The Final Summer Fling

IT had been one of those summers. With three school children under 12 and one strong-willed toddler, the days stretched out from early morning until late evening's dusk. And always, punctuating the skirmishes that four sisters perpetuate, was the refrain, "What are we going to do now?"

Veteran grandparents will look at parents today with credulity and say, "Just send them outside to play." Unfortunately, today's outside, particularly our downtown neighborhood, is not the wholesome scene of the old days. Even at the large park across the street, full of swings and slides, a swimming pool and baseball field, my husband or I must keep a watchful eye.

So, juggling schedules, my husband and I share the summer's hardest work: keeping children busy. We made the best of the ordinary pleasures of summertime, with regular trips to the library, the pool across the street, tennis lessons, and Little League games.

As the end of August approached, we decided to seize one last real adventure before school started again. The toddler would have to stay with her grandparents, but the rest of us agreed white-water rafting on southeastern Kentucky's wild Cumberland River was the final summer fling for us.

Even waking up at 5:30 didn't dampen the enthusiasm of our early morning sleepyheads. This was no school day. They jumped out of bed, dressed in minutes, and began filling backpacks with supplies.

Two and a half hours later, we reached the rustic wooden shed that housed the expedition's headquarters. I climbed the steps and walked into the office to sign in, my imagination already picturing the gentle currents propelling our sturdy raft along.

It took me a moment to realize that the registration papers we were signing were actually legal release forms in case of injury or death. Death! Even my six-year-old had to sign. "Is this dangerous?" I asked the owner. He stood calmly behind the desk, short and stout with a bushy, graying beard and hiking boots, smiling like a backwoods Santa Claus, but he didn't elaborate.

I was ready to head to the nearby lodge with my girls, whom I had painstakingly kept safe for all these years, but my husband's reassurances and the girls' shouted disappointment prevailed. We signed.

I shuddered all through the safety demonstration. Santa told us, "If you capsize or are thrown out of the raft, keep your legs up and your feet pointed in the direction of the current to fend off rocks." Capsize? Was that a possibility? I searched his face for signs of honor, but he started handing out our equipment.

We all donned padded helmets and thick life jackets that tightened like corsets. Our adventure was taking on the aspect of an ordeal. Was it worth exposing our children to danger for a little fun? After all, motherhood had taught me that everyday life is dangerous enough. Why drive for hours and pay money to throw our children into a flimsy rubber boat on a wild river full of rocks? Fun, I thought, was overrated.

A rickety old bus, which did nothing to build my confidence in this back-to-nature racket, delivered us to the water's edge. There, Santa - whom I later found out the staff called Papa Smurf - left us to the care and mercy of our river guides. They looked like a wild-spirited, muscled, and tanned crew of river pirates; but, by that time, I was desperate enough to trust anyone.

We were assigned to Dan in a much-patched, black rubber raft fitting seven people. He was soon beguiling us with tales of his recklessness and bravado, until I pointed out that we had a fragile cargo aboard. My oldest daughter was mortified. Even the 10-year-old groaned and rolled her eyes. Dan seemed attentive, but I spied a wink as I turned my head away.

We entered the river a thousand feet downstream from Kentucky's largest waterfall. We had hardly settled in our places along the raft's inflated sides when, at Captain Dan's command, we were all paddling furiously upstream toward the thundering base of the 60-foot falls. As we paddled along the base of a cliff approaching the left corner of the falls, the spray engulfed and instantly soaked us. The girls shrieked and laughed. They, at least, were ready for anything. Thus baptized, we turned downriver.

My naive vision of sitting leisurely like a spectator was dashed when I realized that we, the passengers, were to be the engine of our 12-foot raft. Only strenuous paddling would enable us to maneuver through the rapids and move us through the quiet pools between. Dan, sitting in the stern, was our rudder and kept us on course. When he shouted, "All forward!" we dipped our paddles in unison and pulled the river backwards beneath us. I came to love his laconic, "Take a break." Hearing it, we sat back limp ly and drank in the sights of the sky and the riverbank as we drifted by.

Eventually, we reached the first rapids, and I found out why we wore helmets and cushioned vests. All the rapids are named; none of the names were reassuring. This one, Dan announced, was called Purgatory.

