It was a total nightmare, and then it was kind of fun.
I reported to work at noon for the river rafting adventure. Turns out there was a whole “non-rafting” group, who were going to see a movie instead. Had I known about that option, I might have signed up for it. But I had already arrived in shorts and sneakers, with sunscreen in hand, so there was no turning back.
We all drove our cars to the point on the river where our trip would end, and then carpooled to where it would begin. Our guides got us all suited up in helmets and personal flotation devices (You’re not supposed to call them life jackets, because “only you can save your life.” Fifty bucks says a lawsuit brought on that little change.) We slathered ourselves with sunscreen and learned little things like how to paddle and how to get back in the raft if we go overboard.
Note: None of these photos are mine; my camera wouldn’t have survived. I just threw some photos from around the Web in here to illustrate things a little better.
So we all get in our rafts (after squishing ankle-deep in mud – I didn’t like those sneakers anyway). There are 11 of us in two rafts, plus a guide for each raft. We paddle out to the middle of the James River and then look upstream. Black clouds are gathering, and a bolt of lightning jumps across the sky. The guide in the other raft says we’ll just paddle to the next put-in and then get out and wait for it to pass. Word.
(Incidentally, this storm made the news.)
We’re paddling like crazy, occasionally getting pinballed off of rocks — and then we slide right on top of one and can’t budge. The guide moves us all to one side of the raft to try to get us off the thing, but it isn’t working. Right about this time, the black clouds reach us and giant drops of rain come hammering down. The wind is hot and has turned the whole river into little white peaks. One of my raftmates (a level-headed guy not given to exaggeration) yells, “Hey, is that a tornado?” On the bridge upstream is a swirl of debris that sure looks like it’s turning into a funnel. Yikes.
No amount of bouncing, pushing and pulling is getting us off this rock, so the guide yells (through hail now) that we need to get out of the raft. One by one, we wobble off of the raft and onto a tiny rock. Six of us are huddled there like little penguins while our guide shimmies the raft back into the water.
Suddenly, she’s screaming at one of my raftmates. (I’m still not sure why, something about not staying put. He was right where she told him to be, but I think she got disoriented and thought he hopped to another rock.) She’s cursing angrily at him and the rest of us are just stunned.
OK, so now the fearless professional is clearly freaked out. The swirling debris, the waves, the hail … all of this has been sort of an unusual experience ‘til now, but freaking out is contagious and I’m about ready to cry. But the raft is finally clear, and we all get back in.
The other raft, meanwhile, sailed right up to shore before the storm caught up, so they’re all wondering where we are. We finally paddle around the corner, soaked and wide-eyed.
We all hang out on the bank for a while, waiting for the storm to pass. I’m tempted to climb back up to the road and call a cab, but our guide has calmed down and apologized for freaking out. We’re slowly starting to laugh about our near-death experience, so it seems like the rest of this day might actually be fun. Once we’ve gone 10 minutes without seeing lightning, we get back in our rafts and push off.
I’m so glad we did, because the rest of the trip was super fun. As we made our way around rocks, our guide pointed out lots of Richmond landmarks and explained some of their history. (Hollywood Cemetery looks really cool from the water!) We went past Belle Isle, where people were swimming and sunning themselves. As we got into downtown Richmond, I could see Patrick’s building (he thinks he might have seen us too!) and the Federal Reserve Building.
At this point, there were class 4 rapids and we had to compete with some kayakers for room to move. The other raft flipped, but we were all able to stay in ours. We’d had enough drama in the beginning.
When we got out, we were tired and soaked to the bone, but the non-rafting group was waiting for us at Legends Pub. Patrick was there too, and had already met half the gang before I arrived. They all loved him, of course. The raft survivors had a good time telling our war stories and Patrick (who always thinks I’m exaggerating) got to hear about our trauma from more than one source.
Now that I know what I’m doing, I want to go out again. Who’s with me?