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August 3, 2006

Swimming the Rapid

"Anyone want to swim the rapid?" Barry called out as he walked past where I was preparing my bed.

"I can't come now, Barry, but is it okay if I swim the rapid later, on my own?" I asked.

"Of course!" He responded.

I laid out the tarp under a small tree and hung the mosquito net from a branch, tied on with the cords of Carol's hat. We inflated our Thermarest pads and lay our sleeping bags on them under the net.

"What can we do with these tent poles?" I asked Carol.

"We could make a decorative archway." She said before jamming one end of a sectioned, aluminum pole into the sand and propping the other end, strained with flexion, under a small protuberance on one of the large granite boulders encircling our out-of-doors room.

While Carol positioned another two rods, producing the skeleton of a tunnel, I erected some old branches, which had been washed down the river, wove a shiny tent pole into them, and hung my poi from them like flags.

I slid my flute out of its bag and sat down on a rock. Long, woody notes flowed through the canyon as dinner cooked on the beach below me. Niko came and sat down, watching me play. When I finished, I asked him, "Do you want to swim the rapid?"

"Sure!" he said.

"I have to go and get helmets." I said and walked down to the beach.

"Barry, I'm going to swim the rapid with Niko now. I'm just getting helmets."

"I don't think you'll need helmets." Barry said incredulously.

"Really?" I asked in a surprised tone, wondering why he seemed to blasť, "What route do you recommend?"

"You swim out where it's smooth, up there, and then swim across far enough to miss those rocks." He was pointing up the river.

"Those rocks there? What about those ones on the other side?"

"You won't be able to reach those, so you don't need to worry about them." He said.

I went back to Niko. "Okay, let's do it!" I said as I returned wearing my life-jacket.

"Where are the helmets?" He asked me.

"Barry says we don't need them." I replied.

We walked up through dusty bushes, over rocks caked in silt, and past mosquito infested ponds.

"Shall we go in here?" Niko asked me several times.

I looked up at the rapid, surveyed the larger rocks with bulging, glassy water spilling over them, and tried to fix their relative locations in my mind, "We need to avoid those rocks." I said, and carried on walking.

After a time, I had climbed to a very smooth area above the rapid, a place that looked like a mill-pond. I turned around and saw that Niko was not there; I didn't know how far back I had lost him and I decided to swim down anyway.

I parted the bushes and slipped into the water where it was almost still, on the edge of an eddy, and swam out past brown sludge into the free-flow of the river. I swam quickly across, almost to the other shore, and began to position myself to slide down the left-hand-side of the river.

My heart was beginning to race as I approached the white-water. I lay on my back, my feet downstream. I tried to keep my bottom up but also to keep looking where I was going. It was hard to see where the large rocks were. I was carried effortlessly along, and I could feel rocks under my back, and as the water became rougher, I was lifted on waves and then thrown down and dunked in troughs.

I was funneled between the big rocks and then saw that I was being carried towards a large rock jutting from the bank on the left side of the river. The water was ploughing into it, piling up, and shearing off. As I hurtled towards the rock, I began to lift my feet in the air and prepare to absorb the blow.

The soles of my river-sandals made contact and I allowed my legs to bend. The river tugged my torso around so that my body was perpendicular to its force and then I pushed away from the rock, toward the middle of the river, my body lifting out of the water.

As I moved away from the bank, I looked to my right and saw another rock which had been hidden from my view by the first. The second rock came even further into the river and my strong push had enabled me to clear it.

While being carried by the fast, flat water, I turned upstream to see Niko coming down the right side of the river. I soon reached the beach where we were camping. No one was even looking in my direction as I got out of the water, but I felt very heroic.

"I watched you. It looked pretty scary but you gave me the courage to jump in where I had been standing." He said, "Unfortunately, it was only a foot deep there and I hurt my ankle jumping from a rock." He had missed the main part of the rapid and had instead ridden the fast water that followed it.

That night by the fire we told stories of our experiences on the river. I got up and talked about swimming the rapid. I spoke enthusiastically with a Californian accent, using words like "gnarly" and "totally".

At the end of my account, Barry stood up and put his hand on my shoulder; with a big grin on his face, he said, "Now I understand why you wanted to wear a helmet. When I was talking about swimming the rapid, I didn't mean to swim it from the top! I thought that you were just going to swim the end part of it. I couldn't understand why you wanted to wear a helmet."

We had been talking at cross purposes; I had been pointing at one rock and he had been looking at another. We both thought that we were talking about the same thing.

I'm pleased that I wasn't hurt but I'm even more pleased that I had such a great experience.

"Duncan, your ability to face the fear and do it anyway is such an inspiration to me and helped me prepare for my kayak experience and realise there was no fear only exhilaration and a fulfilment I will never forget! Your rendition that night, in your Californian Dude accent, recounting your awesome experience had me in convulsive laughter, even more so when it came to light that you really had been so heroic. I recall that night clearly, I was sitting on our sleeping bags looking at the amazing space we had created and watching you walk back for the helmets. Feeling a little apprehensive about what you were about to do, I prayed for you to be safe. Then seeing you pass again, and saying you did not need the helmets, I felt a sense of relief. After reading this I now realise just how huge the risk was that you had taken." — Carol


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