We heard the sound of rushing water before we saw it. I braced myself and held onto my six-year-old's vest strap. Then the pounding, jerking, twisting force of water shot our little raft like a pinball bouncing off boulders.

We hung on. Dan yelled, "Watch out!" as the raft crashed into a rock like an elephant rearing up in the current. We stayed aboard, jarred but safe. The children beamed and begged for more.

We shot two more rapids, the Willy Nelson and Stairsteps. Then the rafts all gathered against the bank for what I assumed would be a break. A high, sloping rock ahead looked like the perfect place to stretch out and rest. I hopped ashore eagerly. But when the guides told us to keep all our equipment, I realized something was up.

With everyone else, I scaled the rock and was gazing dizzily down at the water 12 feet below when I heard its name, Jump Rock.

Jump? It seemed impossible, but the guides assured us the water was quite deep if we jumped into a particular area. A young woman whooped and leaped. Before I could grab her, over went Maria, my 10-year-old, as if she had done this every day for years. Gasping, I looked down and saw her head bob up, smiling.

MY husband, too calm as usual, assured me it was safe. I stood there amazed to see almost everyone, old and young, jumping delightedly. I was beginning to feel like the group's lone wet (or dry) blanket, so I decided to take the plunge.

I stood on the edge, then backed up, politely letting someone else take my place. Finally, quaking, I stepped off the edge. I dropped forever, or it seemed, until I hit the cool, murky water, continuing down and down before rising to the surface.

My heart was pounding as I paddled to shore, but I felt a rare sense of accomplishment. Time seemed turned back. Instead of the worried mother, I remembered again what it felt like to be a fearless, eager child living an adventure. When I jumped twice more, I only hesitated slightly.

Holding her father's hand, my six-year-old, Christina, made the leap, then jumped twice more alone. Flushed with pride, she emerged from the water aware that she had done a daring thing, for once just like her older sisters.

Our excitement spent, we returned to our rafts.

There would be no rest, however, as our guide prepared us for the next and fiercest rapids, the Screaming Right-Hand Turn. The river, channeled tightly between boulders, drops suddenly down a steep chute and piles against a huge rock. This rock deflects the entire torrent at a sharp right angle down a further drop.

My daughters, attuned by now to the thrill and danger, were begging to capsize. To my chagrin, Dan promised to try - within the limits of safety, he assured me.

I felt the tug and rush as the water's frantic grip caught and hurled the raft, jerking us first one way then the other. On the second jerk, our two front-rightside mates were flung overboard. As we surged ahead, completely powerless, I watched my eleven-year-old, Emily, go over. She was dragged under the surface, then up, her helmet bobbing like a cork. Seconds later, I saw her feet swing up pointing down the current. She swept by us and landed in the shallows next to the bank where she grinned and wave d, making her sisters squirm with envy.

She had gone over and survived. It dawned on me this was really fun. I also realized our guides kept their show of reckless horseplay for stretches of river where they knew there was no real danger. So when Dan asked if we wanted to paddle back into the rapids and try to "surf the rolls - balancing the raft motionlessly on the standing wave at the bottom of the rapids that pushes upstream against the current - I found myself eagerly agreeing.

Three times we fought that rapids, all arms paddling hard together. No one else was thrown out, but we gloried in the strength and all felt like river pros.

We spent that whole day on the Cumberland, carried along its ribbon of muddy water and sandstone rock folded between green mountains with the blue sky arching over and us right there in the middle of it all. We had paddle-splashing water fights with the other rafts, all of us spluttering with laughter. We watched two-inch-long, brown wolf spiders hunting on boulders as we floated past. And we imagined 100-pound catfish below our toes as we swam in the quiet stretches of the river.

By the time we reached our takeout point and stepped once more onto land, I felt satisfaction and sore shoulder muscles, fatigue and triumph.

Listening to the sound of our slow, soggy, sneaker-squishing gait, I knew we had shared an adventure and learned how facing a challenge together can multiply the fun. Sitting in Jean's Diner on the road back to the city, I looked around our table and saw reflected on bright faces that special, shared joy that sometimes kindles within a family.

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