On the raft

The whitewater rafters slowly paddled by us as the rapids diminished, trying to stare without making eye contact. We smiled, waved, and promptly tipped over into the water again. They had helmets and life jackets, we were shirtless and had lashed ourselves to bundles of driftwood.

This was not our original plan. I am fairly confident that we didn’t even have an original plan, which may explain why we were in this situation. I think the most logical explanation is that an ill-advised idea had been hatched in a moment, flourished to the point of no return, and then quickly died as we attempted to navigate a raging river with the engineering capabilities of Huckleberry Finn. Well, that’s not quite fair to ol’ Huck.

We had hiked upriver from the family cabin in the Rocky Mountains. Because our fishing abilities were, frankly, horrendous, we typically ended up using our time more profitably than allowing the trout mock us. We looked for sticks. Massive logs. Hiking staffs. Small pieces of broken fence posts. We sifted through anything that the summer thaws have swept into the stream. Even a massive pine tree underwent a transformation once it had been uprooted and forced down the neck of a raging river. The power of an avalanche of water could rip the strongest tree from its lofty perch. Wrestled from the bank and into the surging river, it bounced and ground against everything from sand to boulders the size of trucks, until it was pinned or beached. Every log, stick, or whitewater rafter left its small mark in passing.

As the spring thaws slowed and the water receded, huge piles of driftwood were revealed in coves and on banks. Since sticks were easier to catch than trout, we dug through these piles looking for odd shapes or artistic inspiration. My grandmother had an oversized magnifying glass that she would use to solar burn our treasures with our names or preferred designs. But small logs were for kids. We were men and we had a different plan.

My father had built a log bed from the wood pulled from this river and hauled back to the Midwest. My brother and I were going to follow suit. So after a lousy afternoon of fishing, we dropped the poles and started pulling out logs. Our bundles of driftwood grew on the bank until we figured we had enough to sort through. But the problem now was how to get all this wood downstream to the cabin. We had two options. We could haul each log back along the narrow forest trail, through briars and barbed wire, over rockslides and roots. Or we could float our find down the river like lumberjacks. As Minnesotans with a proud heritage in Paul Bunyan, we took the floating option.

The rope and fishing line we had between us was not enough for our two bundles, so anything that could be tied was recruited for the purpose, including our belts. We shoved off and jumped on top, figuring we would nail down the specifics while navigating the river. Our bundles bounced and bobbed, rolling us off and getting stuck in the rocks. But we kept getting back on, pulling our shorts up, and pushing out into the current. After an exhausting battle with the river, many lost logs, and some close calls with skull crunching boulders, we neared the cabin. Spread eagle on the loose bundles, trying to keep any logs from escaping, we waited for a sight of our cabin. And then the caravan of whitewater rafters started to pass. Every head turned. Every paddle paused. And I am fairly confident some took pictures. I can only imagine what was going through their minds as they sat in their wetsuits and helmets, paddling a specialized raft with a guide on the back. Most likely they were thinking, “Ah shucks…some guys have all the luck.”