When I came west and bought my car, my brother found me a free roof box to put on top. It bore a mysterious sticker that said, “Save the Clavey.” It felt wrong to drive around with a sticker that meant nothing to me, so I started scraping it off. Besides, the Clavey, my brother said, had long since been saved. But I hadn’t succeeded in removing very much of the mysterious sticker when the opportunity arose for me to go on a high-water Tuolumne River trip.
For those not as deeply immersed as I in the whitewater rafting community, the Tuolumne at high water is extremely gnarly, or as it was described to me, “a gnarly river of epicness.” There are some gnarlier, like the upper portion of the Tuloumne known as Cherry Creek (15 consecutive Class V rapids), or the section of the Cal Salmon called, forbiddingly, Nordheimer, or the Futaleufu down in Chile, but the bulk of my rafting to date had occurred on the Rogue, a “family river.” While my list of gnarly river experiences was slowly but surely growing and did include the Upper K(lamath), the Butler Creek section of the Cal Salmon and the gnarliest feats I could muster on the family rivers I did indeed raft with my family, the Tuolumne at high water would be by far the gnarliest river I’d rafted yet. Its biggest rapid is Clavey Falls, where the Clavey river comes in.
This was in 2011, a high-water year. The Tuolumne–and most rivers–were running at record-high flows. It was going to be extra gnarly. Uber-gnarly. Ever since I’d gotten the email about the space on the trip, my heart had been pounding at the thought of it.
The night before, I arrived at the pre-trip meeting late. By coincidence, the passengers on this trip were the same ones I had rafted with the previous summer—a group of American businessmen who had met in Japan and married Japanese women. Every summer the wives would take the children to Japan for cultural immersion and the men would take bro trips together. Last summer there had been five of them. This year there were ten. They were referred to by the guides as “the businessmen with the Japanese wives.”
“Emily!” chorused the businessmen with the Japanese wives.
“Guys!” I exclaimed.
I was so happy to see the businessmen with the Japanese wives again, and the guides I knew from before. The mere sight of their suntans and visors meant that gnarly epicness was imminent.
There was only one other chick, a female guide named Becky, besides the four male guides and ten male passengers. I tried to increase my testosterone production to begin the bonding process and meet the gnarliness of river with appropriate aggression.
The pre-trip meeting resumed. “What about our day bags?” someone was asking, meaning the smaller of the two waterproof bags each passenger is normally issued.
“This isn’t the pussy Rouge, okay,” said a muscular bear of a guide. “You don’t get day bags.”
That had to be Alan. In part, I’d come on this trip to meet Alan. For several years I’d heard tell of him and his antics. Alan had played so many pranks on other guides by untying their boats that he had to tie his own boat up with a secret length of special weighted rope no one could see to protect himself from retaliation. Alan had a camo dry bag that people would hide in the bushes, just to watch Alan freak out. Alan was a wrestler and rugby player who left people voicemails that simply said, “Call me, you pussy!” But Alan was also very sensitive and wrote his girlfriends poetry. “I want to meet Alan!” I’d say, when I heard these stories. “Then you have to raft the Tuolumne,” I’d be told. If the river fulfilled my expectations as much as Alan just had, then I was in for a wild ride.
I went back to the guide house after the pre-trip, where I’d sleep in my car before we left the next morning at dawn. The whole Toloumne crew was on an eight-day stretch of back-to-back trips, meaning they’d come off the river that afternoon and would go right back out the next morning. The lone female guide, Becky, was a dancer as petite as Alan was burly. In order to assess how much gear remained in the truck, Alan simply hoisted Becky over his head and placed her on top. Aside from Alan and Becky, there was Tyler, the rangy lead guide I knew from several other river trips, Isaiah, who managed the company and, I was repeatedly reminded, disapproved of dope-smokers, and Ricky, who had a bad case of poison oak and seemed subdued.
When I asked if I could help, Alan told me to re-pack the repair kit. Everything in the repair kit was wet, I realized, because the boat it had been in had flipped. In fact, Tyler informed me, three boats had flipped on the previous trip. “I swam a priest,” he said ruefully.
I went to sleep in my car. Or rather, I hardly went to sleep in my car. I was really working myself up, getting scared of flipping and swimming a bigger rapid than I’d ever swum before. I told myself, as I always do when I am scared of some new wilderness experience, that these guys wouldn’t bring us all out on this river if they thought we would die. No one wanted that. This was a commercial river trip. They had liability insurance. If they were doing it, it must be safe. If I was scared of it, that probably meant it would be amazing. Nothing I had been scared of doing had turned out not to be amazing, and everything scary that had ever happened had caught me completely by surprise.
