The perfect storm

“Don’t worry. Mommy’s an experienced paddler. She won’t let anything bad happen to you,” I reassured the concerned little faces as we pushed off from shore.

Despite every attempt to get an early start, menacing black clouds were billowing on the horizon, and something in my children’s primordial intuition told them setting out on a leisurely afternoon float was not a good idea. But the clouds had been threatening every afternoon for days, only to result in cancelled plans and a few errant raindrops. Besides, I was anxious to initiate my children into the world of paddlesports, and now, with the river low and the water warm, was the perfect opportunity. Plus, earlier in the summer, I had done something I’d sworn I would never do: I bought a tandem ducky.

“Just for the kids and friends who come visit,” I explained to incredulous hard-shellers who thought I had gone and lost my mind.

See, for years I had looked down my noseplugs at the lowly inflatables, the whitewater equivalent of a Lazy Boy recliner. Functional and comfy, for sure, but about as sexy and exciting as black tube socks and fanny packs.

However, the truth was, after a few spins in the new toy, I had come to gain an affinity for the unsung sport of D-2ing. There was something humbling and exciting about trying to navigate an unwieldy, clumsy piece of rubber through whitewater with a 50-pound paddle and a crewmate who counter-acted your every stroke, all while attempting to stay upright on a “seat” more akin to a slip ’n slide. The most mundane of riffles suddenly took on new meaning from the reclining comfort of the floating barcalounger.

I also saw the outing as an opportunity to give my offspring an early start to their river careers, thus saving them the humiliation and terror that comes from learning a wet exit and combat roll mid-life, when you’re old enough to know better. And I must admit to some selfish motives as well. Like every kayaker parent, I secretly harbored the dream that some day one of my children would develop an insatiable love for rowing a raft, a necessary part of river-tripping that I failed miserably at.

As such, it was of the utmost importance that I put on a happy-go-lucky, confident face. Kids can smell fear, and at such a tender age, any bad experiences can do irreparable harm.

So with my young protégés and the slightly neurotic family canine in tow, we set off under the summer sun into our own picturesque Countrytime Lemonade commercial.

But not long afterward, things began to sour.

The monsoons I had poo-poohed earlier were looming with a vengeance. An introductory clap of thunder announced the change of weather as my first mate, thumb anxiously planted in mouth since we set sail, extracted it long enough to let out an ear-splitting howl, “I want to go inside.”

Of course, explaining to a 2½ year old that the only “inside” at that moment was a grimy, filth-infested public restroom, is difficult at best. Eyeing the wall of rain now bearing down on our doomed flotilla, I
decided to test my motherly instincts against Mother Nature. As light rain began to fall, I put the ducky into overdrive and pointed her downriver, hoping to beat the brunt of the storm by the time I hit the upper Smelter takeout.

Maybe it was the sudden drop in temperature or the slushy hail that began to pelt us, but the ducky’s tubessoon  wilted like limp noodles. I struggled to keep the rig straight while avoiding the head of the wailing 2½-year-old, who was squarely planted in my lap. On the upside, she had long since given up screaming for her mommy and had commenced screaming for her daddy, obviously the sane parent, as evidenced by his absence.

Meanwhile, the 5-year-old, who had taken to mocking his younger sibling, turned around in his seat to gain a better vantage point of the unfolding misery. It was right about this time, awash in a blinding gale of rain and a sea of shirtless, shivering tubers and desperate duckyers, that disaster struck. Unable to keep the deflated noodle straight, we hit a wave sideways and the boy and dog were pitched into the drink.

In a sort of “Sophie’s Choice” meets “River Wild” (thank you, Meryl Streep) I reached into the roiling water and pulled the boy back to safety by his lifejacket. By now, I was buried under a hog pile of screaming children, paddles and river luggage, unable to grab the dog (who was wearing a life jacket, I might add), who was forced to swim to shore.

When we reached land, the hurricane force winds had hit and lightning lit up the air like a Pink Floyd laser show. It was right about this time, with both kids in the throes of full mental breakdown and hypothermia, and the dog MIA, that I reached the depths of parental hell. I felt like Clark Griswold at the gilded, locked gates of Wally World. Somehow, in my overzealous quest for fun, I had pushed it too far, risking permanent damage – not to mention electrocution and drowning. I was pretty much guaranteed a lifetime backlash of Play Station, TV and mall ratdom.

We scoured the shore in vain for the dog but were forced to abort the K9 rescue mission, when, in the midst of the melee, a timeout was called for a potty break. Like shivering, drowned rodents, we scurried down the bike path to the makeshift river refugee camp that had formed near the restrooms. Using a borrowed cell phone, I put in the call to Nanna 911, who soon arrived with warm car, dry towels and sympathetic arms.

Riddled with guilt, I then resumed the doggy search mission, vowing that if she was found safe to never yell at her for chewing shoes or sleeping on the bed again. A deal with the devil to be sure, but given the nasty turn of weather, I figured he was the one responsible in the first place. Anyway, the ploy must have worked, because as I approached the minefield of abandoned duckies, there she was, patiently waiting in the ducky driver’s seat, tail nub wagging wildly. Seems all hope for a young river protege was not lost after all. Now only if I could get her on the oars.

– Missy Votel