Thursday, July 10, 2008
Last September seven members of the Pieces of 8 drove to the mountains of North Carolina for an artist’s retreat (the serious definition) and fun (the real definition). Member Carol Schiff generously invited us to be her guests at her second home in the mountains, not far from Cherokee and at the edge of the Smokies. We were Jini, Suzanne, Carol, Denette, Donna, Mary, and me. Member Cindy Michaud couldn’t make it.
Carol’s house is nestled on the side of a mountain, with a little creek below. It’s a wonderful location, and we happily hiked to waterfalls, went on a pontoon boat, swam in clear waters with no alligators (quite a treat), and toured the Cherokee Village. All along we sketched and painted, and took valuable reference photos.
On Monday Carol, Donna, Denette and I decided the Nantahala River was calling to us to go whitewater rafting. Off we went, ready to experience eight miles of rapids. We rented a boat that we now realize was too big for us—a five-man boat, not a four-woman boat—and we climbed on the bus to go upriver after watching a safety video.
We put the boat in, practiced a little, and off we went. After getting stuck on rocks a couple of times, we really got in sync as a team, with Denette at the rudder. We could go forward, we could, spin, we had it down.
Soon we became complacent and began to gloat about how good we were. We congratulated ourselves for being the only women on the river alone, and certainly the other grandmothers, and we were already planning our post-rafting celebration. We passed two blue boats that kept getting in our way; they were the size of ours and loaded with Spanish-speaking people.
It was exhilarating. We paddled for three hours and never felt so good. I felt blessed to be with three plucky women who are up for anything.
Nearing the end, we saw a big sign over the river that said, “BUMP.” We all said, “What’s a Bump? A river has a Bump? Ha ha ha.” We saw a big rock ahead and paddled right to avoid it. The current caught us immediately past the rock, we turned sideways, and we found out what a bump was. It’s a small waterfall with a “slot” at the bottom for a raft to fall into and stand up on its side. I was shocked to see Donna fly out of the boat and I reached out for her and found that I was also flying out of the boat. I saw Denette fly over us, and Carol bobbed up.
Carol, who actually paid attention during the safety briefing, yelled, “Do the swimmer’s float!” (They could have mentioned the Bump). The swimmer’s float involves turning your feet downstream and floating on your back. Donna and I were in shallow water and couldn’t get turned over, so we grabbed for rocks and after about 30 feet we got hold of some angular ones and pulled ourselves out of the water. It took every ounce of strength I had, but the presence of the big rapids down the river was very inspiring.
Downriver I saw a yellow line being thrown to Denette, and Carol (who paid attention in the safety briefing) successfully got herself to shore. When I got out of the water, Donna was sitting on a rock downstream and she and I were stranded on the wrong side of the river. I’ve never been more glad to see three people alive and well! Denette was yelling “Where are my GIRLS? Go get my GIRLS!” What a good skipper.
The boat just sat in the slot, trapped by the hydraulics. And who rescued us? The Latinos we passed on the river. They tried to get the boat loose but it went home without us, along with the paddles and two hats.
When we all were back together, Donna said, “There’s no bonding experience like facing Death together!”
We walked down past the big rapids we never reached by boat, and saw a burly guy pop out of his boat, making us feel a tiny bit better. In retrospect, we should have had helmets and a smaller boat.
Surprisingly unscathed, we all kept our shoes on, my waterproof camera was still attached to me, and we had no injuries. I asked people in the souvenir store if anyone ever died on the river and they said, “Not for a couple of years…just the one last year, but that was a heart attack.” Hm. Is that all. If we’d been injured, the headline in the paper would have been, “Grandmothers Injured in Whitewater Incident,” not “Artists Injured…” or “Women Injured…”. It’s always “Grandmother Foils Burglar” even if Granny is 42.
The final humiliation: in the locker room there was a photo of a boat full of nuns smiling as they went over the final rapids. The priest sat in the middle as they paddled like mad.
I have to say that I have gone whitewater rafting on a different river, with real safety procedures and they automatically issue a Guide and a helmet. It was fun, it was safer, but nothing will ever be as exhilarating as our wild ride down the Nantahala. Eight miles of screaming good fun!