Still, I didn’t have to go, I told myself. I could just stay here in the car, and when the dawn came and all the guides got in their truck to go, I could just wave at them and stay back here and…do what? Read a book instead? This was truly unfathomable to me. The only thing to do was to get in the boat. Once you got in the boat there was only one way out, which was down the river, in the boat, out of the boat or some combination of the two. And so I lay there in the back of my car, only half-sleeping, waking hourly to look at the full moon, feeling the dew condensing on the foot of my sleeping bag. I’d set the alarm for 5:30. At 5:25 I woke for the final time, then rolled over and shut my eyes tight. I will sleep for five minutes that will feel like five hours, I willed myself. The ubiquitous default iPhone “Marimba” ringtone heralded the end of that failed experiment.
But I had forgotten about a great aspect of river rafting, which is that it takes so many hours to set up and load the boats that if you were nervous about the rafting, by the time it was time to actually raft you’d have long since forgotten your fear. River rafting and traveling musicianship are alike in that they both involve talents I do not innately possess and long drives punctuated by the wrangling of unwieldy gear, all in service to fleeting and highly addictive moments of ecstasy.
The water was so high that the regular road down to the put-in had washed out. The gear had to be loaded onto ATVs and driven down to the river by an alternate route. This took up the magical early hours of the day. Then Ricky and I hiked two miles downhill to the put-in, and they all started rigging the boats while Tyler picked up the businessmen with the Japanese wives. At the put-in, I tried to be helpful but mostly just took turns sitting on different guides’ boats and chatting with them while they rigged them. Alan and I got into a good-natured political argument, then reconciled by showing each other all the stickers on our respective ammo cans.
At this flow, the Tuolumne was rafted only in oar-paddle combos, or OPCs. The guides rowed while the guests paddled. Isaiah told me that he’d have me paddle in his boat, and he figured I was at least as strong as two of the businessmen, so I would paddle alone on the right side of his boat against two of them on the left. This extra degree of responsibility and challenge took my mind off any worries I might have had by making me feel competitive and anxious to prove myself.
The businessmen with the Japanese wives came hiking down the hill. A few of them looked really scared. They started asking me if I was scared. Of course not, I insisted. This was going to be awesome! I had learned from the river guides that if anything seemed like it might be scary you should instead insist it was going to be awesome. Then, if something happened that looked like it had been scary you should also insist that that, too, had been awesome.
Now I was using this psychology on the businessmen with the Japanese wives. I was relieved that there were people on the trip more scared than I. Their fear was distracting me from my own fear.
The only thing that can alleviate my fear of doing something is doing it. The moment we entered the first rapid, I felt only pure joy.
What had I been afraid of? Gnarliness? Epicness? There was no point in being afraid of this glorious fast-moving water and the wild ride it offered. Was there anything more calming or fun than paddling in the midst of roaring foaming whitewater? Was there any place I would rather be than here, anything I would rather see, hear, smell, taste and feel than the motion of this river, anyone I would rather be with than the lanky river guide, the burly river guide, the compact, serious red-haired river guide, the tiny, strong dancer river guide, the river guide who was getting over a case of poison oak and as a result didn’t talk much, and the businessmen with the Japanese wives?
I loved the sound of Isaish’s voice calling paddle commands. I loved working as a team with the businessmen. I loved the way the raft almost blundered down the river, inelegantly thumping along, even when we executed everything perfectly.
We went through rapids named Rock Garden, Nemesis, Ram’s Head and Evangelist. Appropriately forbidding as the names of these rapids were, there existed, in my imagination, the gnarliest rapid of all. It was called Hellhole Toilet Bowl. Whenever I was afraid of a rapid, I told myself that at least it wasn’t Hellhole Toilet Bowl. When I sometimes asked if there really was such a rapid, the guides would say, “Do you mean Satan’s Cesspool? Hell’s Corner?” But I meant neither. I meant Hellhole Toilet Bowl. However big and scary and thrilling any rapid might be, it was not Hellhole Toilet Bowl.
The promised gnarliness was delivered, and so passed the heat of the day.
We stopped to camp on the Clavey River. About a hundred yards downstream we could see the spurts and spits of the very top of Clavey Falls. Its quiet roar was everywhere. After my sleepless night and adrenaline-soaked day, I felt like a kid who’d had too much excitement and needed a nap. I dipped in a calm part of the river and sat down at the confluence of the Clavey and the Tuolumne to write in my notebook. Confluences had special energy. Maybe I could harness it. I wrote four sentences and fell into a hard, drooling sleep.
