A few weeks ago, I blogged about a really cool rafting trip I did on the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania, with Laurel Highlands River Tours.
It was really fun, we had a blast.
But it meant much more than that to me.
You see, for a while now, I've been afraid of whitewater. And not just a little fearful - REALLY fearful.
My fear goes back to a trip I took many years ago on the Zambezi River in Africa. This river forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is also one of the most sought-after trips by those of us who get our jollies "defying death" by paddling through rapids in rafts.
While there are plenty of stats to indicate you're safer whitewater rafting than driving a car, ever since that day on the river, I've been terrified.
The Zambezi was not my first whitewater experience. I enjoyed my first whitewater thrill back in 1986 on the Kicking Horse River near Golden, B.C. There were a few tough class III rapids the days we were on the river - two successive days running the same stretch, actually - with Mad Rafter River Tours, an Alberta-based company. I found out how much of a pounding you could take in big water by "volunteering" to paddle in the bow of the raft.
|Ready to raft the Kicking Horse River (1986).|
It was cold and exhausting, but also exhilarating.
The following year, I rafted on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers; however, shooting Hell's Gate meant we had to be in a motor-powered raft - the hydraulics are just too big and too dangerous for paddle or oar rafts.
It was a great trip. I re-did it about four years later to give the Divine Ms. K a taste of whitewater thrills.
Then came a trip to Africa. And the challenge of the Zambezi.
Rafting companies run about a 25-km stretch below Victoria Falls that includes about 20 or so different rapids, including several Class III, IV and V rapids. There's also a Class VI called "Commercial Suicide" because rafters always portage it. ALWAYS.
I'd seen videos of previous trips on the Zambezi before our day trip, and it looked hairy. I actually did my best to prevent Ms. K from seeing the videos before our trip, as I was afraid she wouldn't want to go. (She confirmed afterward if she had, she probably would have chosen not to go.)
Anyway, we get on the river, we're doing fine, although the adrenaline rushes are coming maybe a bit too frequently...several people from our Sobek raft had gone swimming, but they'd all survived, hadn't been eaten by any crocodiles and we made it to lunch right below Commercial Suicide. After eating, we headed back onto the river and Rapid # 11, a.k.a., "Overland Truck Eater" (it had another name I'll tell you about later).
I remember looking down into the rapid, yelling "Yahoo, Mountain Dew!" - and then I was in the river. In a Class V rapid, essentially a series of boils and whirlpools.
When I initially went overboard, I stayed calm and pointed my feet downstream, as we were trained to do.
When I did not seem to be getting any closer to the surface after several seconds, though, I decided to put my feet to better use, kicking to get to the surface.
Just as I surfaced and started to gulp some air, the river yanked me back underwater. Full of water and now very frightened, I struggled to re-surface. The thought, "Is this how it ends?" did cross my mind briefly.
|Into the maw of another Class V Zambezi Rapid.|
(I'm second from the right, obliterated by the wave).
Luckily, mine stayed on, so after making my way downstream to where our raft had eddied out, I climbed back in to rejoin our crew of mixed male and female paddlers devoid of embarrassment, since I didn't have to paddle "au naturel" for the next nine rapids. Whew!
I was terrified. I'd seen others in our group opt to finish the trip in oar rafts, which are much safer than paddle rafts, since all you have to do is hang on to the "chicken line" and ride the rapid in relative safety.
It was not comfortable, though.
Tell me about it.
But I was.
I also never let on.
It was nothing like the Zambezi. I began to realize most rivers are not as dangerous as that river, at least not the ones companies run commercial rafting trips on, although deaths do still occur sometimes. A river is never to be taken lightly.
But I relaxed. I enjoyed it. I had fun.
But I believe in the essence of a quote attributed sometimes to Mark Twain, other times to Nelson Mandela.
Only by overcoming our fears can we really live.
It feels great to be living, again.
Now I can hardly wait to go rafting in Asia and Australia.
Here's some Zambezi action for you (not our trip.)