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Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Joie De Vivre: Maiden Voyage Down the Russell Fork River

Joie de vivre. The joy of living. That's what we're after. That's what we're always after. And having it takes boldness. We are the Sissies.

It may not have looked like boldness to others. We were a group of 6 women. Most of them are older. I'm in my mid-thirties, but have Cerebral Palsy. I am not a strong swimmer, even with a life jacket to do the work of keeping my head above water. But we live in Elkhorn City, KY. - gateway to the Breaks Interstate Park known as the Grand Canyon of the South - and if you live there you are a river rat. Going down the river is what everyone does, so why not us?

The Russell Fork river has world class rapids when the dam is released in October with names like El Horrendo and the Meat Grinder. Most in our group are experienced river rats who know the river's currents and surprises. For two of us, including myself, it was a maiden voyage. Despite an unusually wet summer, the river has been low all season and we figured that would make it ideal for newbies. We decided on rafting a portion of what is known locally as "the fun run", which starts at Ratliff Hole and brings you into the city. This stretch is less dangerous than others and can be done in about an hour by experienced rafters.

In preparation, we shopped for gear. We ended with a four-man raft and a three-man triangular raft that is meant to be towed behind another boat. I got a new life-jacket and modified it according to my specific needs. Someone brought a floating cooler.

I admit I was apprehensive about going down the river. After a lifetime of falling, I have developed numerous related phobias, including an aversion to that flip-flop feeling in the stomach that happens when you go down a hill too fast or get on a roller coaster. I was not confident about my abilities to navigate a raft or even stay in it. So I found myself propped against a man-sized rock at Jesse Mack's just above Ratliff Hole - jacketed and braced, with sunglasses and a hat - waiting for the other girls to get the rafts to the water. "Don't worry about water snakes," one of the Sissies said. "It's a case of leave them alone and they'll leave you alone." I wasn't thinking about snakes. "It's too late now, so in you go," I told myself.

It was rocky there, so I was helped to the triangular raft. It has three holes to sit in, which gave me a place to lock my legs into the raft to hold me in it. Once I was in place the tri was launched and my companions boarded. The other raft, with the floating cooler, took a bit longer to get in the water and we soon lost sight of it.

The tri steers by spinning rather than going in a straight line. I was thankful for my dancer training (via DVDs) on how to spot when making turns. This kept me from getting dizzy and help me stay oriented. At first, I left it to my more experienced companions to man the oars and concentrated on holding on. I didn't know what to expect up ahead.

Since the water was low and the current slow, we spent most of our time avoiding rocks and getting unstuck. Many rocks were clearly visible under the water. The tri was slow-going. "We got the minivan," we cried out to the others, "you got a Ferrari!" Ferrari would pass us and those Sissies would pull to the shore in order for one of them to smoke. Then we would pass it, back and forth. A curious heron flirted with us along the way.

The first rapids we came to were nerve-racking to me, but we rode them without incident and I thought: "This is no worse than a water rapids ride at an amusement park."

By the time Pool Point came into view, I was starting to relax. I've heard many stories about Pool Point. People jumping from the bridge often lose their shoes. Old timers say that years ago a train derailed there and the car that sunk was never found. A hiking trail leads from the road to the river there and locals have tied a rope for swimming. I have walked the bridge, but could never hike down, so seeing Pool Point from the vantage of the river was awe-inspiring for me: the bridge spanning above like a steel high wire over the emerald ribbon of deep calm water against a dirty white sky. Some boys swimming there laughed at us while we hooted and hollered to hear it echo back off the cliffs around us.

At Sand Hole, we caught up with the Ferrari again and took a moment to get a drink from the cooler. Then we went on.

Eventually, we came to Cold Springs. We got stuck on some rocks again, so a Sissy got out to pull us free. "If I get out, I can help too," the other said. "No, no!" we insisted. She did. The raft lifted off, got grabbed by the current, and zipped away.

I was alone in the raft with no experience whatsoever to guide me! I turned in time to see a Sissy dive after me. Clinging to the side, she was going down the falls unprotected! What to do? I twisted around and locked hands with her to keep her from  ripping away. "You have to steer!" she commanded. My left arm is stronger, so I held on to her with my right and paddled with my left. Her head was near the oar. I had a vision for a split-second of her sinking to the bottom with a gashed temple. But I swallowed that fear and paddled on. "Where do I go? Where do I go?" "Head to shore, if you can," she answered.

Soon the raft grounded on rocky bank. The Sissy waded in and pulled it up securely on shore. "I have to go back for E. The river will eventually rock you back out. If it does before I get back to you, just hang tight. This is Long Hole. I'll catch up with you before you get anywhere. In the meantime, don't move."

Don't move. Okey Dokey. I did, though. I was contorted into a painful position and had to raise up to see back up the river. E. was still standing in the middle of the river where we left her, bewildered. But I was surprisingly calm. It was a scary minute or two, but I hadn't panicked. I had taken control of the situation. "I've got this," I thought. No fear.

Enter the Ferrari. As E crawled across rocks to the bank, it rocketed through Cold Springs without a hitch. We then regrouped where I waited, grounded.

The Sissies in the Ferrari had their adventure at Sand Hole. After we went on, they reboarded their raft. But in doing so, the cooler flipped over. The weight of the drinks inside opened the lid, releasing the hydration to the depths below. One of them dove after it, but it was too late. The drinks drowned. It took a while in the telling between the laughter.

We traded out Sissies and continued on. It was mostly calm waters to paddle through after that. I was now confident enough to take turns with the oar. One Sissy even jumped off and took a swim.

We got out at Blue Hole (a.k.a. Carson Island). The Sissies in the Ferrari had gotten there before us. A fire was already crackling. We had a fine picnic. We sang. We laughed.

Some criticized me for going down the river. They claimed that doing so with my health was a reckless disregard for life. The fact is that the Sissies would not have allowed me to if they thought I couldn't handle it. I couldn't care less what other people think about what I do. I'm sick; I'm not dead. Joie de vivre. The only way to live.