Grunty Rapids

While vacationing, families tend to do things. I don’t simply mean that they spend time together, but often there is an activity that everyone must engage in on every vacation. Some families have to play miniature golf, others make sure they visit a zoo. Perhaps some make it their mission to find a penny smashing machine. I’m not actually sure if this is a typical characteristic of familial vacations, I think I’m just generalizing to justify some of the asinine tendencies displayed when my family travels together. Regardless, my family goes white water rafting. Literally, wherever we travel there will be a raft, there will be rowing, and we will be on or near water. This can be especially difficult during a mid-winter jaunt to Toronto.

When the location we travel to allows, however, my family will go white water rafting. We’ve become something of a semi-professional white water rafting clan. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that my parents will no longer take commercial rafting trips, they’ve turned into rafting snobs.

Since December 2009, something has changed with my family. We’ve been vacationing but we haven’t been rafting. Here’s why.

My parents own a home in downtown Auckland, New Zealand. It is a beautiful place and we visit as much as we can, but for a college student, the only feasible time to travel there during the school year is over Christmas break. This works out nicely for me because December is the beginning of Summer in NZ. During the second week of our stay, my family had booked condos in the Southern Alps, a mountain range running along the South island of the country.

Half way through our stay, we had scheduled to go heli-rafting down a glacial flow. This should have raised a few red flags for the following reasons.

1. Helicopters are used because the terrain surrounding the river is so hazardous and treacherous that the raft landing is inaccessible by truck. This means that no roads run along the side of the river, and also, no rescue vehicles were something to happen.

2. Using helicopters is not an efficient process. This ensures that the river is not rafted regularly and being such, measurements and projections for the river are sketchy. Commercial rapids generally don’t change conditions, guides are aware of every obstacle on the river and once they memorize them, they don’t change. When your guide is a drunken kiwi adrenaline junkie, the uncertainty should be extremely disheartening.

3. Glaciers are cold. Glacial flows are cold. I don’t like being cold.
As soon becomes apparent, this is the hardest river I have ever rafted. It is “grunty” as the guide terms it. After immediately putting the raft in, the river weaves through the thick of the mountains and there are 50 foot tall granite walls towering over us on both sides. As we approach an outcropping of rocks which overlooks a drop of roughly six feet, I am informed that we approaching the longest, roughest section of the river. Of course, this is where the raft capsizes.

No one in my family is quite certain how it happened. One moment we were going over a drop and the next we were in 40 degree water. In moments of trauma, people often describe that they experience some sort of tunnel vision. The memories of the event become hazy and lack detail. This particular stretch of rapids was roughly 300-400 yards long, which means that I had time to awaken from shock and grasp what was going on around me. The minute and a half that I was in the water was perhaps one of the most intense of my life. There was no exiting the water because the rock walls on either side of the river made it impossible to grab on to anything. My family was strewn across the river, out of sight and sound and I was unsure of whether they were fine. Multiple people had died on the river over the years, a fact which conveniently rears its ugly head while you are being crushed by a metric ton of water.

Our guide told us afterwards that our wreck was the worst he had seen ever on the river. Luckily none of us were hurt. My mother was flung backwards from the boat and ended up grabbing on to another raft about half way through the rapids. My father, brother, and myself had held on to the raft out of the canyon and managed to pull it to the river bank. We drove back to our cabins and began binge drinking because drowning in red wine is a much more appealing prospect than drowning in pure glacial water.

There’s that saying “God works in mysterious ways.” Not always, because I was given a pretty clear sign to stop rafting.

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