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Whitewater Lessons

For the last few years on our summer vacation, one of the highlights of our trips has been whitewater rafting on the Nantahala River. This summer was no different. Except it was. And a lot. Let me explain.

The Nantahala is mostly made up of class II rapids, making it rather tame by rafting standards. So tame in fact that you can rent a raft and head down the river with no guide. But only after they try to scare you with the video that tells you how you can die doing it! After the video, our family boarded the bus and headed up river to begin our adventure, just like before. Only this was the first trip that we had a raft to ourselves and I was to sit in the back and act as guide. Like I said, this time things were different.

So we’re in the raft and pushing off into the current. The river begins almost immediately with the second hardest rapid on the river, Patton’s Run. The instructions from the video are to stay right and avoid the rock on the left, aptly named “Jaws” for its tendency to gobble up rafts and spit the riders out. Mind you we have been in the raft all of 30 seconds when we hit this rapid. And while I have rafted 6-8 times, I do it at best only once a year and never from the rear with the responsibility to steer the raft. Plus the raft is lopsided with 2 on one side and 1 on the other. And the 2 paddlers are stronger than the 1 and are pushing the raft right toward that evil rock. In trying to get us going the proper direction, I overcompensate. So now the raft has spun so that we going backwards. At which point I hear clearly shouted above the rushing water, “We’re all going to die!!!!!” (Any guesses where that came from?)

Not to give away the ending, but we did not die. In fact, no one even fell out of the raft. And all in all it proved to be quite a good day. Because now this wasn’t just a rafting trip, it was a teachable moment. We learned that when things didn’t exactly go as planned — let’s just say that wasn’t the only rapid we went through backwards — panic didn’t help. That everybody felt more secure when Dad confidently gave directions. But mostly that the only way to get down the river was to work together and trust each other.

And that’s what we did. For the next hour and a half, we learned how to keep the raft pointed down the river. How to spot the rocks that would hang up the raft. How to enter a rapid and hit a wave to get the kids up front a face full of ice cold water. (Ok, I figured out that last one myself and did it as often as I could!) How to keep from being pushed too close to the trees overhanging the river. How to laugh and have fun as we paddled.

All was going well until the the last rapid, Nantahala Falls. It is the fastest and toughest rapid on the river as you drop over about a 5 to 6 foot ledge. We pulled off the river and walked to ‘scout’ the rapid at the overlook. We watched a few boats go over just fine. Then we watched a full raft come flying down the river, get turned sideways, and turn over dumping everyone in the river. All that anxiety from Patton’s Run was back. Can we keep the raft straight? Can we avoid that big rock and take the right line through the falls? What happens if we get dumped? Should we even try this?

I’m proud to say that we did. Yes, I was nervous. I think we all were. But yes, it was a blast! We pushed back into the river. Took the bend on the inside just like we needed to. Slid by that large rock, catching the wave off its side to slingshot us forward. Hit the Falls dead center, boat straight, riding the water at its crest over the 2 ledges. Beached our raft and went to look at the picture that proved we did it.

Who knew that a fun day on the river could prove such a learning experience. Now let’s hope we remember and practice those lessons on dry land.

Posted on August 18th, 2010