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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rafting West Virginia’s Whitewater

Balancing on the edge of the raft, floating in a calm section of the New River in West Virginia, I gaze longingly at the huge, nearly white, cubic rocks that border the river on both sides. I love scrambling over rocks. Our guide says we can slip in the water to cool off.

I’m doubting getting out. I wonder how difficult it will be to get back in the raft. Plus, even though the temps are in the 90s, I’m cool enough since running the Class III, IV and V rapids involves lots of splashing. But, Tim goes in. So I do too.

The night before, Tim, my 19-year-old nephew, and I spent the night in a “rustic cabin” at River Expeditions. The cabins sleep a crowded six or a comfortable four if two don’t mind the upper bunk. Before turning in, we relaxed by the pool and, at the table in front of the cabin, ate a dinner we’d packed from home and played cards until we couldn’t see.

After a few minutes floating in our lifejackets, Tim pulls himself up and into the raft with the slightest effort. Our guide motions me to the back of the raft. With no warning, this ponytailed hill-billy bends and, in one motion and with one hand only, grabs onto my lifejacket at the shoulder and pulls me out of the water as easily as a loosely rooted weed, slinging me halfway across the raft. So fun!

Soon our guide tells us we’re approaching a spot where two opposing currents meet to create a vortex. He invites us to jump into the convergence and be “flushed.” Being sucked and held under water doesn’t seem appealing to me, but Tim's up for it, so I am too. I jump only a few feet out into the river from a rock only a couple feet above the roiling surface. The sensation is not scary but comforting: A ribbon of water curls across my right shoulder, down my back, around my waist and trails off my right hip, like a soft embrace. Then the force gently nudges me forward out of the spin, and I pop up. Our guide counts; I stay submerged for 7 seconds. Tim’s down for 10.

We paddle leisurely to the next rapid and learn that the New, one of the few rivers that flow north, originates in North Carolina. Another oddity of the New River is its name. It’s not new at all. It’s the second oldest river in the world—behind the Nile.

The rocks along the river’s edge—some as large as cabins—do open occasionally to a sandy bank where we pull out for lunch. The guides lay out sandwich fixins, chips, bean dip and fruit and remind us to drink plenty of water.

After a quick cleanup, we’re back in our rafts headed up river to a rapid named the hot tub. After crossing it, we turn and paddle back into it, right side and front first, just where Tim and I are stationed. The power and roll of the water is awesome. The side of the raft is sucked under and Tim and I lean towards the river. Just as I’m wondering how we’re going to avoid being pulled in, the rapid releases—and then sucks the raft down again. Over and over. Balancing for my life, holding on to my paddle, I shout to Tim, who’s wearing a big grin, “How long do you think we’ve been here? Like 5 minutes?”

“About a minute,” he yells back over his shoulder.

That’s the difference in perspectives 21 years makes.

Finally, our guide directs us to wait at ready, and at precisely the right time, orders, “Forward one.” Then “Back. Back. Back,” and we break from the rapid’s hold.

Tim’s the first to volunteer for another optional jump—from a rock about three stories high. This is something I would do when I was younger, I think. But I’m not old yet. I slip out of the raft too.

Tim is first, maybe five or eight people in front of me, forging the climb up the rocks. Happy to climb, I follow the wet footprints as well as I can before sliding off the face of a rock and scraping my lower leg. It’s a hard fall, and someone asks if I’m alright. “Yeah,” I answer and continue my way to the top considering that I may be too old for this kind of thing any more.

At my turn to jump, I approach the edge and look down, This is a lot higher looking down than looking up, but I’ll be fine. Bunches of people have done this safely before. I am almost to the point of perfectly psyching myself for a successful jump when a guide yells up, “Let’s go! Come on!”

With no further thought, like reminding myself to hit feet first, I limply step off and fall like a rag-doll. Somewhere about halfway down, my mind comes across the “stay straight” check, but it’s too late. I hit the water, SMACK, in a left leaning, almost seated position.

As I sink deeper into the river, I’m surprised—and relieved—the pain isn’t excruciating. However, as my descent slows and reverses, the pain registers, and I emerge from the water at full scream. Thank goodness for my lifejacket. I float, squeezing my eyes shut a minute before the pain recedes enough that I can move my legs. At my raft, even through the pain, I enjoy the amusement-park-ride-likeness of my guide pulling me into the raft.

