It all started on Highway 12, by mile marker 180.
After a rainy night of camping and a breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, and a bottled coffee drink from PCC, we had arrived at the rafting site near the Tieton River, near Yakima, Washington. Camping hadn’t gone exactly as planned. I’d borrowed a tent and sleeping bag from my dad, but hadn’t asked about a tarp. We didn’t think about the possibility of camping in the rain, since Eastern Washington is usually dry, unlike Seattle.
Not taking a tarp was our big mistake. The sides of the tent were wet and the rain wasn’t letting up. So we slept in my Honda Civic, which actually went pretty well. The front seats are more comfortable to sleep in than I thought.
It was my first time rafting, and the first time I’d gone camping in two years. Although I’d hiked a trail at Mt. Rainier last summer, I hadn’t done many outdoor activities lately… dating a bicyclist doesn’t count.
I felt out of place, but my friend and I were both first timers, so we told ourselves “Here goes nothing…” and signed the release forms at the white tent the rafting company had set up. We both smiled when we saw four college girls who looked slightly more clueless than we were. With the borrowed synthetic pants, I thought I presented the illusion that I knew what I was doing. I’m sure it wasn’t convincing.
I was nervous as I pulled a damp, cool wetsuit over my clothes. By the time I received my helmet, life jacket and what I called a “rain slicker,” I was excited but very anxious. Would I fall out of the raft? When was the last time I went swimming… 2003 maybe?
Riding in the old yellow school bus on the way to the launch site, I noticed the bus driver’s old marathon t-shirt. His curly hair peaked out from underneath a weathered baseball cap. It wasn’t until we shuffled off the bus that I noticed the purple polish on his toenails. It added to my romanticized idea of what rafting life was like. I tried to imagine what it would it be like to wear a wetsuit or board shorts to work, instead of my standard jeans and black flats or boots. I imagined the pace of life was slower. I envisioned a life of riverside camp fires, and a wardrobe entirely from REI, the outdoor store where I’d climbed “the Pinnacle” twice and purchased my three rain jackets.
After hearing about the “river position,” the desirable position to take in the event you fell out of the raft, we divided into groups of 5 or 6, and practiced our paddling. Our guide explained that it was important to just start paddling when she commanded, then try to adopt the same rhythm as the other rafters. Not having much upper body strength, I was nervous that I’d be exhausted long before the end of our 3 hours on the river.
The river was shallow and not very wide, a category III, which meant the current moved pretty quickly. We rafted on the river through the canyon, an entirely different view than what we’d seen from the highway and our campsite. We paddled intermittently, at the commands of our guide, and avoided rocks, pools, and the two big obstacles called “High Noon” and “Waffle Wall.” The names sounded like something from the Old West or a Super Mario Brothers Nintendo game.
Our guide, Nikki, a mother of two girls, got certified in 1986. She’d married another rafting guide, and we’d meet her husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 9, at our lunch site. After almost two hours on the river, we got out of the raft and warmed up with hot tea around a campfire. They’d prepared a delicious lunch of warm roasted vegetables, chicken, salad and corn on the cob.
By lunchtime I was invigorated. I wasn’t completely inept on the river. I felt a sense of accomplishment after feeling the resistance of the river when I paddled. No one from our raft had fallen into the river, although two people had falled out of the other two rafts in our group. I’d surprised myself, which is a pretty good feeling.
At the take out point, we hoisted the raft on our shoulders and carried it over the river’s bank to the trailer. After pouring what felt like two inches of water from the boots, I peeled off the wetsuit and immediately regretted that I hadn’t brought towels, but at least we had dry clothes. We rinsed our wetsuits in the river and gave them to our guide’s daughters, who used paddles to stir the suits in makeshift laundry buckets.
We stopped at a fruit stand along the highway before we reached Yakima, at a Starbucks in Ellensburg, and we reached Seattle by 8 pm. We were home from the adventure.