy?" I gingerly asked as I got within ear shot.

The wailing stopped just long enough for him to utter a few words between tortured breaths.

"I … want … my … shoe … back," he sobbed.

I had forgotten all about the sopping-wet, bedraggled, neoprene footie, still clutched in my grasp. I reached over and slipped it back on his naked foot, and the wailing instantly ceased.

And with that, he was baptized into the tuber faith.

– Missy Votel



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