I roll up my board shorts over the back of my left thigh. A woman says it looks like a bluish purple spider web, I guess where my veins exploded on impact. Back at camp when I look, it’s pink. A couple hours into the drive home that night, I ask, “What’s it look like now?” Tim’s jaw drops, his eyes widen and he covers his mouth. All he can say is, “Ohhhhhh” and kind of laugh.

The bruise will be my reminder that I might be too old to do some of the thrilling things I did in my 20s and 30s. Undoubtedly, that belief will fade with the bruise.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Made in Oregon

In May I capped a solo hiking trip to the Northwest by staying with a friend in Oregon. After three days, I said goodbye and drove my rental to the airport for my morning flight home.

Thank goodness I left with plenty of spare time because I used every minute of it.

My boarding pass printed out at the airline’s kiosk, I retrieved a luggage tag for my one bag and dropped it to run through X-ray and be conveyed through to loading.

Not in a hurry, I window shopped before queuing up for screening.

After showing the security guy my boarding pass and ID, I proceeded to the screening conveyors. I pulled two plastic gray bins from the stack and into one placed my GORE-TEX® hooded jacket; my shoes and cell phone went into the other, and I pushed them on their way through screening behind my day pack. Then, in socks, I proceeded through the walk-through X-ray. I passed without incident and turned to retrieve my shoes etc. from the conveyor. A guard holding my day pack asked if it were mine. I said it was.

“You have a couple jars of jam in here that we can’t let you through with.”

Ugh. Earlier at a Portland mall my friend and I visited a store called Made in Oregon, where I bought the jams: one for Mom and one for my mother-in-law for Mother’s Day. And, what made me feel stupid was that my friend had just told me about something similar that happened to her with BBQ sauce as she lay over at the Memphis airport.

“Gather you other belongings and I’ll escort you out,” the guard said to me. “Maybe you can catch your checked bag and stick them in there.”

If only I hadn’t shopped for 10 minutes, I thought.

My suspicions were right: My bag was long gone. The lady at the baggage X-ray suggested I ask a ticketing agent for a little box and check the jams as another piece of luggage. Again, I had my doubts at the possibility.
I explained my predicament, and the ticketing agent said, “That’ll be $25.” The jams themselves were only $13 so I passed on that solution.

Dejected, I walked to screening. I asked the security guy checking my boarding pass and ID if he liked jam. He did, he said, but was not permitted to accept gifts from travelers. Another security fellow heard me and said he’d be happy to dispose of the jams for me (wink-wink). I pulled them from the bottom of my day pack, and the big jam fan saw that they were from Made in Oregon.

“Why don’t you return them there,” he said, pointing behind me to a Made in Oregon store, “and buy them back at the store that’s after screening?”

I loved that idea!
Even though it was a food return—and the store doesn’t take food returns—and I didn’t have a receipt, the lady at the counter processed my return because of my unique circumstance.

Satisfied that the simple solution seemed to be settled, I strode to screening a second time. Oh, wait; actually, at that point, it was my third time. Once again, I removed my shoes, jacket and cell phone. And again, after I passed through the personal X-ray, I saw a security guard with my day pack. Into a phone she spoke: “Supervisor to line 7.” My shoes, phone and jacket were held back, and people behind me were diverted to other lines.

What now?

The supervisor arrived within seconds, and I heard “spent casing.”

Several years ago Dad gave me a spent bullet casing to use as a safety whistle when hiking alone. Blowing across the casing like a bottle opening produces a loud, high whistle. I’ve wondered how wise it is to travel with it, but it’s gone through screening several times. That was the first time a screener honed in on it.

Eventually the rest of my things came through, and a guard, the supervisor and I met—with my pack—off to the side. As the guard scanned the contents of my pack with a special wand, I told the supervisor how ironic this all was because recently published in The ASA Newletter (Applied Science and Analysis, Inc.) was an article I’d written on passenger profiling and the unreliability of screening technologies.

My pack passed the guard’s inspection, he handed me the casing and ran the pack through X-ray one more time.

Cleared for takeoff, I gave the supervisor a business card as he’d expressed interest in reading my article. With my phone in my pocket and my jacket and pack on my back, I hustled to Made in Oregon to re-buy the jams. Too bad the store didn’t sell whistles. I’m getting rid of the casing.