Wednesday, November 27, 2013


I don't know what I'm going to write today. I haven't done anything. The impressions of the day aren't there. Maybe I should tell you about going over the waterfall.

See, years ago, when Mike and I were still dating, the Explorer Post kids decided they wanted to go white water rafting. How cool is that?

Our first trip was down the Tygart river in West Virginia in duckies. They call these open inflatable kayaks 'duckies' because we looked like ducklings following after our river guides. I had never been in a kayak at that point, so they started us at an eddy and told us that the trip culminated in a 14 foot vertical drop which they would video for each of us. . To be honest, that's all I remember of the Tygart, that drop. There isn't a single image of that trip except for the water fall. In fact, I know there were between eight and ten kids on that trip, but I don't remember a single one of them. That way a memory focuses a spotlight on one vital event is a blessing and a curse. So, in my imagination, only Harold, Mike, and I are on this trip with the river guides, a man and a tiny woman with beautifully sculpted biceps. I imagined they were a couple, forging that same kind of bond that Mike and I were creating.

So in honor of that single memory, I'll skip right ahead to the eddy at the top of the falls. There's something you learn with a heightened sense of energy in river paddling. That is the horizon line. I feel it every time I cross the bridge over the Snoqualmie by the falls. The water is wide and flat. In fact, there's a single line between water and the distant valley. Sometimes you can see a cloud of the backsplash rising up beyond the line, but mostly you get to look across the valley as if you'd climbed to the top of some mountain. It's the same feeling you get when you stand for the first time on the high dive. Do you remember that? Can you feel the tiny wiggling sensation in your gut as you think of it?

The highest place I've ever jumped from was about twenty-eight feet, but I knew back then that if I weren't careful, if I managed to do a face plant, that I'd be toast. I was about eleven. By then, I'd jumped off the high dive, even over-rotated and landed hard on my shoulders. And that was only from ten feet up!

When I was a kid, we camped at a lake in Kentucky, Rough River reservoir. It was a place that is magnified with emotion in my memory. I could tell you one story after another of going to Rough River. The flashlight in the latrine was a good one. But I'll wait and tell you the rest of them another time.

Once, when we were exploring the lake, we found 'The Rock.' I call it 'The Rock' because that's always what we called it.

"Grandpa, we want to go out to The Rock," and he'd know exactly where we wanted to go.

The Rock was a red sandstone and iron ore cliff at the edge of the water on both sides of a cove. When I say iron ore, imagine what looked like rippled sheets and pipes sticking out of the sandstone at odd angles. I have a couple of pieces of that rock and it still amazes me. I carved my name into the sandstone one day, the only place in the world where my initials lie.

Besides that amazing ore, the beauty of The Rock was that there was a shallow place where the babies could play and at least four other levels where you could jump from different heights. The best was a long flat place with an old tree where someone had put a thick rope swing with knots in it. It was only slightly lower than the height of an average high dive, so it took a fair bit of courage to go off it for the first time, the perfect rite of passage. Around that corner was a deeper place in the cliff where you could camp overnight and never get wet if it rained. Oh, that is another story. It'll be a while before I tell you that story. Across the cove, there were higher levels that culminated in a twenty-eight foot drop, the ultimate rite of passage. I only jumped off that highest level a dozen times or so. I was nearly eleven and that was almost the last time I saw the place.

Let's just say that when I finally got the courage to jump off that highest level, it was a thing of beauty, at least in my head. My feet were together, toes flexed up as far as they could go, my body a straight line, and my arms out in the perfect iron cross. I was sure I'd jumped far enough out not to hit the protruding bit of the cliff and I wasn't going to cannonball. My brother had told me to make sure I didn't cannonball on a jump this high. A lot of us had stood at the top of that cliff for what seemed like days while the older, more courageous kids leaped off in perfect form.

When I hit the water, I felt multiple slaps, hard slaps. The water was hard! The bottoms of my feet and the undersides of my arms were red with the fury of it. Holy cow! It was like falling off your bike. The big kids laughed at my folly, but I managed to find the courage to jump again, this time with my arms stuck tight to my sides and my toes pointed. I was a bullet! After that, it was cake, though we never stayed at that cliff as long as the other. It took a lot of energy to have that much heart.

So, seventeen years later, when we stopped to scope out the waterfall on the Tygart river, I thought of that hard slap. Plus, the river guides said that the water falling would have enough power to keep you spinning in a hydraulic for a little while but not too long. They were so damn causal about this, the cool kids.

It was a narrow chute, just wide enough for the duckie. In fact, the river guides were going to stand on either side of the chute to help guide the duckie into the right falling position. After we looked at it, they told us that we should hit the edge paddling hard and fast, then throw our arms up over our heads, and lean back hard to rotate the kayak into landing position.

I'm feeling nervous just thinking about this. Can you imagine? It's done. It was twenty-five years ago and I have a flutter in my stomach.

Harold went first. He was certain he'd land right, in the boat and be able to paddle the kayak casually away the way any Explorer Post leader would.

He landed face first in the water.

This landing was impossible, I though to myself. No one but the most experience paddlers could stay in the boat.

It was my turn. I paddled as hard and as fast as I could. There was a half a second of breath before I went over the edge, the slowing of time I imagine of the moment before you die. I could see laurels blooming across a distant ridge, the expressions on the faces of people watching, the hardness of the tan stone to my right as I took my last stroke, a slight tipping forward, and a single strand of steam rising from the consumption of the last paddler.

I threw my arms up and leaned back as hard as I could. Gently, I found myself tipping forward and, slowly, it seemed, being dumped unceremoniously out of my raft. Then, I hit the water. I was in cannonball formation, fetal position, really. I'd like to think I held onto my paddle, but I don't remember. The boat bounced off my head, briefly wrapped around me, let me go and, though I wore a heavy rafting life jacket, the water swirled me around and around like a turd in a toilet bowl just before it flows down the pipe. Finally, I was pushed out of that pounding water and popped up about seven feet away from the falls.

Do you know that picture you have in your mind of swimming under a water fall, feeling the water on your head, pushing your bikini-clad chest out and looking glorious as the flow of it washes over your body? That's bullshit. I looked like a rat that had been washed out of a sewage drain. Hands grabbed my upper arms and dragged me to shore. I laid there for a few minutes. At least I didn't need to puke up a stomach full of river water.

I had managed to sit up and pull my bangs out of my eyes when Mike came over the lip of the falls. He hadn't said a thing about succeeding or failing. He had a determined look on his face as he took the last stroke with his paddle. His biceps bulged with the effort. Then, as he tipped over the edge, with both hands on his paddle, he made a perfect iron cross with it across his shoulders, thrust his torso backward, tipped the ducky into the perfect landing formation. It folded around him like petals of a flower, opened, and the water pounded his head for a second before he had the presence of mind to paddle away from under it.

Everyone cheered. He'd been the only one in our group to land that duckie. Harold was particularly quiet after that. I wanted to try it again, but the guides said we only got one shot and that was it. The flush.

I have video of that landing for each of us, Harold, me, and finally Mike who showed us all how it was supposed to have been done.

Shoot, maybe I preferred my experience of landing on my butt and being flushed like a turd instead of performing the perfect iron cross. Maybe not.

Thank you for listening, jb

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