So there I was, on my back and feet out in front of me (like you’re supposed to be when lost in the whitewater) My buddy Greg Raymond is shouting something at me from behind me. Greg is one of those amazing paddlers who can do everything. I’m concentrating on keeping relaxed, moving to the left bank of the river, and hanging on to my boat. I could have sworn Greg yelled to forget the boat and as it was slowing me down, I let it go. That’ll be important later.

Before we talk about later, we should talk about earlier.

That morning, as we were preparing to get on the Arkansas river, we watched as the commercial raft companies piled all their stuff onto their trucks at the put-in. You read that right. Put all their stuff ONTO their trucks at the put-in. Instead of, as usual, taking it OFF the trucks to PUT IN to the river. You see, the Arkansas had JUST hit flood stage or whatever they call it when commercial rafts can no longer legally put a boat in the river. We were private boaters, and we weren’t covered by such rules. There was a park ranger there, and she explained that she couldn’t tell us not to get on the river, but she just had to ask what our level of experience was. Greg Raymond assured her that we’d all been paddling for ten years, more or less.

Before we go on, we should talk about earlier. Two or three years earlier. When I first got in a kayak. You get the idea.

Anyhow, Greg knew the park ranger’s father somehow- the connection between this girl in Colorado wearing a uniform and Greg Raymond’s Memphis TN life is something I don’t remember exactly, but I think it had to do with the Bluff City Canoe Club. This reassured the ranger. It didn’t reassure me one damn bit.

The river was big and pushy and we got out a lot to scout and set up throw ropes and it was great. I saw big honking waves that were daunting. I saw big holes that you paddled up the following wave to exit, and then slid backward- returning to the hole you were trying to leave. I saw waves form and explode. It worked on my timing, you bet. I paddled the biggest stuff I’ve ever paddled, possibly even counting a 16 day trip down the Grand Canyon- a trip where I was sure I’d find my boat slipping backward down waves, but never quite got stuck the way I did on the Arkansas at flood.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, I’m on my back in the water, keeping relaxed, and watching Greg come up on my right, ready to drag me to river left. It needed to be done quick-like. I remember there were more waves to be dealt with just downstream of us, and I didn’t want to deal with them out of a boat. I grabbed the stern of Greg’s boat and kicked, he got us into what was left of an eddy. I gasped and gargled and did all the usual things I do when I’ve been dumb enough to exit my boat and had to vigorously swim in stuff that isn’t designed for swimmin’ in. Greg kept yelling at me to get all the way out of the water (there are cases of people who get to shallow water and stop working to save themselves, only to be swept back out. I could easily have been that stupid, considering) but I was planted pretty good in a couple of inches of water and just sat gasping and shooting dirty looks at the downstream waves. You couldn’t see anything beyond the nearest waves. That had been my biggest worry on the river that day- you couldn’t see past the next wave- they were honkin’ huge! Now my biggest worry was where I would go from here. My paddle, then my boat had gone on to enjoy the river without me. Even if Greg or anyone else had retrieved my gear close by, the chances of getting it back to me were slim and would only put someone else in a tight spot.

But I was just a bit downstream of a concrete wall, remember? That was was the base of an incline train that travels… up to a theme park! Ah. Greg and Dennis Rhodes, if I remember rightly, did some head-to-head figuring (It had to be head-to-head, you couldn’t have heard thunder in that river. Speaking of which, Greg had NOT been telling me to forget the boat. He’d been telling me not to give up, to keep my head in the air… lots of good advice. The bit about the boat might have been in there, too, I dunno. Like I said, you couldn’t hear thunder.)
and Greg came back up to me, parked finally out of the chilly water on the bank. “You can go up the train and wait in the parking lot or follow those train tracks into that tunnel and downriver to the take-out.” There was, of all things, a set of train tracks a couple of feet higher than the water. They went along the river. Downriver, they went into a tunnel. “Which… ah… which way do you suppose the train goes on these tracks, and when do you suppose it might be running?” I asked, looking down the tracks. I could picture a train on them coming at me pretty easily. I could not, however, picture where the heck I could go to avoid such a train. Greg looked down the tracks, too. Then he looked back at the jauntily painted lower end of the incline train. “It’s your choice.”

So. It was either walk an undetermined distance down some dangerous railroad tracks, hoping that my gear was retrieved somewhere downstream and I could rejoin the run. Or ride a carnival colored tram a thousand feet or so up a crack in the side of the gorge and wait patiently in a parking lot while my friends finished the run and came to retrieve me.

I didn’t know it yet, but my boat would be found a mile or so farther down the river, and my paddle was shortly to be seen by one Dr. Alan ‘Sonny’ Salomon as it end-over-ended down the river past the take-out and on toward the far South.

I also didn’t know the damned incline train wasn’t working.

I’ll get to that next time.