A Beautiful Force

November 12, 2010
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It was 7:30 in the morning, and the sun had just climbed over the top of the mountains, illuminating the valley with a soft, golden light. I sat up slowly, stretched my shoulders and yawned. Even though it was August, the mornings in Montana were on the chilly side. Shivering, I quickly found my sweatshirt and put it on. I unzipped my tent and walked outside into the morning sunlight and looked up at the hills around me. For the past month, I had been living in this tent doing an internship at a whitewater rafting company west of Missoula, Montana, and the beautiful scenery still took my breath away.

I crossed the gravel area between my tent and the main cabin. Today I would be accompanying Max, one of the guides, on a full day raft trip. If you are guiding a full day trip, you need to get up at 7:30 to prepare the food and get all the supplies in the raft. I pushed open the door into the kitchen to help Max.

“Good morning, Zoe!” Max said to me cheerfully as I entered the room.

“Good morning!” I replied back.
We cut up vegetables, sliced bread, got out turkey and cheese, made lemonade. After a half hour, we had everything prepared.
“I’m so glad that you helped me get all of this ready,” Max said gratefully. “It usually takes 45 minutes to do it by yourself.”
“You’re welcome! If I’m coming along I might as well help,” I said.
Max and I walked outside, carrying the ice chest between us. We went to the boathouse where the rafts were kept and pulled one on the ground. We loaded the cooler, strapping it down in the bottom of the raft, and then hoisted the raft onto a trailer that was attached to one of the white vans the company used.
“Ready to go?” Max asked.
“Yeah! Let’s roll!” I replied with enthusiasm.
The company’s shop was conveniently located only a quarter of a mile from the ranch where we lived, directly across from the boat launch. During the short drive, I couldn’t help but think how excited I was to get on the river. I had been down this section of the river over 50 times, but it never gets old for me. I could go down all day and not get tired of it. Something is always different with each run, keeping it an exciting and thrilling adventure.
Max parked the van close to the boat put-in, and we dragged the raft off the trailer and next to the boat launch. Then we walked back up to the shop to wait for our customers to arrive.
“I hope we have good people in our boat today,” Max said.
“Me too,” I agreed. “Having fun people makes the trip even more worthwhile!”
We sat down in the comfortable, well-worn green chairs inside to wait. Promptly at 9:00 three men walked into the shop. They all appeared to be in their 30’s and looked like they were excitedly anticipating the rafting adventure ahead of them.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” Max greeted them. “I’m Max and I’ll be your guide today. This is Zoe. She is an intern at our company this summer, and she will be coming along with us today.”
“Hi, I’m Tom. This is Dan, and this is John.”
“It’s nice to meet you guys,” Max said. “Are you ready for some fun today?”
“Yes, we are! We’ve been looking forward to this all week!” said Dan.
“Good! Well, let’s get all of you lifejackets and paddles and head down to our boat.”
At the boat launch Max gave the safety talk, and then we pulled the raft down the ramp and into the water. Once everyone climbed into the raft, we were able to start our trip down the river.
“So, what brings you guys to Montana?” Max asked once we were on the river.
“All of us were best friends in college, and every summer we try and take one trip together. This year we decided to take a road trip through Montana and then decided that we should go rafting,” said John.
“Well you picked a perfect day for it!” I said.
It was true. The chill that hung in the air earlier this morning was gone, the sun was already getting hot in the sky, and not one cloud could be seen. It was going to be a perfect day on the river. We floated along easily as Max paddled the raft.
Soon we rounded the corner and approached the first rapid of the day. This rapid was a class two, not too big but a good way to start off the trip. Our raft bounced up and down through the green waves, water splashing the sides of the raft. Tom, Dan, and John were all laughing.
“That was fun!” Tom cried out.
“It was awesome!” Dan shouted out.
“Are all of the rapids that same size?” John inquired.
“No, we will go through some that are a lot bigger today,” Max answered.
“Things will get a little more sporty in those bigger rapids. I think you will really enjoy them.”

We continued down the river, floating peacefully along the quiet stretches, enjoying the scenic canyon. We went through five more rapids that morning, and with each one, our customers paddled furiously and shouted out enthusiastically. They were wearing huge smiles after each one, enjoying themselves tremendously.

We finally pulled up on a little beach to stop for lunch. Max and I set out the food and everyone had a chance to eat and rest. After half an hour we packed up and headed back to the raft. Everyone eagerly climbed in, and we departed for the second half of our trip.

For most of the afternoon, the water was flat and serene, and everyone was relaxed and happy. Soon we could hear the churning of the river ahead, and the last rapid was right in front of us.

“All forward!” Max called out to us.

We paddled vigorously and punched through the first two big waves. Suddenly, the third wave hit the front of the boat and the raft went vertical. It flipped over so fast, and I could feel panic rising within me as I got forced underwater. When I surfaced, I realized I was underneath the raft. I walked with my hands to the edge of the raft and came out from underneath it.

The raft was still moving quickly down the river, and I held on tightly. Once out of the rapid, the raft slowed, and I had a chance to look around. Max was swimming toward the raft, and Tom and Dan were bobbing close by. We pulled them back into the raft. We could not see John anywhere. Trying to stay calm, Max got the raft to shore.
“Tom and Dan, I’m going to have you wait in the raft while Zoe and I search for John,” Max instructed.

We walked up and down the shoreline, calling and looking, but had no luck in finding John. Max and I grew increasingly anxious and worried. Finally we got back in the raft and headed towards the takeout, which was not much farther down the river. Once we got there, we would continue our search for John. At the take out, Max and I jumped out to haul the raft onto land. Max pulled out his cell phone and was about to call for help when we heard someone call out. We spotted John downriver a few yards lying on the shore.

“John!” I cried out. “Are you all right?” I felt enormous relief wash over me.

“Yes, I’m fine, just a bit shaken,” he replied.

“What happened? We were so worried,” Dan inquired.

“I got sent downstream away from the raft and couldn’t stop myself. Eventually I was able to swim and made it to shore.”

Max sat down next to him and said, “Well, we’re all glad that you weren’t injured. That was quite an ending to our day, luckily, a happy ending.”

Later that evening, some of the guides and I went for a late night swim in the river. It was a clear night and the moon and stars shone with scintillating beauty on the water. Observing this peaceful, spectacular scene, it was hard for me to believe that the river could be so dangerous. Yet the tumultuous flip of the raft kept replaying in my mind. I swam in the darkness of the river, thinking of the beautiful force that it was, and how it could change things in a second. After this day, I knew I would always have a respect for the river.

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