Inflatable initiation

There comes a time in every kayaker’s life when he or she must own up to his or her own actions and become a contributing member of river society. Gone are the days of heaping the dry bag on the to-be-rigged pile, finding a shady spot in the sand and asking when breakfast is going to be ready or if there’s any beer in the cooler. For some of us, this coming of age arrives sooner, while others are still wandering around the put-in, Paco pad in hand, looking for the next available cargo boat. For me, this change came rather abruptly when I couldn’t find any rafters willing to take my two small children down the river, even if they did make good ballast. So in the name of family values, my husband and I made the plunge into raftdom.

Of course, anyone who has done likewise knows it’s more like getting sucked into a swirling vortex of gear, gizmos, thingymajiggies and doohickeys. And that’s not even counting the strappage, which although reaching to the moon and back, somehow is never quite enough to get a 14-foot piece of rubber 30 miles downstream.

For someone who loses her keys several times a day and can’t remember where she parked at the grocery store, the thought of having to keep track of so much stuff is a bit daunting. For the spousal unit, who always knows where his keys are or the car is parked, it’s downright maddening.

“You mean if we lose this one little piece of black plastic out in the middle of nowhere we’ll be screwed?” he asked incredulously, as we fumbled with the air pump. “I don’t think I can do this – it requires a level of organization I don’t have.”

Of course, by now it was too late. The raft was already out of the box, the deck and floor boards painstakingly cut and epoxied, and the oar rights set. The seal on the groover had been cracked and the bow line lay in a hopeless jumble on the ground.

The plan was simple enough: take a little do-it-yourself, family overnighter through town, stopping to camp on a friend’s land. The idea was to work out the bugs and get comfortable behind the oars before heading out for bigger, more remote endeavors. But as I surveyed the wreckage of foreign objects littering the back yard, I suspected I may have underestimated my new responsibility as a raft owner. I mean, rafting was supposed to be easy, right? Just sit on the cooler and swat at kayakers when they get too close. Nobody told me about all the stuff. It soon was apparent that river rafters get a bum rap among the general public for being, shall we say, too relaxed. But the truth is, there’s a lot of work that goes into reaching this state. Things like actually filling the raft with air (who knew those pumps have a forward and reverse.) Then there’s the never-ending shuttle conundrum and learning how to tie a real knot. And don’t forget the food. There’s something written into the rafters genetic code that demands that at least half of the available space on a raft must be taken up by food (beer taking up the other half). Apparently, starvation is never far off, regardless of the fact that we would be less than a mile from take-out at any given time.

Little by little, we chipped away at that insurmountable pile of rubber, metal, wood and nylon until we had what appeared to be some semblance of a river worthy craft. Eventually, the anxiety turned to a feeling of accomplishment and competency, as we hoisted the raft on the trailer and headed to the put-in.

After some finagling down the class V put in, and some initial disappointment among younger crew members that there really wasn’t any “puddin” at the “put-in,” we finally set rubber to water. In true river fashion, we were a bit off the back, with only a few hours of daylight to spare. So, in the interest of saving time and sanity, we opted for the quickie rigging.

Within the first hour, the anxiety over who would be the first swimmer was settled. Bilbo, a natural-born swimmer who hadn’t quite mastered his sea legs, got a little too close to the edge. Fortunately, he was equipped with a doggy life jacket, and for the most part, it was a self-rescue. With the inevitable carnage out of the way, we settled into our meandering cruise down valley. Eventually, the rhythm of the water lulled the kids to sleep, and it was just the spouse and us, guided by a four-Tecate buzz and a waxing moon. We were enjoying the silence and romance of it all, when a rather large-ish white piece of flotsam caught our eye. Too large to be an albino beaver, we finally got close enough to make out the words “North Face” emblazoned on its side. And that’s when we had our second swimmer of the evening, my sleeping bag. Immediately called to action from a semi-comatose state, we began a frantic game of cat and mouse. And believe you me, retrieving a almost weightless item from a large, lumbering craft is a lot harder than it sounds, sort of like trying to catch butterflies from the cockpit of a 747. Eventually, the bag became water-logged enough that we were able to fish it out. Typically, this would have been the point in the trip where I hiked out and hitch hiked home. However, sensing an imminent breakdown in familial relations, the spousal unit offered to take the soggy bag, which I graciously accepted. Besides, we had the secret weapon, what I like to call the “Tent Mahal,” sort of the Superdome of dome tents. Hunkered down in there, we’d be sleeping in climate-controlled luxury. I looked forward to this as we unloaded the boat in the dark, my bare feet frozen from wading through mud and stomach churning from a liquid dinner. Unfortunately, the highly anticipated Superdome was 5 miles upstream, safely tucked under the back seat in the family truckster where we left it.

Too tired to care, I laid my sleeping pad down in the tall grass and zipped the baby, who was soundly sleeping and oblivious to the turmoil, inside my sleeping bag with me. All plans for dinner were abandoned as I dozed off to thoughts of the next morning’s feast. I was two cakes into a full stack when reality rudely re-appeared.

“I forgot the maple syrup,” I murmered, to nobody in particular.

But then the lullaby of rushing river and twinkling stars beckoned me back to sleep. And as I drifted off to one of the best nights of sleep I’ve had in a long time, all the wet sleeping bags, wet dogs, forgotten tents, maple syrup, plastic thingys, buckle straps, carabiners, tangled ropes and miniscule pains in the butt were suddenly worthwhile.

– Missy Votel