Earlier that day, our group of 6 people plus a guide put on our orange vests and got into the large raft that was to carry us on our 3 mile trip down the Deschutes River. Our launch point was an old logging camp named Aspen. It took me a while to feel secure in my position sitting on the side of the raft. Luckily, the first part of the float was on flat, calm water. Plenty of time for our guide (a young man with long hippie hair and chiseled athletic calves) to instruct us on paddling commands and safety. He also shared some history of Lava Lands National Monument. I was surprised to learn that lava flows shaped the Deschutes River over 7,000 years ago. I’m glad I missed that volcanic event.
Rapids are graded on 6 levels with 1 being easy and 6 considered unfit for rafting thus left for insane kayakers. Well prepared and eager, we hit class 1 and 2 white water rapids. I was having a good time, but craving more thrill. So far, the trip was mostly comprised of us paddling on command, which was tiring. After we cleared the baby rapids, our guide looked at us asking, “Who wants to ride the bull for the Big Eddy?” Now my interest was peaked.
“What’s the Big Eddy? What’s the bull?” I asked. Everyone’s eyes fixed on me. Turns out the Big Eddy was the first group of class 3 rapids that were approaching and riding the bull was kind of stupid. One lucky person (with death waiver signed and safely stored at headquarters) could sit at the front, gripping the raft’s perimeter rope with legs dangling forward. Of course, I volunteered. Everyone else in the raft was either newly married or had kids along. Riding the bull became my duty.
The guide steered us to the side of the river where I climbed from my seat to the front and hung my legs forward. Grasping the rope with my left hand, I looked out over the water of the Deschutes. The sky was overcast, but the temperature was pleasant on that early autumn day. Warm enough for me to be wearing a white T-shirt.
Our guide ordered my companions to paddle ahead as the Big Eddy approached and everyone braced themselves. We plunged dramatically with visible rocks jutting out of the water. I didn’t know how to swim. So, I really didn’t want to fall out of the raft. Why was I doing this again? Oh yeah, to save the newlyweds and children.
The raft hit a big rapid, then I heard oohhs and aahhs from behind. Our guide was shouting instructions to which I hoped my companions were listening. I quickly understood why it was called riding the bull. I was bucked about and found myself grasping the perimeter rope with both hands as the raft plunged down drop off after drop off. I was smiling a little too much and enjoying the cheers from behind. The raft vacillated from side to side till we all knew why this rapid was dubbed the Kenmore. I slid back and forth, letting my body go with the movement of the raft. Water jumped aboard from every direction, bathing us with cold river. We maneuvered through the next class 3 rapids till I was feeling like a bull-riding pro. With the Big Eddy behind us, I returned to my seat, met by smiling faces.
After that, the class 2 Roller Coaster rapids were boring. At journey's end, our guide steered us to the take out point located just before Lava Island Falls. I was sad the fun was over, but couldn’t wait to peel off the damn life jacket once my feet touched earth. I was soaked through and the vest had become like two bricks on my chest. Ripping it off with vigor, I drew the stares of men and the disconcerted glances of women. Looking down, I realized only then that I was hosting a wet T-shirt contest all by myself, plus the cold water had made things extra interesting. What did I learn from this experience? Always ride the bull and get as wet as possible!
Aimee Conner crawled out of a cave in a remote part of central Oregon. She can play the old-time fiddle and work the ancient magic of baking. She has now joined "civilized" society in Los Angeles, where you can't shoot the animals, but the animals sometimes shoot at you. She's the author of the psychological thriller Scrapbook.