Powering into waves, thrown together in the front of the raft, Carmen's head is in my lap. I am back up in time to smack into a wave, water socked into my sinuses. My paddle blade grabs air, then river. Oars rack against their lock. Froth, rock, froth, and the silken tongue of a massive wave leading to a crest that bursts over our heads We slow into an eddy joining flotsam of kayaks and other rafts seeking shelter Time enough to breathe. Time enough to wait as two kayaks spin back into the current to scout ahead. We watch as they pop in and out of sight, engulfed, spit back up and slung around the bend.
The radio is silent. Three minutes pass. Then five minutes.
A head shakes no.
We have nowhere to go but down, sandwiched into rapid, clapped into a stone vault. Ten minutes pass. Maybe they're dead. Maybe it's a waterfall like the villagers warned. Or maybe the kayaks just don't know what to say to us, what kind of advice to offer. Either way, we're in.
Jason: "What do you think, Brock?"
Brock, looking strained: "Run hard left."
Jason: "It's going to be harder than it looks."
Then no one talks. We listen to the bass notes of water grabbing lungfuls of air and punching them to the floor. Radio silence makes it seem like we're on the dark side of the moon. Fifteen minutes.
The radio crackles. Travis has a labyrinth of orders. People scramble, ropes untied, life vests cinched.
Jason shouts with boat-captains authority, "Everyone got their lines? Smiles everyone. Vomit now if you need to."
Back in the current, if you want to call it that. There are few solid obstacles at this high water level, only hydraulics and a few bedroom-sized boulders fallen into the river. In the thick of it I hear Jason beside me shouting, HANG ON! Only, Jason is not in my boat. I glance up to see his raft on a higher current jacked skyward, about to flip end over end. It looks like he's going to land on us. But he is not my business.
My business suddenly buries my head in a wave. When we blow out the other side, Kristen is yelling DIG! I'm already digging, blade as deep as I can reach down a rollercoaster drop, all the momentum possible to get up the other side. One foot to my left and three feet to my right are towers of water, mud-brown explosion. We slip into the gap and claw with paddle and oar toward on eddy on the right. It's a dangerous sanctuary full of down-heaves and ludicrous spins, sucking under a raft tube as we leap to highside. Finally, we touch rock, rope goes out, foot on stone, tie us to a boulder.
The next set of instructions comes off the radio, a tangle of lefts, rights, and do not go into the hole. It turns out to be much longer and more complicated once we are in. Holes line up barking and sucking. Which hole was he talking about. Where is left, right? We barely skirt a dark, garbling maw in the river. I leap backwards for a better grip, more muscle in my paddle. I can't see where we're going. All I have is Kristen's face as she braces the oars. Her eyes are white circles, pupils driven like daggers. She looks exactly like Tibetan paintings of wild demons guarding the gateway to the underworld, eyes that could tear through stone. She disappears in a sheet of mud-water. The raft kicks sideways and all I see is the crack of the sky.
In the lead raft, Eric has been thrown from the oars and is dragging through the water gripped to a strap on the frame. Behind us, the sweep raft goes vertical on a wave, nearly flips. The next eddy is a miracle, all rafts upright, everyone in, kayaks assembled like a troop of bees. Six miles of a single rapid is behind us. In the water, round as the shell of a turtle, is a boulder carved into the ancient message: om mani padme hum. A great white pincushion stands over us bearing poles of prayer flags.
Rapid #8: Everyone is asking how are you going to run it? Left, center, or right. Jason gives in at 80 percent chance of flipping, the way a big central wave behaves erratically lifting high before its back suddenly breaks under its own weight with enough force to bowl over a freight engine. I am with Brock, the only person who has no decided approach. He say's he'll make up his mind as he enters the huge, buckling wave. He is the one I trust most at this moment, pure intuition. The moment I met him, I thought, now here's a man I would give my life to. He pulls hard into the current, turns to face downstream and sets up at the last second to center-punch the wave, by far the most dangerous approach. "Hey-diddle-diddle," he chants. "Right down the middle."
It is all timing, and none of it can be controlled as he leans his body into the oars and the wave builds into a mountain before us. It is far too steep for us to climb without the raft toppling backwards. At that moment, as if on cue, the crest rolls down on itself smooth as marble, then crashes at the nose of the raft. Like an arrow through an apple, Brock drives us through the opening, and not a splash touches my face.
Rapid # 9: It does not have the timing and mechanical grace of the last one. Brock has no incantations for it. Just run it and hope. There is a chundering mass of water in the center where the whole river seems to fall into itself. Waves T-bone into each other. Kayakers head in first. At the center of the chaos and upraised paddle sheets across the water like a shark fin, the rest of the paddler and the kayak well below the surface.
Brock tries to get around the side, by the river says no. It sends us unto the center where we glide over a smooth whale's back and down into the madness, oars thrown back against their locks. Waves are going off like fireworks, no idea where the next one will explode. Behind us the yellow raft flips, landing belly-up. Whistles blow. Swimmers are in the water. We can't see what's downstream where this rapid turns out of sight. Everything is fast, kayakers shooting in, throw lines in hand waiting for targets to appear. One of the swimmer, Chinese, holds the back of a kayak, slides by us. I reach in and grab the shoulders of his life vest. One, two, three, I yank him in and we land together on the floor.
Next, we've got our hands on the capsized raft, but we can't secure it before we fall into a street of high, breaking waves. Brocks tarts yelling, "Push it away! Get it away from us!"
Kayaks tumble around us and we all fly through a brief, smaller rapid, out the other side. Between boils and eddies, we pick up everyone while Chris and Travis power their kayaks into the raft, driving it to shore.
Half an hour later, we are back on the river, nothing to it.
(Photo: Kyle George www.kylegeorgephotography.com)