The story so far: Our hero and four of his friends have been kidnapped by his father and a man they call “Brett,” and taken to the Kern River near Bakersfield. Upon arrival, they have met the infamous Ferguson family, two malicious guides and two guys who are just hanging around, shirtless. The kidnap victims have been told not to lose their paddles in the water because the paddles are more important that life itself.
Once in the water, we learned from someone who seemed to know what he was talking about that the river was running at 486 cubic feet per second that day, which is the approximate equivalent of being a small animal in the gutter when someone is washing their car, and floating down the street in the available water.
Because of the drought, the river is much lower than it’s supposed to be, which means there were more rocks to worry about being dashed against. Much of our time was spent standing on small boulders in the middle of the river looking helplessly at our boat, which was stuck on a great big rock that was sticking too far out of the water for us to go over it. We were told, in a highly professional manner by our fluorescent-blond guide, Eric, to “kick that sucker back in the water!” And kick that sucker we did, having learned from the start that if we disobeyed our guide, he would push us in the water and run over our heads with the boat.
The high points of the river trip were, of course, the rapids, which had such ominous names as Royal Flush, Hari Kari, Surprise, Pinball and When Was the Last Time You Went to Confession? Our guide had an interesting strategy whereby he made us paddle our brains out during the calm parts so that when we got to the rapids we’d be too tired to do anything right which gave him the opportunity to yell about how various inanimate objects, including the wind and the river itself, were kicking our collective heinie.
After a few hours, we reached the point commonly referred to as “the lunch place.” The lunch place was located under a bridge, and the wife of the owner of the rafting company was there with the food, waiting for us. (She didn’t go with her husband down the river because she has a completely irrational fear of drowning.)
Lunch consisted of sandwiches, sodas, cookies and a mixture affectionately known as Gorp. Gorp is M&M candy, raisins and nuts all jumbled together, but today, an extra ingredient — river water — was inadvertently added, and the name was changed to Wet Gorp.
During lunchtime, while the adults were sitting around chatting casually about the day’s events to that point (“Everyone fell out and almost drowned! Ha ha ha!”), we were given the privilege of walking up the river bank to the rapid that comes just before the lunch place, and floating down in our life jackets. My only comment on this experience is: on the highway near the river, there is a large sign heralding the fact that 148 people have died in the Kern River since 1968. As I rode this rapid (rather, let it ride me), I kept thinking to myself, “Number 149, Number 149, Number 149 … .”
We eventually completed the 12-mile trek and were taken back to camp. So it was fun. I’m glad I went. Really.
One last note. I have known almost everyone I’ve talked about in these two columns for most of my life. No insult is intended to any of them personally, or to the river rafting company itself. They all know this, but I don’t want anyone else to think I’m an ungrateful, obnoxious little twerp. I’m not at all little.
The names I gave for the rapids are all actual names, except for the last one. Riding the river was really very exciting, and I did it two or three times over consecutive summers, each time with my Boy Scout troop. That was the only benefit that I can recall of being a Boy Scout.
You should have seen me: cut-off jeans, no shirt, tan, rippled biceps straining beneath my skin as I paddled, chestnut brown hair glistening in the summer sun -- I was quite a ladies' man in those days, a carefree spirit, breaking hearts at whatever port I drifted into.
Actually, none of that's true, except maybe the tan part. But it sounds nice.
The joke about "Number 149, Number 149..." was actually my dad's. At this point in my career, I was willing to steal from anyone, up to and including my own father.
For another adventure in which my dad played a part, see my skiing column. He was quite funny in that one, because he was a very old man trying to ski for the first time. Man, you should have seen him.