“Remember, if you fall out of the raft, get your feet up and forward as fast as possible. If you don’t, a foot could get lodged between underwater rocks and that’s one way people die.”
Already opting to don a life jacket and helmet as I stood on the banks of the Arkansas River, I tried to keep track of the many whitewater rafting scenarios that seemed to end in likely death, as the river guide pushed through a cautionary speech that he had clearly given many times.
“I’ve never lost anyone on a trip down the river, but I know guides that have. I know guides that have died,” he continued. “This is serious stuff and things can go from good to bad fast.”
I knew the warnings were necessary, though I couldn’t help but notice how each hypothetical situation seemed to tighten the knot forming in my gut. I’d never been comfortable around water, but being in Colorado, I knew I had to try whitewater rafting at least once.
One fact that did provide comfort was knowing everyone on board. I stood confident in their athletic abilities and trusted that someone would have the strength to pull me back in the raft should I fall out.
I was seated in the front of the raft, in a spot that can be crucial for navigation. As one of two rafters at the bow, those seated behind me would be following my lead as the guide shouted commands and aided with steering from a raised seat in the back.
This proved to be my first misconception — that the guide did most of the work. While the guide does direct and steer, the physicality of the rowing falls on the group. The guide’s commands don’t do much if the group doesn’t follow through.
Soon, we were off, floating down the river at a surprisingly relaxed pace with no rapids in sight. That proved to be my second misconception — that the entire trip is tumultuous. While that might be the case on some rivers, our guided trip on the Arkansas featured brief sections of serious rapids, with lengthy calm sections in between, offering much-needed mental and physical breaks.
As we hit the first section of whitewater, our team navigated through without issue thanks to advice from our guide, who seemed to know the placement of every rock beneath the surface of the water. As we’d pass different features, he’d point them out, including those named after lives the feature had claimed.
As the trip continued, we enjoyed several relaxing sections reminiscent of a lazy river at an amusement park, broken up by sudden, brief moments of turbulence. The water level was high at the time, allowing us to cruise over many features that could have been obstacles during a year with less runoff.
I quickly became more comfortable with the whitewater, revealing my third misconception — that I’d be falling out of the raft a lot.
My only prior knowledge of the sport came via discussion with experienced friends. They had talked about wild rapids, often sharing terrifying moments when rafts would flip and a party would end up separated. Throughout our journey, however, I never felt as though I was at risk of falling out of the raft. With a good guide, a dedicated team and the right river conditions, this occurrence seemed to be less likely than most would believe.
While I wouldn’t recommend whitewater rafting for everyone, those who are physically fit and comfortable around water are sure to find the experience thrilling. But keep in mind that this activity can be deadly, often regardless of experience level.
As with any extreme sport, participants should proceed with caution, staying within their abilities and utilizing a guide when their own skills and knowledge are lacking.
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