All Forward in the New Year

“All Forward!” The command came from James, our whitewater rafting guide. Our inflatable rubber boat was nearing Hell’s Hole, a Class IV rapids with a five-foot drop.

The Menominee River had swollen after recent rains and James’s six inexperienced rafters needed all the direction he could give if we were to survive Hell’s Hole. We wore helmets, life jackets, and we had our toes jammed under the air tube in front of us. Pinning our feet would hopefully help keep us inside the 16-foot rubber raft.

With the looming rapids, I went back in time to my husband first mentioning the trip. “It’ll be an anniversary we won’t forget,” Frank had said to plead his case. I’d recently read an Ernest Hemingway quote about the horrors of a half-lived life. I kept listening. After all, I didn’t want to live only half of a life. “We could also spend the night in a yurt.” I studied the photo of the dome-shaped shelter resembling one used by Central Asian nomads centuries ago. Its skylight for star gazing won me over. I was onboard.

Turns out it rained that night preventing any star gazing. Also, the yurt’s lack of an indoor bathroom necessitating hiking through the dark woods in the middle of the night squashed some of the yurt’s allure. Compared to what loomed ahead now though, trekking through strange woods seemed tame.

James, 180 pounds of pure muscle, exuded confidence. He trained us in commands and safety. If we did fall out, we should assume a reclining position with our feet raised so they wouldn’t become wedged under rocks. He also showed us the easiest way to get someone back inside the rubber raft which involved the rescuer squatting by the raft’s side, grabbing the victim by the lifejacket’s shoulder straps, and throwing themselves back so the victim lands on top. James might have noticed our horrified faces because he lightened the mood.    

“There’ll be a photographer taking your picture,” he concluded, “so if we survive Hell’s Hole, be sure to smile.”

Survival was all I thought of now as James, his voice urgent, commanded. “All Forward! Harder!”

I dug in. My husband did, too, but the young woman next to me panicked at the rapids ahead of us and only screamed. Her boyfriend appeared frozen in terror. Miraculously, though, the guide did the work of four people and we rode ‘er out. We did it!

“Great job!” James called. “Smile for the camera!”

I stopped paddling and smiled.

“All forward!” The frantic command spoken seconds before we hit a second drop was too late. After the drop we bounced. Hard. The young woman’s feet slipped out and she became airborne. She slammed into my husband and he fell in, too. I was also launched, but amazingly James grabbed the back of my lifejacket and yanked me back down.

The woman who had fallen in screamed that she’d hit her leg on a rock. My husband had gulped in water and now gasped for breath. Bodies and paddles seemed to bob all around me.

James steered toward the woman first, pulled her in, and then expertly steered toward Frank. Thinking James needed to keep paddling, I positioned myself for the rescue. With adrenaline surging through my veins, I faced Frank. “I can pull you in!”

But James set down the paddle, positioned himself by the side of the raft, grabbed Frank by the handles on the lifejacket and, in one strong movement, hauled him in.

With everyone back in the raft, James commanded, “Head to that bay.” Once we were in quiet water, James held the raft and the six of us shakily got out. The young woman assessed her leg. Not broken, but badly bruised. Frank was slowly getting his breath back.

After double checking that everyone was all right, James announced that he’d positioned a second raft on land half a mile upstream. “Does anyone want to go again?”

No one did, but Frank and I booked another trip the following day. Everyone managed to stay in the raft that time, and it was exhilarating.

As 2919 approaches, I plan to remember our rafting trip. “Time to dig in,” will be my new year’s resolution. “All forward.”

Wishing you and yours a happy and healthy new year.

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