I awoke at dinnertime to schmooze and mingle. There was a strange social structure at work on the trip. The businessmen with the Japanese wives were all married, obviously. They were slightly too old for me to date and yet much closer to my own age than my dad’s. But I was the only female, besides the extremely tough, petite dancer river guide, that they could talk to. By my very presence, I was at the center of a gentle hurricane of benign male attention from exactly the type of men in whom I had zero to negative sexual interest—those who shave regularly and spend most of their days in button-down shirts and possibly even ties.
It’s not that I’m narrow-minded. It’s just that anyone who willingly slips the silken noose of capitalism around his neck on a daily basis and pulls the knot tight probably does not share my values or hobbies.
The businessmen and I really didn’t have much in common, besides rafting. I liked talking to them. I tried to find areas of overlap. Between them, they worked at every major corporation I’d ever heard of–Xerox, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon.
“I Xerox! I use Microsoft Word! I have a Mac! I order from Amazon all the time!”
Perhaps while somewhat inebriated on a previous trip with these businessmen I had made some vague, grandiose comments about anarchy. I dimly remembered demanding that a boatload of them create “a business plan for anarchy” as we paddled through some flatwater on a family river. I dimly remembered them obliging.
In the morning, there was a natural flow of energy toward the approaching Clavey Falls. As the morning wore on past coffee, breakfast, the line for the crapper and the packing of the whole operation, there was a kind of literal and metaphorical gathering. The objects all over the camp were gathered into the bags and boxes. The bags and boxes went onto the boats. The bare flesh of torsos by turns hairy, oak-rashed, sunburnt and smooth was wrestled into neoprene, then zipped into life jackets. The energy we had spread around this river confluence solidified in our bellies.
As soon as we pulled away from the shore we’d paddle right into Clavey Falls. What are my chances of swimming it? I asked Isaiah. About 70/30, he said. Seventy percent swim? I said. Seventy percent not-swim, he said. I took comfort in this and tried to make my peace with 30-percent swim. I knew from my previous swims that swimming rapids could be scary. Just how scary was hard to say. It was like being caught in a wave in the ocean, except with the added risk of hitting rocks, getting sucked into a hole and not coming out, and—worst case scenario—getting snagged or stuck on or under something, or simply pinned underwater by the force of the river and drowning. The odds were very high that you would “flush out” of any rapid you swam, but not flushing out was the thing to fear. The river guides carried knives in their life vests to cut themselves free of ropes at the last minute. But they had all agreed that if you were tangled, the odds of being able to access the knife and use it while beating the clock of your dwindling oxygen supply were slim. The stories of people dying on river trips almost always involved two factors: 1) lack or improper use of the life vest and 2) jumping in after pet dogs. The dogs always lived, even when the people died.
I had swum a few rapids before. Once, my ducky had flipped in a Class III. It wasn’t a bad swim, but I inhaled some water and choked for most of it. Also, my parents had been there and bearing witness to their fear and concern made it worse. Another time, I had flipped in Mule Creek Canyon, also Class III, after a bipolar teen with whom I was sharing a ducky had deliberately paddled us into a hole. That had all happened very quickly. He and I righted our boat and flung ourselves back in before anything scary had happened. And the other time I had swum I had taken a ducky over the middle chute of a small waterfall that paying guests were not allowed to paddle. My brother was taking his ducky over the main chute of the waterfall, so my own feat seemed instantly smaller. We had both flipped and swum in the same hole at the bottom. I had not been scared then, but I was scared now.
As we pulled away from the shore I tasted something bitter and metallic in my dry mouth. I could hear my heart like the sound effect in a movie, feel the blood pound in the capillaries of all twenty digits. My muscles were so taut I understood viscerally why people said meat wasn’t good unless the animal died relaxed.
I couldn’t just sit back and survive this. I’d have to propel myself through it. They always said that the motion of paddling kept you in the raft, and that everyone paddling kept the raft upright. This was what I liked best about rafting, the participation and teamwork, the roller-coaster slowness of it. The approach of a rapid you could hear but not see. The slow changing of the vista, the revelation of the rapid through your progress toward it. The stretching of time, the perception of each individual frame of the 24 frames per second that spool between the sprockets of birth and death. The relief comes for me not at the end but right in the middle, when I realize not that it’s over but that it’s underway, not that I’ve survived it but that I am surviving it; not that I am merely surviving it but that I am experiencing it.
