A day on the river

By Rohini Mohan
I could wax eloquent about the pleasure of taking a ‘back to nature’ holiday. Or how living in the Bay Area allows me the freedom to execute on it at the drop of a hat. The mountains, the desert, a thousand rivers and lakes, a national park, the ocean, I just have to wish it and I’m there within a few hours.

A couple of weeks ago we were reminiscing about one of the best trips we ever took – river rafting in the Ganga from Shivpuri to Rishikesh. The thrill of riding some of the most ferocious rapids in the world, the excitement of sleeping on the banks of the river, the fun of camping in the wild outdoors – my son was most envious of our nostalgia. We wanted to treat him to the same experience, and both California and Google came through   dependably. An hour of research, a couple of phone calls and we were all set for a weekend rafting expedition on the American River less than an hour from Sacramento, in the heart of  Gold Country.

We had picked the ‘Mariah’s Wilderness’ adventure tour company and arrived at the campground at about 10 am on Saturday. Our choice was to raft all day and camp for the night. Since rafting provides enough of a workout, we chose to rent tents that were already set up and worked all meals into our package. “Keep the effort to the minimum” has always been our travel motto. (However bringing your own camping gear is very much an option).

The South Fork of the American river is quite exciting for the rookie rafter, with class I, II and III rapids, a nice starting point before you graduate to the more  challenging rivers like Merced and Tuolumne. Swim wear, T shirt & shorts and sneakers make up your kit and the life jacket and paddle are provided by the tour company. Wet suits are recommended in spring and early summer. You typically “put in” (rafter jargon for getting into the boat and pushing off into the water) upriver and raft downstream. Your experienced guide knows all the little tricks the river will throw at you so all you have to do is wedge your feet firmly into the folds of the raft and paddle with your best effort.

Nothing can beat a day on the river. You start off nice and easy, paddling a little,  enjoying the feel of the sun on your face and the sounds and sights of the water. You build an easy camaraderie with the others on your raft, exchanging stories from earlier experiences. You get a little taste of some gentle rapids, and you feel lazy and comfortable, wanting the moment to last forever. All too soon it’s time for a quick deli lunch on the banks of the river. The sandwiches and chips and the fruit taste oh so good when you’re eating outdoors.

Back on the water and this time your guide means business. The second half of the day is when you encounter the three Class III rapids with mean names that make you shudder with fear! Rules of the game: Listen to the guide, paddle when told and try to stay inside the boat. Not so simple when you are being hurled headlong into ‘Satan’s cesspool’ – Class III rapid #1!!!  If Satan didn’t get you, his son will – the son of Satan is the Class II rapid that follows before you had time to catch your breath. Fowler’s rock is next, and trust me, this one is nasty. Too many rafts have been thrown mercilessly against the rock stranding its fearless sailors on top of it. 

When we arrived at Hospital Bar the third and last Class III rapid, I was in the hot seat, a prime candidate for losing my balance by virtue of where I was sitting. But wonder of wonders, I held my own, though the river did try to have her way with me. This is where most “out of boat’ experiences happen (and they did to neighboring rafts), so small wonder that you show up at either the hospital or the bar once you’ve survived it!  

When my daredevil son was asked later if he fell off, his answer was “I wish”! White water rafting is an awesome experience, you feel the water in all its fury and you are fighting to hold your own. The sheer drama, the power struggle and the exhilaration the experience provides are unparalleled – there is no thrill quite like it. In between the rapids you get to dive into the water and if you are particularly risk obsessed you can try body surfing the rapids. Sitting astride in the very front of the boat and taking on the rushing water flat on your face is another way to test your mettle.

Remember though, that rafting is no Disneyland, it is the real thing, an extreme sport, and is certainly not for the lily livered. Though you have a life jacket on, helmets are not mandatory so there is the danger of falling off and hitting your head against a rock. Since rapids are fast flowing stretches of water formed primarily because of the configuration of the rocks, the rocks are all over the place and can creep up on you when you least expect them. Falling into the water in a rapid can be disconcerting for most and quite traumatic for some.

A typical day of rafting is about 5 hours and you travel 10-12 miles of the river.  We returned to the camp at about 4.00. Table tennis, horse-shoes, swimming in the river and short hikes are all available if you still have the energy left in the evening. Flopping on a chair and sipping a cold drink till dinner is served is always an option. We enjoyed a hearty barbeque in the evening, watched a slideshow of professional pictures taken of our day, stargazed awhile and fell asleep around 10.00 to the sound of crickets and the rushing water, dreaming of our day on the river.



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