When last we left my daughter, Lia, then age 11 and on her first whitewater rafting trip on California’s American River, it was the calm before the storm. The storm that lay ahead was called Troublemaker, a Class III++ rapids, and our normally jovial Adventure Connection guide, Lumpy, had turned deadly serious, issuing instructions that left Lia (and the rest of us in the raft) feeling just a bit apprehensive. What came next justified those feelings, but left a lasting impression on a young adventurer.
Here is Part 2 of Troublemaker: A Whitewater Memoir, by Lia Norton.
Slowly, our raft — the last in the convoy — drifted towards the drop. The current pulled us along, allowing us an opportunity to view the swirling mass in its entirety, as we watched the rafts ahead of us plunge into the abyss one by one, with all somehow surviving the maelstrom. Much whooping and hollering from the other rafts could be heard above the roar of the rapids, but Lumpy’s solemn expression didn’t change.
For a brief moment, everything was still. And then, as we began our descent, it became all too clear that with three children aboard lacking in strength — two 11-year-old girls and one 8-year-old boy — we were not going to make it down Troublemaker intact, as much as Lumpy might cry out fevered instructions. Our fate seemed inevitable.
Not seconds after we plunged into the swirling whirlpool, Lumpy was swept out of the raft, sent “swimming,” as rafting lingo goes. Seconds later, my dad, brother, Jenna (the other 11-year-old girl), and her mother were all ejected as well, propelled somewhere down the river.
Holding On — Good or Bad?
Jenna’s father and brother had held on, and, miraculously, so had I. Without the benefit of Lumpy’s expertise, we churned for what seemed like an eternity, in what I’d speculate the inside of a washing machine must be like. Thanks to a kayaker with a camera, we have it all on videotape: you can hear my tinny screams above the rushing water.
Eventually the rapid took pity on us and ushered us out from beneath its wrath. A few hundred yards upstream we came across the brave and bedraggled swimmers and hoisted them back into the raft. My dad had lost a few items in the water, but he’d gained a new experience, as had the rest of us (even Lumpy acknowledged he couldn’t remember ever being the first to go “swimming”).
To this day, those brief moments I spent in that swirling pit remain some of the most frightful I’ve ever known. But in that time, as I seemed to face mortal danger, I never saw any images of my past flash before my eyes — there was no time for a mental slide show, and barely time to realize I was even in peril.
From that point forward, I’ve stopped waiting for Death to provide me with a window through which I can view my near-ending life for a final time. Instead, I take a daily trip down life’s river, fondly remembering the past and looking ahead to the future, despite any obstacles that may await me.
And I’ve earned the bragging rights to tell how I laughed right in the Grim Reaper’s bony old face — and survived.
My postscript: When you’re swept out of a raft by the force of a rapids like Troublemaker, it all happens so quickly you have no time to reflect. After doing a 360-degree turn in the water, I was convinced I would drown, but instead — saved by my life jacket — I was sent swirling downstream, all in the course of a few seconds.
When I finally hit a rock and grabbed onto it, I looked back to see Lia and the others in the raft being whipped around in a whirlpool, much like a stomach-churning carnival ride. I could hear Lia screaming, an awful feeling because, well downriver, there was nothing I could do but yell for help.
Finally the raft was ejected from the whirlpool and made its way downriver. Lumpy was the first swimmer to climb back in, and he pulled me and our son, Grael, up as well, along with Jenna and her mom. Seeing that the kids were OK and all of us were alive and unhurt was one of the most exhilarating feelings of my life.
I think we all learned some lessons that day about the sometimes fine line between mortality and living life to the fullest. It’s a balancing act we all have to juggle when we travel and, especially, when we engage in adventure travel. I’m glad that Lia was able to look the Grim Reaper in the face and, at least after we safely completed the rest of the journey, learned to confront it, survive and thrive.