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Whitewater Rafting: Signing the Waiver and Taking the Plunge

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For years I've heard people describe whitewater rafting as "fun." I've done lots of adventurous things (bungee jumping, skydiving), but when it came to this water sport, I believed the odds were against me. My internal voice always begged the question: How can you control raging water? (Answer: you can't.)

Living in Colorado, the quintessential outdoor playground, one has ample opportunity to try new adventures. For some inexplicable reason, I felt it was time to take the plunge (so to speak) and face my fear.

This past August, on my birthday no less, I planned an adventurous outing in southern Colorado that included a morning of zip-lining, followed by whitewater rafting on the popular Arkansas River near Cañon City. There's not much to Cañon City except the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, a state prison and more rafting companies than you can shake a stick at. The Arkansas River runs wild and free at the bottom of the Royal Gorge--a 1,250-foot-deep canyon--stirring up frothy Class IV rapids. I initially planned to go on a calmer section of the river (one appropriate for kids under age 12), and basically enjoy a relaxed float trip.

"2011-10-06-RoyalGorgecanyon.jpg
The 1,250-foot-deep Royal Gorge canyon in Colorado.

But when I called to make a reservation, the woman on the phone automatically booked me for the Royal Gorge canyon. No, I told her, I want the other raft trip. "You mean the one for little kids?" she sneered. "Uh, yeah, I guess so," I said sheepishly. "No you don't," she retorted. "It's boring. It's a lot more fun on the Royal Gorge. Little babies do the other one." Oh, well, gee, I thought. It was time to man up. Okay, I'll take the Royal Gorge, I said uncertainly.

Zip-lining in the morning was fun but very mild and safe. For a whitewater-rafting trip, you must first sign your life away, literally. Americans are notoriously litigious, so we were presented with a two-page waiver to sign and initial in about 35 different places. My adrenaline was pumping...actually reading it meant I might have a change of heart. I think it was filled with words like injury...death...brain damage...paralysis...human vegetable...nothing that inspired confidence. So, like everyone else around me, I avoided perusing this harbinger of bad things too closely and initialed it in lightening speed.

After suiting up in helmets and life vests, we gathered for the pre-trip safety talk. The raft leader not only told us all the things that could go wrong, but how to survive them. So if you fall out of the raft (wait, someone's gonna fall out of the raft?), you have three ways to stay alive...what? Huh? What if I remember to swim to shore but not the part about not standing in the water (you'll get sucked under). What if I don't remember to float down the river feet first to avoid having my head smash against a rock? Ummm, what time is the kiddie trip leaving???

The nausea rose as we made our way over to the rafts. Luckily, my group had some experienced rafters. Gary and Larry, two buff young Coloradan athletes, were relegated to the front. An in-shape father and his adult daughter were in the middle. But like a dog, our raft leader could smell the fear in me and my friend Jim, so we brought up the rear, the designated spot for lightweights.

Our raft leader was a lithe guy who bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Tom Cruise...okay, things could be worse. He chatted with us affably as we floated down a somewhat rough section of the river. And then, suddenly, we were bouncing in Class IV rapids. Tom Cruise morphed into a drill sergeant, commanding us to paddle as if our lives depended on it. And, of course, they did.

He chewed us out for not responding quickly or well enough. "This isn't the easy family float trip, you know," he chided. "That's the one I wanted!" I screamed in my head. Now I was really nervous.

"You've got to pay attention and do exactly what I say..." (Or else you may not have a pulse at the end of this thing, was the implication.) We all had the same reaction. We'll do anything. Anything. Just please get us out of here alive.

The next Class IV rapids were fast approaching, and we had to pull ourselves together. Okay, steady on. But what's this? The raft in front of us veered up onto a rock, and the rafters fell like teardrops, plunking into the raging waters one by one. We merged into the same treacherous stretch, as helmeted heads bobbed in the water, people yelled and rafters were pulled onto other rafts. Meanwhile, Tom Cruise commanded us to keep paddling. I kept hitting rocks with my paddle--it was a swirling sea of stone. After being thrown hither and thither, we finally emerged from the Class IV rapids relatively unscathed. Two more Class IV stretches to go. I was counting.

2011-10-06-RoyalGorgerafting.jpg
Whitewater rafting on Colorado's Arkansas River at the Royal Gorge.

On the next stretch, the father in front of me suddenly vanished. The guide pulled him from the water like a fisherman hauling in a shark. We rocked and rolled, prompting me to balance in the raft like a surfer. My friend Jim had fallen onto the floor of the raft several times, but I was so focused on staying upright that I didn't even notice.

After wrangling the next two sets of Class IVs (we were all unscathed), I could finally relax in some gentle Class II waters. Ah, this was more like it. Look, there's a Rocky Mountain sheep on the shore!

Many people got thrown from their rafts that day, but luckily no one was injured. We watched photos of ourselves in the bar afterwards (a photographer in a kayak took action shots along the way). The group dump trucked into the water cheered as they watched images of themselves flashed on a wide screen--there they were, falling one by one, as if in slow motion...splash, splash.

I survived and lived to tell the tale. I even got my birthday wish and didn't fall into the water, cracking my skull open on a rock. Would I do it again? Let's put it this way: I have nothing left to prove.

If You Go

1) Whitewater rafting is not a ride at the amusement park. Rafting is not done in a controlled environment, contrary to widespread belief. According to rafting guides, some tourists actually believe the rafts are connected to underwater tracks, like a Disney World ride. No doubt this is the reason why participants must sign two-page waivers.

2) The potential for serious risk exists. While millions of people have an exhilarating time on commercial rafting trips, serious risk is involved. Our raft leader said that after he gives the (somewhat frightening) safety presentation, people often say, "That won't happen to us--you just say it for legal reasons, right?" Wrong. The power of raging water is unpredictable, and accidents can happen even when accompanied by the most experienced guide. And, unfortunately, people can, and do, wind up dead.

3) Choose a rafting trip suited to your level of fitness and experience. You should be physically fit and have previous rafting experience to do more advanced rapids, such as Class IV, though rafting companies may not tell you this when you book your excursion. People with heart conditions should avoid rafting trips altogether. Start small and work your way up.

4) Research your rafting company. Do an Internet search on customer satisfaction and safety records. Query the company on the experience level of their guides. Shoot for guides with a minimum of four years' experience. To a large degree, they'll be holding your life in their hands. A good safety record is a good indicator, but be aware that anything can happen. The power of Mother Nature trumps all.