Wet ‘n’ Wild: A Whitewater Trip on the Arkansas River | Spencer McKee | Guide to summer fun

“Remember, if you fall off the raft, put your feet up and move forward as fast as you can. If you don’t, a foot could get caught between underwater rocks and that’s one of the ways people die.

Already opting to don a life jacket and helmet as I stood on the banks of the Arkansas River, I tried to follow the many whitewater rafting scenarios that seemed to end in probable death, as the river guide was giving a warning speech which he had clearly given on several occasions.

“I’ve never lost anyone on a river trip, but I know guides who have. I know guides who have died,” he continued. “These are serious things and things can go from good to bad quickly.”

I knew the warnings were necessary, though I couldn’t help but notice how each hypothetical situation seemed to tighten the knot forming in my stomach. I had never been comfortable around water, but being in Colorado, I knew I had to try whitewater rafting at least once.

A comforting fact was knowing everyone on board. I had faith in their athletic abilities and had faith that someone would have the strength to get me back into the raft if I fell.

I was sitting at the front of the raft, in a place that can be crucial for navigation. As one of two rafters at the bow, those seated behind me would follow my lead as the guide shouted commands and assisted with steering from an elevated seat aft.

This turned out to be my first misconception – that the guide did most of the work. While the guide directs and directs, the physicality of the rowing rests with the group. The guide controls don’t do much if the group isn’t following.

Soon we were off, floating down the river at a surprisingly relaxed pace with no rapids in sight. This turned out to be my second misconception – that the whole trip is bumpy. While this may be the case on some rivers, our Arkansas guided trip featured brief sections of serious rapids, with long, calm sections in between, providing much-needed mental and physical breaks.

When we reached the first whitewater section, our team navigated smoothly with guidance from our guide, who seemed to know the location of every rock below the surface of the water. As we walked past different features, it pointed them out, including ones named after the lives the feature had claimed.

As the trip continued, we enjoyed several relaxing sections reminiscent of a lazy river at an amusement park, interrupted by brief and sudden moments of turbulence. The water level was high at the time, allowing us to navigate many features that might have been obstacles in a year with less runoff.

I quickly became more comfortable with whitewater, proving my third misconception – that I would fall off the raft a lot.

My only prior knowledge of the sport came from discussions with experienced friends. They had talked about wild rapids, often sharing terrifying moments when rafts overturned and a group got separated. Throughout our journey, however, I never felt like I was in danger of falling off the raft. With a good guide, a dedicated crew, and the right river conditions, this event seemed less likely than most would believe.

Although I wouldn’t recommend white water rafting to everyone, those who are physically fit and comfortable around the water will definitely find the experience exciting. But keep in mind that this activity can be deadly, often regardless of experience level.

As with any extreme sport, participants should proceed with caution, respecting their abilities and using a guide when their own skills and knowledge are lacking.


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