A Raft of Experience

The instructor stressed the importance of teamwork as we sat in our rafts preparing for our trip down the St. Louis River in Minnesota. We weren't even in the water yet, but sat six to a raft on dry ground, checking out our life vests and getting to know our raft mates.

I already knew two of them: my friend Phyllis and her teenage son, John. This trip had been her idea, something she'd always wanted to do. It sounded like fun, so I came along. A young couple, Don and Kathy, joined our raft, and a burly blond named Ulf filled out our team. As we all got to know each other, we discovered that none of us had done this before. We were a raft full of beginners.

After plenty of instructions about rowing, rapids, and what to do if we fell out, we took to the water, three rafts full of eager novices. Four observers in kayaks joined us, ready to offer advice or fish us out of the river.

First we paddled to a nearby bridge and practiced rowing in and out through the pylons. Our first maneuvers were sloppy. Oars whacked against each other, and the rubber raft bounced off the pylons as we all tried to steer our own way. Then we began to synchronize, rear rowers falling into the rhythm of the two in front, one side back-paddling to make the turns. Communication and cooperation seemed to be the key.

Once we were sliding smoothly through the pylons, we headed down the river. John and I had the front positions, and our team soon learned the value of a sense of humor.

It's the job of the front rowers to call out when they spot any large rocks low in the water ahead of us. We were supposed to shout "Rock left!" or "Rock right!" to help everybody behind us steer away from hazards.

I've never been too swift at determining left from right, especially under pressure, and I soon discovered that John had the same problem. When we hit our first rapids, the raft picked up speed. John and I spotted a rock looming ahead. "Rock! Rock!" we both shouted. Such abstract concepts as left or right seemed inconsequential with a huge underwater monster rushing toward us. We also realized you can't point and row at the same time. We hit the rock with a "whump" and rowed frantically as the raft slid sideways around it.

We had just straightened ourselves out when another rock approached. "Rock! Rock!" we shouted. We felt this one rubbing under our feet as our raft glided over it.

"Yup, that was a rock all right," someone muttered from the back of the raft.

When the river slowed, we paused to rethink our strategy. We concluded that when the rock was on my side of the raft, I would yell. John would shout when he spotted one on his side.

At the next rapids, John spotted a rock on my side. Since it wasn't his job to shout, he thought he should call it to my attention by giving me a gentle nudge. His "gentle" nudge nearly knocked me out of the raft. By the time I regained my balance, we were careening off the offending rock.

Eventually, we got our system working. By the time we hit the notorious Electric Rapids, we were ready. We leaned into the oars and lunged ahead, steering smoothly around obstacles, dipping and soaring over the rushing water. We plunged through the swiftest water, spray flying up around us. At the bottom, we turned around and rowed back upstream to catch the lower rapids for a second ride. Our shouts of triumph rose over the roar of the water. What a team!

At the mouth of the river we encountered our greatest challenge. After the rush of the river, we reached a long, quiet lake. Food and dry clothes waited for us at the other side. The observers zipped ahead in their streamlined kayaks. We plodded behind in our rubber behemoths.

We rowed and rowed, but without the flow of the river it seemed to take forever. The wind blew in our faces and fought our progress. We were tired and hungry, and our arms ached. The excitement was over. We just wanted to be at the other side.

Stopping to rest for a moment, we marveled at the clear, still water of the lake. We sat quietly, listening to the calm around us, the birds chattering in the trees on the shore. The round, white pebbles at the bottom of the lake seemed so close you could touch them. Ulf stuck his oar down in the water and did touch them. The lake was only two feet deep.

We made the fastest and easiest unanimous decision of the trip. We all climbed out of the raft and walked to shore.

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