of my dreams (one of them, anyway) while trudging through a blizzard in search of an open supermarket and a bag of cat food. So I am not at all surprised to see snow on the day of my first white water raft trip. The fact that it is mid June matters not a whit. It often snows in Wyoming in mid June.
"All right people, let's get this truck unloaded." Confident masculine accents drift across the parking area. The boatmen have arrived.
They look like ads for L. L. Bean in their wool shirts and down parkas. Jim, our guide, is a tall, ruggedly handsome man, a thirtyish, dark-haired Robert Redford with a little Mel Gibson thrown in. His assistant is a college student named Kevin. Brown-eyed, sandy-haired and clean-shaven, he strikes me as the All-American Boy. I can imagine him in a variety of wholesome settings from the local rodeo to the space program. He tells me he is majoring in industrial arts, and plans to teach.
Boatmen are not sexist. Ours expect their women passengers to pitch in and help set up the boats (16-foot inflatable rafts which weigh 'only' 115 pounds) and carry them down a (very steep!) embankment to the river. This does take my mind off the cold.
While Kevin checks the straps on our life vests, Jim lectures us on safety.
"Remember," he concludes, "if anyone goes overboard, it's the responsibility of the other passengers to get 'em back in the boat. The oarsman will be busy."
This is a sobering thought, and we look at one another reflectively. Cliché though it is, we are all in this together. I ask how long a person could remain in the water before being overcome by hypothermia, a dangerous lowering of the body's temperature.
"As cold as it is out there now, you'd be incoherent in three to four minutes," says Jim matter-of-factly," ... but that's a long time, really."
Thus reassured, we head for the boats. I get into Kevin's boat, along with two college girls, Jane and Diane, and Marcie, a slender blonde woman of about forty. With the exception of Jim's wife, Sally, all those in the other boat are men. We have miscalculated.
Kevin seems quite satisfied with the arrangement and pushes us off, jumping into the boat as it leaves the bank with the supple grace of a deer. We move away from the shore, the snow becomes hail, and I have a sudden vision of Charon ferrying the dead souls across the river Styx.
Our first hour passes with the sobriety and gloom of a thirty-year class reunion. There are NO rapids. Diane and I sit huddled together in the front of the boat, an ancient and torn plastic poncho across our knees, looking for all the world like two immigrant waifs seeking a glimpse of Ellis Island.
Instead, we see huge boulders jutting out into the water, or leaning precariously at odd angles along the slopes; trees, twisted and broken, thrust up among the rocks wherever there is the slightest bit of soil, their roots draping the stone like fat and sluggish pythons. Everywhere there is lichen, sage, scrubby underbrush in muted hues of gray, blue and green. Weirdly beautiful, it seems also depressing and foreboding. I can't imagine how anyone ever pioneered.
"Here comes the sun; it's going to be all right," says Jane in unconscious paraphrase of George Harrison. Indeed, the sun has broken through the clouds, changing the whole aspect of the river. Our spirits lift, even more so when Kevin gives us each a turn at rowing.
Lunch is a picnic amid clumps of wild iris, fragrant mint, and a creamy white flower which someone identifies as 'death camus'. I take care not to touch that.
Munching our sandwiches and sipping hot chocolate, we listen as Jim and Kevin discuss rivers they have known, rivers they hope to know, and the perils which await us on this river. They mention something called 'Stovepipe', which we are to encounter later in the afternoon. It sounds ominous.
Two hours and several miles later (where, I am wondering, are the rapids?), we make another stop.
"Come on you guys, I want to show you something!" shouts Jim. He begins striding purposely up what looks to me like an almost vertical slope. We tag after him as best we can, me grabbing at clumps of sagebrush to keep my balance on the marrow, rock-strewn path. Once, I very nearly grab a cactus.
The 'something' - an abandoned settlers' cabin - proves elusive, and after twenty minutes of clambering about the hills like so many mountain sheep, we return to the boats. His failure to find the cabin hasn't dispirited Jim in the least. I suspect his stopping here was to ward off hypothermia in his charges.
The current runs faster now, and there are more rocks - but still no rapids. The water table is very low this year, Kevin explains; not enough snow fell last winter. Ordinarily, we would be shooting over these monstrous boulders. So much for white water. I am not too disappointed, I decide. This way may not be as dramatic, but it certainly is picturesque. Big rocks are all around us. I photograph a particularly elegant formation named, Kevin promptly informs me, Cowpile Rock.
A huge tree fallen across the river forces another stop. We may, alas, have to carry the boats around the obstruction. Jim and Kevin, flanked by the rest of the men, walk downstream to look over the situation. We women, showing true pioneer spirit, sit in the boat and talk about how cold our feet are. Marcie tells a horrific story of shooting the rapids in Japan in a wooden boat.
" It creaked," she says.
The men return, looking pleased with themselves. They have it figured out; we won't have to portage after all. This is welcome news to the less athletic among us. Instead, we are going to "go for it," as Kevin puts it.
And we do. We get past the tree without incident, but just ahead lies the much-discussed 'Stovepipe', a channel as long and narrow as its name suggests. It is full of wicked-looking rocks and fast-running water. I hear a distant booming, which I at first mistake for thunder. We have at last come upon the rapids!
Kevin shouts at us to "Hang on!" I can barely hear him above the roar of the water, magnified as it reverberates off the canyon walls. Everywhere there is white foam. The boat seems alive, bucking and twitching over waves, troughs and submerged rocks. We give up any effort to remain dry. I cling to the boat with one hand and snap pictures with the other -- until we slap down hard into a trough, and water drenches the camera.
Halfway through, I chance a glance back at Kevin. Though very busy with the oars, he looks utterly calm, his serious, intelligent eyes studying the scene as if it were some giant chessboard, calculating the rate of the current, the distance between rocks, and the proper pull to put on each oar. I think of a poem I once read about "men who go down to the sea in ships", and I feel inspired. Also safe.
Once clear of the Stovepipe, we have a twenty-minute row through calm water before reaching our docking point. I try to drain the water out of my camera and listen to Kevin's commentary on the finer points of rowing.
Once on shore, we are all, naturally, expected to pitch in. After we carry the boats and gear up the inevitable steep incline, pack, and stow everything on the truck, I feel ready to drop.
I am exhausted, wet and chilled to the bone. I only want to get home, take a hot bath, drink some tea and crawl into bed - and plan my next river trip!