“It’s not Disneyland,” our rafting guide Tom said after I thanked him again and tipped him. He was referring to the French Broad River, specifically Section 9, between Barnard and Stackhouse. Some of this river was running inside me as Catherine and I drove back to Hot Springs and tried to make sense of what had just happened.
She had rafted whitewater before, as had I, and we had both chuckled over the release form that mentioned the possibility of death, paralysis, and serious injury. Section nine is generally referred to as “intermediate,” its rapids not as big or complicated as the Ocoee or the Gauley.
Tom’s appearance ran counter to the scruffy, vagabond raft guide stereotype. He looked about my age (50s), and he was cleanshaven. No hippie swagger. He seemed like he might be a trout fisherman, that he might have a mortgage. I’d been hoping we’d get the skinny hippie kid, who had the longest hair, or Jason, the wise-cracking trip leader with the frizzy red pony tail and scraggly beard who stood at the front of the school bus shuttle and delivered a monologue on the passing landmarks. “There’s Beauty Salon, where she does three hair styles: the Mohawk, the mullet, or the combo.”
Tom, I speculated to Catherine, was a retired journalist who was learning the trade of raft guiding as an antidote to city council and school board meetings.
When he found out he had three teachers in his boat, he ribbed us mercilessly, just revenge, he said, for all the troubles he’d had in school. The middle school science teacher couldn’t tell backwards from forwards, according to Tom. When he caught me winking at Catherine as he described the course of this river to the Tennessee and beyond, he said, “You know something about rivers, professor?”
I confessed to paddling a bit but not much whitewater.
“I guess you know then, that the Tennessee flows north, like the French Broad.”
The French Broad, he told us, was the third oldest river in the world, behind the Nile and the New River. There had been two Broad rivers at one time, and this one was complemented with the adjective because of the nation that occupied this part of the country a few centuries ago.
Our boat had six adults, and the other five boats in the group included a child or two in their crew. Tom complained about having to wait on the others, and after about 15 minutes on the water, we considered ourselves the most advanced crew in our group.
When the whole group stopped to jump off a rock, most of our crew declined, thinking perhaps that we wouldn’t get wet on this trip because we were negotiating each rapid with such ease. As we approached the entrance to each run, Tom would tell us how we planned to run it. Our job was to paddle forward, paddle backward, or stop when he said so. Another thing we were supposed to do: lean when he commanded it.
Catherine and I were in the front of the raft. As we approached “S turn,” I was pretty sure that Tom meant to bounce off the big rock on my side. Bounce we did, and I thought, no big deal, until I went flying, landed underwater, and stayed there for a time.
When I surfaced, Catherine was a ways downstream from me, and the skinny hippie kid stood up in his raft and threw her a rope, a perfect strike from 20 yards. There was a lot of yelling (“Swim toward the boat!”) and maneuvering. I kept my feet up as I was told and I hung onto my paddle and somebody else’s. I really didn’t understand the urgency of it all. The water was a comfortable temperature.
There was Tom, next to a rock on the left bank, flipping our raft right side up and hauling aboard three of our crew, including Catherine.
Jason hoisted me into his raft and then pulled a couple of other people in on top of me. There was panic in the wisecracker’s voice when he shouted, “I’m overloaded!” And we started going faster toward something, but all I could see was the bottom of the raft and other people’s lower extremities.
The source of his panic was pillow rock, the next rapid, which was upon us as I was treading water wondering what all the commotion was about. Swimming through pillow rock rapid, Tom later told me, would not have been fun.
Once we were all safe and back in our proper boats, the other guides were merciless in their kidding of Tom. They told him that the pictures of the spill/rescue would be displayed on the wall of shame back at the outpost. “What happened, Tom?’ they kept saying over and over. I started to feel a little sorry for him.
At our lunch stop, Jason explained that it had been 10 years since Tom had flipped a raft, that he had guided on the river for 32 years, longer than anybody else. Our capsizing and flailing in the water was historical in its rarity.
Tom was a little quieter for the rest of the run—which included more Class III rapids—but he did not let our mishap affect his confidence or decisiveness. The rest of our runs were immaculate, and we still went through first in the group so that we could watch as the others got stuck on the rocks or turned
Tom didn’t blame us for the spill. He did allude to an order to lean at one point, which neither Catherine nor I heard. No matter. Having swum and ingested part of Section 9 gave us a respect for this “intermediate” river and its unpredictability, as well as a good story with some mystery at its center. I doubt a day at Splash Country would be as enlightening, though I could be wrong.