Rapids of this size caused involuntary whooping during and afterwards.
“So, that hole back there looked pretty big,” said one of the businessmen.
“That hole’s a mankiller,” said Isaiah. “People have died in there.” This was what I never understood about river rafting, or any of the so-called extreme sports I’ve taken up in the West. As soon as I decide that something is perfectly safe and there is no reason to fear it, I find out it is actually not perfectly safe and there is every reason to fear it.
A few rapids later, Isaiah mentioned that this was a good rapid to swim. I wanted to feel the power of this gnarly river of epicness from the water. I straddled the outside of the raft and was in the middle of taking a deep, preparatory breath when the raft lurched and I fell in, a half-second before I had been intending to jump. A wave washed right into my open mouth and I started my swim with a lungful of water instead of air.
I spat out the water and got a good breath. I knew to breathe in the troughs of the waves, not the crests. The river moved so fast. It was so much faster than it looked to be from above. The only way understand the speed and motion of the river was to get in it.
I washed up near Tyler’s boat. The guys in it were all worried, they thought I’d fallen in. The guys in my own boat were all excited. It turned out that after I’d jumped into the river the boat had nearly flipped.
That night I tried, without meaning to, to match Alan, who was more than twice my weight, drink-for-drink. Also, occupying a strange liminal zone between guide and guest, I found myself consuming beers both down by the boats with the guides and up in the campsite with the businessmen. I may have been awash in adrenaline, testosterone and gnarliness but this had no effect on my ability to metabolize alcohol. Let’s not dwell on the outcome but appreciatively acknowledge that it was the one other female on the trip who kindly removed my adventure sandals when she found me down for the count with my shoes on. Before I got totally obliterated I dimly remembered helping her to bake an apple pie while she told me how she had come to be the only female on the Tuolumne crew. My only regret was that I missed the river sauna, and the opportunity to mingle my sweat with that of the businessmen with the Japanese wives, my brothers in oars.
In the morning we hiked up the river to a beautiful swimming hole, where there were giant jumping rocks and a waterslide. I draped myself on a sun-warmed rock to recover, sad and relieved that there were no more giant rapids to tangle with today.
Hiking back down the river I found myself alone with and feeling slightly responsible for a guy named Tommy. He was the only businessman whose wife wasn’t Japanese. Though he had repeatedly asked probing questions about my dating life for the entirety of the trip, there was something simple and almost childlike about him, not creepy.
Picking over the rocks, Tommy announced that he had never been camping before.
“Well, you picked a good place to start,” I said.
“I guess you camp all the time,” said Tommy, “when you’re living in your car.”
As it had for the last 48 hours, conversation predictably soon found its way to my sex life.
“So when you bring guys home,” asked Tommy, “what do you say? Do you say, ‘Want to go back to my car?'”
“I do have a tent,” I said. “But if it’s not raining, I generally prefer to sleep outside, under the stars.”
I watched Tommy process this information.
“What’s the craziest place you’ve ever had sex?” he asked. I happened to have an excellent answer to this question.
“Not too far from here, actually, on the yellow line in the middle of Highway 120.”
“Wow,” said Tommy.
“What’s the craziest place you’ve ever had sex?” I asked, since we were sharing.
“An old girlfriend of mine was very kind to me on a New York City bus once,” he said. “It was only oral, though.”
“Oral counts,” I said, encouragingly.
“Do you think when you’re married your husband will want to know about all the things you did before you were with him?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess that depends on if I ever get married and who I marry if I do.”
“Well,” said Tommy, “Whoever he is, he’ll just be lucky to have you.”
That was a nice thing to say to a single lady currently living alternately in or next to her car whose most recent feat had been to fall in the river and then surreptitiously puke in it.
When the trip was over and I returned to the car I was alternately living in or next to, I found that everything in a container had exploded because of the July heat. The backseat floor mat was soaked with laundry detergent and many ounces of expensive hair conditioner were splattered all over the trunk. The car, I now realized, was slathered in bear-baiting scents as I myself was now headed even deeper into bear country. I was on my way to meet my personal marine biologist in Kings Canyon for a backpacking trip. This seemed just further proof that the things we worry about are rarely the things that get us in the end. I had just finished worrying about swimming or drowning in the river and now here came the bears.
I decided to leave the “Save the Clavey” sticker on the roof box after all, because it felt good that at least one bumper-sticker plea had actually come true and because the saved Clavey had saved me from the only thing we have to fear, which is, of course, fear itself.