August 16, 2009

Getting In the River

OK, enough of this walking along the river, crossing the river, and riding on top of the river. It is time to GET IN.

I dabbled in the river when I took the flooded Shore Trail along the Palisades Interstate Park, and walked barefoot on the Hudson riverbed, but wet feet, smooth rocks, and splashed ankles were merely a tease.

Yesterday, needing an escape from the city after my narrow escape from a city park attack, Edith and I joined the Adventure Society on their bus trip to the Lehigh Valley to go rafting at night down the Lehigh River near Jim Thorpe, PA, with hopes of catching a glimpse of the annual Perseids meteor shower.

I'd never been rafting at all, and water sports terrify me more than those of land and air. I didn't learn to swim until I transferred from Catholic school to public in fourth grade, and as a result had more than one near-drowning incident. Thankfully, now I love to swim, but I think I have made peace only with chlorinated swimming pools inside concrete walls, and not with open natural waterways like rushing rivers or, say, the ocean.

In fact, rafting was one of those adventurous activities that I think most of my friends already had done - including Edith - so once again I had some catching up to do.

After a three hour bus ride brought us to Pocono Whitewater Adventures, at the gateway to the Poconos (also witness to my skydiving and snowmobiling excursions), we got suited up in splash jackets, life preservers, and paddles, and boarded another bus - a muddy, bumpy, water-stained school bus - that brought us to the boat launch on the Lehigh River, a tributary of the Delaware River north of Allentown, through the Lehigh Gorge State Park. Our inflated blue rafts were lined up along the shore, waiting for us to twist our ankles along the shore rocks and push them out to sail.

Twilight was approaching when we launched, outfitted in glow necklaces for when it got darker and we fell (or were pushed/pulled) out of the boats. The crickets had already begun to sing, and the bats' day's-end divebombing dance was in full swing. With about 30 of us total, 5-7 passengers in each boat that silently drifted down the water, we felt surreal, exploring in the dark, better not to see what perils await...

Even at night, especially with the emerging stars above, the river is a scenic one. It's relatively calm with little white water, so to conjure up some excitement, our guides instigated paddle fights, water bucket tosses, and passenger piracy, grabbing girls by the shoulders out of the boats and claiming them as their wenches. Our guide, Todd, was one of the more mild-mannered ones, and made sure we had a fun ride and really got to feel the water beneath us, even letting me hoist up at the front nose of the boat, grab onto a strap, and "ride the bull" over the last patch of rough waves which normally knock people back into the boat. "Way to hold on!" he congratulated me, but considering the biggest waves only dislodged me from my seat a little bit, I figured that's what he told all the girls...

As night enveloped us, masking the rocks in the river and the tree branches dangling from above the shoreline, we listened to the lapping of the water against our boat, and the slapping of our guide's paddle as it cut through the surface, pushing us forward, backward, and in circles, and even bumpering us into a bridge pillar for a little thrill. We'd sometimes drift way ahead of the other boats, or maybe way behind, and hear the distant cry of someone being tossed into the river, their glow necklace bobbing up and down.

We had a nice, leisurely, (mostly) tranquil trip down the river for over three hours, interrupted only by the occasional reminder of civilization: the traffic crossing the bridges above us, the headlights of cars parked on the shore, and the blinding fluorescent beams coming off of the occasional billboard or warehouse. At times, it was so bright, we couldn't see the stars above at all, though we constantly craned our necks to catch even a glimpse of a meteor shower, or at least just one shooting star...My raft-mates saw something - maybe Perseids - but I missed it. The only thing that sparkled before my eyes were the fireflies, and the burning embers of the campfire that greeted us upon our return on the school bus.

Fresh out of our wet clothes - and we sure did get wet - we sipped peach chardonnay and nibbled on cheese, crackers, and dip while we reclaimed our land legs. Edith roasted marshmallows for our s'mores, careful not to lose them to the blazing fire that kept us warm in the cool, mountain air. Couples nuzzled and dozed, while others got a little tipsy on beer and wine. As one of the guides pulled out her guitar and sang Leonard Cohen, I turned to Edith and said, "If I have to go back, let's just go now. Otherwise I'm moving here."

I slept most of the way home, waking up at 10th Avenue and 57th Street with a heavy heart. As much as I longed for my own bed, I also wanted a prolonged adventure: more water, more rapids, more wine, more marshmallows, and someone to nuzzle. Instead, I returned home, tried scrubbing the mud off my water shoes, rinsed the river out of my bathing suit, and showered away all traces of my day, descending into dreams that only happen when I'm sleeping.

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