My last trip down the Hudson River for the 2012 season was a monumentally memorable! The trip started like any other trip. I had two groups of people in my boat. One couple who was on their first date together (didn’t find that out till much later in the day), and some other people who were part of a bigger group spread over 2 boats.
Through the course of the day I had let them know I have just started a new teaching job and this was my last rafting trip of the season. The last trip of my 21st season guiding, which is the year that marks half my life as a white water raft guide. From here on I will have been guiding for more than half my life. I was almost 21 when I started guiding down in West Virginia on the mighty (humble) Shenandoah River.
By lunch time, the sun had disappeared and a chill had set in, not unusual for this time of year. I passed out warm dry layers ( hats, gloves, and shirts) that will keep my guests warm even after the fabric gets wet. The rain and wind managed to hold off till near then end of the trip, at least until we are out of the gorge. The last three miles of the trip are a couple of small and short shallow rapids with long flat water stretches in between.
The rain started with a whisper of a breeze and a drizzle of drops. It stayed this way long enough to make us believe we had missed the heart of the storm that had been predicted for this area. Then, much later, to make it a little bit exciting, some not too loud thunder lumbered down a neighboring valley. We paddled a little faster but still assumed that the worst had missed us.
We were less than a mile from the take out, just upstream of the last bend before the road comes into view, when we looked downstream and beheld an angry grey fog quickly descending the mountains, engulfing the valley with a shroud of thickening boiling darkness, blocking everything from view. We stopped paddling and watched it advance mercilessly toward us. I glanced up stream at the boats behind us and saw that had also noticed then phenomenon. I looked back downstream at the approaching grey wall. A woman asked, with awe in her voice, “what is that?” I answered grinning maniacally ( I was overcome by the breathtaking power of mother nature) “It’s the rain baby! Hold on, it’s gonna hit us hard!”
All was absolute silent for a brief moment, then it slammed into us. A physical force. The rain was cold and hard with tiny pieces of ice in it. The drops stabbed like needles stinging my bare arms and face and painfully pelting through the thin fabric on my legs. The wind roared ferociously blowing the rain in horizontal waves across the surface of the water. The rain was so thick, I could not see the front of the boat 14 feet away, I could barely see the people sitting two feet from me. It was hard to breath with so much water falling through the air.
I had spun the boat around before it hit us, so our backs were toward the wind. A couple of people screamed, thunder crashed, wind howled, rain thrashed. My guests had all curled up to protect their eyes from the biting raindrops. We were being pushed upstream at an amazing speed. I was sitting up watching it all unfold, my back to the wind to protect my face. I was shouting my praises into the melee, my voice lost in the din. The power was tangible, I grabbed it and held on, soaking as much in as I could. I let the power wash over me, devour me, and take my spirit with it as it flew screaming up the river! I haven’t seen rain and wind like that since high school in Florida when my friends decide to go for a walk on the beach in a hurricane.
Once the initial onslaught was over, my guests sat up to see what I was shouting so excitedly about. We all watched the horizontal waves of rain pursue their demons upstream. I started my crew paddling again, hard. I told them we should get the boat to the shoreline in hopes that the bushes there would offer some sort of shield form the wind. I knew the bushes weren’t tall enough for that, but I also knew that holding onto the bushes on shore would stop our upstream momentum.
After a while, they rain slackened and warmed, we could almost see across the river. Two other boats were in view, one paddling backwards into the wind and making slow progress, the other pushing off the opposite shore to do the same. The wind was still blowing furiously with stronger gusts, the rain still pouring down, but I knew we would get cold just siting there. Now that I could see, I liked the backwards idea I saw, so we did the same.
The progress was slow, but my crew persevered! We paddled backward like that for a long time. At the last little rapid of the trip with take out in sight, the wind slowed enough for me to spin the boat back around forward. By the time we got to take out the rain and wind were steady, but more of the normal variety. My guests were happy to be on solid ground, knowing that warm dry clothes, and warm food were just moments away.
I (who knew my dry clothes were still a long time away) however, was chilled to the bone, chattering teeth, blue lips, the whole shebang. The adrenalin that had warmed me earlier was gone, and I was feeling that effect. I had not had time to put on my paddling jacket before the rain hit. Afterward, I didn’t want to loose any downstream momentum we had fought so hard for by having to stop to put on a jacket.
It is actually a complicated process involving me having to stop paddling, dig in my dry bag for the jacket, fiddle with taking off my PFD and helmet the put the jacket on and then replacing the PFD and helmet, close the dry bag, and resume paddling. Paddle jackets are also hard to get on when your skin is wet because the fabric sticks to you the whole way over your head and as your arms go down the sleeves.
I did put the jacket on once I was on shore so I could help load the rafts onto the flatbed trailer. I did quit shivering, but I did not really get warm until several hours later, after I had been in the car for half an hour with the heat running full blast om my feet and face.
All the way home, and even now, if I turn my eyes inward, I can conjure a fleeting vision of the wind and rain and connect to the vestigial remnant of primal animated power the storm gave me to keep as part of my spirit. A memory for a lifetime!
photos by Stephanie Leonard