Rookie rafter goes the distance
“If someone invites you to take a trip on a Class VI river, say no thank you. There is no margin for error on a Class VI. The consequence is death.”
If the safety talk was meant to scare me it was effective. Her tanned arms resting against a paddle, Jackie Nunez’s casual posture seemed at odds with her words. With a slight smile she informed us that the all-day trip we were about to embark on was in no way “a Disneyland ride.”
It was to be my first time rafting or “boating” as aficionados call it. Nunez’s speech seemed to include a list of every way a person could possibly die on the river. I had a brief image of my editor calling my husband to inform him of my unfortunate accident, and then pushed it aside. I wasn’t even coming close to a Class VI. My day would be spent meandering down the East Fork of the Carson River, a Class II or beginner level river. Plus, I had Nunez, an experienced guide in her fourth season on the Carson. The day looked promising again, and I felt confident enough to assure my boat mates, a family from east Texas, of our future success.
But first came the practice talk. Clad in wet suits and carrying our paddles we lumbered into the boat.
“I need you to work as a team and listen carefully to my commands,” Nunez said. “When I say stop, I mean right then. An extra paddle could send us into a bad position.”
Standing behind us, one hand anchoring us to the shore, Nunez shouted orders like a drill sergeant.
“Forward paddle, back paddle, left turn, forward paddle. Don’t stop until I tell you,” she said catching a few of us trying to second-guess her.
It all seemed good, or at least not awful, until we practiced the “high side” maneuver. Nunez had warned that occasionally a boat might go up on a rock and she would need the team to move to the high side of the boat to prevent it from flipping and dumping us all in the river.
A hesitant and slightly uncoordinated crew gingerly moved to the right side of the boat. It didn’t bode well for the future.
By 10 a.m. it was time to push off and start our adventure. After a couple small rapids we began to feel like a team and our attention wandered. Cliff swallows filled the air, dipping and swirling above our heads. The granite walls of the canyon surrounded us, shimmering with green moss, and retreating into small, dark caves. The constant sound of the rushing river was our backdrop.
Surrounded by wilderness it seemed that our only company would the occasional birds and a water snake. Our river companion drew the team’s full attention as we entered a rapid. The long, black shape appeared at the top of each swell and it appeared that at any moment the reptile would surely become a passenger. The snake proved it was definitely more afraid of us and beat a hasty retreat to the shoreline.
After two hours of negotiating gentle but technical rapids we felt confident, and in our confidence we forgot a golden rule of the river – never let your guard down.
The turn in the river came quickly and looming in front of us was a jagged rock face.
“Back paddle, back paddle!”
We sat for a moment transfixed by the rock, and then the commands sunk in. A flurry of paddle activity erupted, but there was no teamwork involved. It was every person for themselves. In actual time it was just a few moments and we were around the rock.
“Sometimes the best path seems a little scary. You have to trust your guide,” Nunez said. The Carson has exerted a pull over Nunez. The rugged beauty of the river and the absence of civilization appeals to her. There are other, wilder rivers to run, but none that completely take her away, she said. Ahwahnee Whitewater, the company Nunez works for, offers trips on a full range of rivers up to a Class V trip on the upper Tuolumne River.
After a lunch complete with fresh mangoes, shrimp salad and cookies, and a dip in some pools formed from hot springs, Nunez admitted that this was probably her last season on the river.
“I never thought I’d do it this long,” she said. “You learn a lot about life from the river. You have to always go with the flow and you can’t worry about the rapids ahead because you’ve got to much to do in the moment. And just when you think you know the river it changes.”
As the landscape moved from mountains to high desert Nunez allowed Lindsey Gourley, a new guide, to take control of the paddle boat. By the end of the season Lindsey should be ready to run the trips.
“Lindsey is a good guide,” Nunez said looking back from the main oar boat. “This season I’m here to get them started and prepared. The season is controlled by the snow melt and the run is usually over by the end of July. I’ve loved my time here, but I think it is time to move on.”
After a drowsy van ride back to our cars at the East Fork Resort, my team and I parted company. I survived, a little wet, but unscathed, and wondering if I could convince my editor that what was really needed was more research. Perhaps another trip? This time on a Class III river.
Editor’s note: Forget it Proctor. It’s my turn next.
The boating season on the East Fork of the Carson usually runs from May to July. For more information and prices on Ahwahnee tours call (800) 359-9790.
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