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An Adventure on the Arkansas

Essay by T.L. Livermore

Recreation – July 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

My first foray into rafting took place on the Arkansas, in Brown’s Canyon, in an Achilles owned by a friend who insisted it would be fun. He promised to show me holes, places where the river turns back on itself.

But first I had to get the hang of paddling from the front of the boat, where he stuck me. When finally I felt confident of my new skill to look beyond the end of the raft, I found us dwarfed by twin walls of river-scoured rock. Brown with faded reddish and yellow hues, that rock had stood for an eternity, worn down ever so slowly by a constant rush of water. One could chart the river’s ageless flow, its twists and turns, by studying the rock, which sometimes dropped at an alarmingly vertical tilt down nearly to the water’s edge.

I got wet.

Just as he’d predicted, the water’s course got narrower, funneling the same volume of water through a smaller space. The swells grew bigger, some so much that they looked just like fluid white haystacks, which was what he called them.

Every large run of whitewater had its own name, none designed to bolster the faint of heart. Squeeze Box, Pinball, Raft Ripper — but because I knew enough to follow directions in an unfamiliar situation, and because he read the river so well, we paddled through all of it easily. I think I pleased him, because I once caught him grinning as I came sputtering through another huge wave, shaking my head free of water but smiling nonetheless.

“Here we go,” he shouted, pointing toward what seemed to be a harmless bend in the river. I trusted him completely now, so I tightened my grip on the paddle and shifted my weight as I straddled the gray rubber tube of the raft.

“Widow Maker,” he explained, and suddenly his words were lost as I found the hole of my imagination. The river opened up on itself, nearly across the width of the bend, a blank pocket of air surrounded by an angry whirl of green and white froth. A hole indeed, an earth-bound version of astronomy’s description of matter swirling into nothingness. Black space, and it didn’t seem possible to circumvent it.

“Paddle forward,” he instructed calmly. “As hard as you can.” It was my best effort yet, dictated exclusively by fear.

We skirted the awesome maelstrom, never really in danger of being drawn in, but close enough to be conscious of the possibility. We hit a series of swells created as water spewed its way out of the whirlpool, riding through them cleanly as I stopped paddling to stare back at the hole. We splashed through the last one, its trough deeper than the others, and abruptly the boat pivoted and we were floating up against the current, back toward the widow maker, with my end of the raft leading the way.

“It’s a keeper!” he shouted, as I stared in fascination at the water pulling me back the way I’d come. And suddenly I wasn’t in the boat any more, the breath had gone out of me in a cold gasp.

I was in the water, right next to that awful vortex. Except that I didn’t know which side was “right next” to me. I didn’t even know where “up” was, because water was cascading over me from every angle. I could hear the churning water in my ears, feel the overwhelming cold bleakness of it, and I kicked wildly — but one of my feet didn’t move.

Water, water, everywhere — I opened my mouth and inhaled a great draught of the dark fluid, and then even more as I tried to rid myself of the first mouthful. I tried to kick my foot free again and felt something pull at my neck. Inexorably I drifted, my life vest intent on taking me somewhere. My face scraped against something rough, something I’d always imagined sharkskin would feel like, and I realized the river was pressing me against the underside of the raft.

A soundless scream bubbled forth as I tried to fight the force of the river, trying to turn my head away from the oppressiveness of the raft. My foot was still trapped, and now I knew it was tangled in something from the boat. Lashed like Ahab to my eternal enemy, I was as doomed as that crazed whaler of another century. My next scream became another intake of water, one that jetted down to my stomach.

Even as I kicked in feeble protest, I felt another, more powerful grip around my ankle. I kicked with my other foot but it too was caught, and abruptly my face was being dragged across the underside of the raft until the awful pressure of the river pounding against the Hypalon was broken and I lifted my head up into the air.

Still I was moving, the grip now on my knees, then on my thighs and waist until I was wrested, continuing to kick blindly, into the bottom of the raft.

“Are you all right?” he asked as my thrashing subsided. I started to tell him that was the most asinine question that had ever been asked of me when I vomited instead, a sorry concoction of gray river water and bile. The effluent spewed across the soggy bottom of the boat, spattering up on him as well, and once I’d started I couldn’t stop.

After a while, I managed to move to a sitting position, leaning over the side, but for a long time I could only sit stupidly, spewing up foul water and other bilious contents from my stomach. I had no idea of, nor any care of, the fate of the boat as it headed downstream, but somewhere dimly I realized he had managed to get us into a backwater and the only movement of the boat was a slow sideways slither along the canyon rock.

Gradually my eyes quit watering and I stopped coughing so much, enough that I could see him peering at me intently. “You know, your foot was out of water that entire time,” he said in a conversational tone. “You would’ve been just fine if you hadn’t panicked.”

T.L. Livermore, who lives and writes in Gunnison, is actually pretty good on the water.