On the high side

Swirling brown water roiled beneath the raft as she called out the fateful words. “I don’t want you to go out there and pull a ‘Will Sands,’” the cautious wife scolded her once brazen husband.

Bits of spray shot above a steadily rumbling horizon line, making a fitting backdrop for the family chat. “Pull the boat over, we’re portaging this rapid,” she added in tones only a husband could appreciate.

The husband was a good boy and did as commanded, delivering his wife and daughter to river-left above the drop. The two ladies then happily hoofed it around the spray, as dad tensely negotiated the boat through a lateral, over a reversal and beyond a small standing wave. In the end, the whole family survived to run another stretch on another day, no doubt invoking my name in shame at any sign of river peril.

A “Will Sands,” for those of you who don’t know, is a complex river move. While not a prerequisite, it should involve the consumption of canned beer. High water helps, but again, is not mandatory. Three really are only two clutch moves – flipping a raft and having at least two family members on board said rubber rivercraft take a swim. Pulling the move on Mother’s Day with one or more mothers in the boat will ensure it lives on in infamy. Bring your 5-year-old daughter along, and your one-and-only flip of all time (I promise, it’s true) will be etched into town legend, becoming the talk of every barroom and knitting circle in Durango.

I will say – strictly for the record – that there was once a time when I scoffed at rafters and the Hypalon they inhabited. Back in the late 1990s, I did rivers the “proper” way, seated uncomfortably and often freezing my ass off inside a hard shell. During a decade-long kayaking career, I nearly perfected my roll, front surfed for hundreds of hours on dozens of glassy waves and ran more than a few Class IV stretches of the white, wet stuff. Unfortunately, that all fizzled six years ago.

An unexpected side-effect of becoming an expecting father was substantial shrinkage, some might even say disappearance, of the cojones. Yep, the geyser switch flipped the second my daughter was born, and surf waves quickly became purling pitches of death. Holes once suited to throwing ends were transformed into swirling vortexes of terror.

And so it was that a man who’d ridiculed rafters everywhere from the sunny shores of Idaho to the backwoods of West Virginia swapped his Werner paddle for a pair of Sawyer oars. So it was that Mr. Numbers became an aspiring Class III rafter, ticking off such “classics” as Ruby-Horsethief, the Goosenecks, and Slickrock to Bedrock. And so it was that I found myself drifting down the Animas River last May, with my wife, mother, father and daughter all happily soaking up the town run on a sunny Mother’s Day.

With a few Tecates under my belt, my arms loosely swinging the Sawyers and one of the first big pulses of run-off at hand, all seemed right with the world. However, as we drifted beneath the Highway 160 West bridge and looked on the river’s first real meat, some doubt was injected into the equation.

“I’m thinking that maybe Skyler and I should walk Smelter,” my better half suggested, the rapid gradually appearing on the horizon. My daughter immediately contradicted mom, yelling, “Whitewater! Whitewater!” Skyler’s obviously distressed grandmother flashed mortally terrified eyes my way, her life vest draped over her like a maternity dress. At that point, the Tecate did the talking. “C’mon. It’s only the town run,” I replied. Catching a whiff of testosterone, my dad pointed downstream in a gesture of “onward.” We crashed through Smelter cleanly, and I took a moment to set-up the raft for the “new and improved” Corner Pocket. The rapid just happened to be showing its first real teeth since the boys had touched it up earlier that winter.

I gave the raft two big pushes forward (Mom had stopped breathing by this point. Dad’s arm was no longer pumping downstream) and the boat crested the drop, smashed into the hole and appeared to pass through the hydraulic. Everyone breathed a heady sigh of relief, seconds before the Animas had the last laugh. Despite my best efforts to push the oars forward, Corner Pocket grabbed the nose of my 14’ rubber barge and pulled it back into the hole. I briefly yelled, “High side!” and watched as my parents went to the high side of the river (and the low side of the boat). In split-second time, the entire Sands crew dropped into the icy drink.

At the same moment, a second raft in our party, containing a 6-year-old, a grandfather, and a mom and dad, flipped in Smelter (That move has gone down in legend as pulling a “Compton” in case you’re wondering). And so a total of nine people simultaneously swam the meat of the town run, as a gaggle of spectators bent on raft carnage got their fill of afternoon entertainment.

The good news was that the sexagenarian woman who gave me life (sorry, mom) and my 5-year-old loinfruit both swam the run like East German medalists. The bad news was that the infamy was almost instantaneous. As I scrambled along the shore collecting gear and family members, the audience was beyond pleased.

“Hey, aren’t you the guy who just dumped?” a man along the shore asked giggling through a wide grin.

I nodded between shivers, rubbing my arms and legs for warmth.

“Nice move,” he laughed in my face. “Hey, and wait a minute. Your last name isn’t Sands, is it?”

– Will Sands