Different worlds: white water rafting

My all-time favorite vacation activity is white water rafting. If you are not afraid of the water, or of getting wet, and you love the out-of-doors, you should try it!

White water rafting combines many good things, such as natural beauty, tranquillity, marvelous scenery, experiencing “the wild,” companionship, history — and moments of genuine excitement.

The rapids on rivers are generally classified in order of danger from 1 to 5, with Level 1 being the most tame. Level 6 and above are considered too dangerous to be navigated. Level 1 and below rapids are considered to be “float trips.” Level 2 and 3 rapids are relatively mild, but enough to give you some exhilaration. These trips are perfect for the novice, younger children and “people who don’t want to get their hair wet.” I have been on some of those as one- or two-day trips on the San Juan River near Durango, the Lower Kern River, which is below Lake Isabella and east of Bakersfield, the Snake River south of the Grand Tetons, and the American River right above Folsom Lake near Sacramento. They were all fun, but the best was the American River.

The most spectacular river-rafting trip I have taken was through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. This trip had lots of Level 4 and 5 rapids, and, not surprisingly, some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. But in addition, you can take side trips to wonderful waterfalls, abandoned mines, hot springs, and other notable and interesting locations. And excitement? We were on a “J-Rig” inflatable boat, which the Army Seabees use as temporary bridges. They were equipped with 35-horsepower outboard motors and would handle about 18 to 20 people. But when we hit some of the rapids, it would really “get our attention,” to the extent that it would move the boat almost 45 degrees in the air. In short, we had a great time.

Other longer trips I have taken that I would strongly recommend to you are the Middle Fork and the Main Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho, the Selway River in Idaho, and the Upper Kern River, which is above Lake Isabella. I have also heard that there are great trips on the Rogue River in Oregon and the Green River in Utah, and of course there are many others as well.

But the fun is not just on the river. Every company I have traveled with has been people-oriented and has cooked wonderful meals. An added plus is that you will have time to yourself in camp to fish, take a nap, go hiking in wildlife areas, or just joke and converse with good people.

The boats you will take will vary. By far the largest I have seen are the J-Rigs on the Colorado. Otherwise you will usually choose either to be on an oar boat, where one guide sits in the middle and does all the work with two long oars, or a paddle boat, which is usually smaller and each of the six to eight passengers and the one guide in the back must paddle. I much prefer to be paddling, since it allows me to be much more a part of the river and the trip. Of course, some people take their own individual kayaks, but they should either stay in milder water or be quite a bit more experienced.

In most of the trips you will sleep on the ground, either in a tent or out in the open. You will have a pad beneath you, and if you have a sandy beach, it can be soft. Or you can take a fold-up cot with you to get off the ground. That is what I do because at this point in my life I don’t feel I should have to continue to prove my masculinity by sleeping on the ground. But don’t let that deter you.

I will end this column with a story that was passed along to me by the owner of the rafting company that took us through the Main Fork of the Salmon River. On the last evening of our trip while by the camp fire, we asked the owner who his all-time favorite customer had been on the river. He said that this was an easy question to answer.

Once he received a letter from a woman from back East who told him that she was then 85 years old, but had always wanted to go river rafting, and she asked if she could be included. He responded that if she would provide a letter from her doctor that it was all right, he would take her along. Almost by return mail he received another note from the woman telling him for the first time that she was also blind, but enclosing the appropriate doctor’s note. In addition, she said that she had an 81-year-old friend with her own doctor’s approval that wanted to come along as well.

So they both came on the trip. As you can imagine, everyone rallied to help her on the boat and in camp, and to explain what was happening. In short, this nice woman and everyone else had a great time. But finally the owner asked her why if she had always wanted to go river rafting she had waited until she was 85. She responded that for the last 40 years her husband and all of her children had been against the idea. But they were all dead now, so she decided to give it a try. For many people like me and maybe like you, river rafting is a different world, and one of life’s most fun things to do. So try it this summer. Don’t wait until you are 85 and blind.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)