Saturday, June 21, 2008


My girlfriend organized a trip with friends to the U.S. National Whitewater Center. I pictured lazy rivers and inner tubes before we got to the facility, which was the site of the Beijing Olympic trials a month ago. I underestimated.

We sat for an accelerated course on whitewater safety when we arrived. The instructor was brief and informative.

"Do not stand up in the rapids because your foot could get stuck and you'll be doing underwater push ups," he said. He seemed mostly disinterested. I was extremely interested in how to avoid things like underwater push ups.

Most of his stuff concerned what to do if you fell out of the raft. A friend told me that not many rafters fall out of the boat, so not catching his shtick was probably OK. I signed the waiver of liability with something less than confidence.

We put on our equipment and met our raft guide. He was the guy who did quite well at summer camp 15 years ago. He was the one who water skied while I fumbled with the drawstring of my swim trunks. I was a skinny kid. I still am. He was tanned and said "dude" a lot.

He led us through exercises in calm water. We learned the "all forward" command, the "all back" command and the all-important "all in" command. He then led us down our first run. I was positioned in the front of the raft, and the guide sits in back. I could not hear any of his soft-spoken commands when we hit the rapids nor benefit from seeing my raft mates. Nearly everyone else heard him easily and thought I had, at best, slow reflexes. Or a suicide mission. Or a dangerous sense of humor. I was also the tallest person in the raft, which was kinder to those with lower centers of gravity.

I got nervous quick, leaning toward the middle of the raft even without the all-in command. Every time I turned around for reassurance after a good soaking, the guide dude led the laughter. He recommended I take smaller strokes.

"Come on," I wanted to say. "I'm big. I'm long-limbed. I can't hear anything." I couldn't say it. I was the unwitting entertainment.

The guide dude communicated a plan to collide with a wall on a certain rapid. I squinted my eyes at the approaching rapid. I saw lots of walls.

"When we are approaching the wall," I politely asked, "could you say something like 'wall'?"

Laughter. Ouch. Any of those walls could contain the bullet.

We missed the wall altogether. In my elation, however, I allegedly missed an "all in" command. I flew out of the boat. I remember sloshing around for a couple seconds and plunging down a rapid head first. They told us not to do that, but I'm such a damn showboat. The guide dude rescued me with a rope.

"Cool?" he asked with a raised hand. Both my shoes were gone. I dove headfirst toward possible death minutes earlier, but I also knew that my response to his gesture would define our relationship and the rest of the experience. Could the drawstring kid make peace with the outdoor sleuth?

"Cool," I said awkwardly quick.

"Dude," he said, grinning and shaking his head. I think he meant he was glad I was OK.

The guide dude fell out later, and I would like to think he tumbled on purpose. The dude handshake had solidified our status as unequal friends in secret pursuit of equal aspiration and, more importantly, appearance.

Or maybe he just fell out and picked on me the whole time.

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