The east side of Buena Vista is cut right through with the Arkansas River. A big cold river that starts a bit north in Leadville and goes all the way to the state of Arkansas. During the summer the forty rafting companies throughout the Arkansas Valley crowd the river with big rafts full of people looking for a bit of adventure. I’ve not had a chance to go down the river; last summer the river was so high and so cold that there were several deaths. Makes you think twice.
Someone had offered my mother-in-law Miriam a free trip; she wasn’t too interested so passed the favor on to us. We were to go down to River Runners at 3:30 and ask for Dan.
We got there on time and met up with the other people that would be on the raft with us, folks that had regularly volunteered at Miriam’s church. Every Monday through the summer Miriam’s church offers a free dinner to all the rafting guides in the community, many of the guides are college students who come out and camp all summer long, so the church gives away a hot meal and has had hot showers installed in the church building so they can have some trappings of civilization. Dan is probably the oldest guide on the river and he offers a free trip to those who have fed him all summer long.
After a bit of waiting Dan, a man that has most likely past the half-century mark in age, lumbers up and ushers us down to the edge of the river. His deep tan, and calm craggy face remind me of coaches that I have had in the past, men healthier than many men half their age, calm with the joy of doing something they love, and comfortable in their complete knowledge of that subject. Without explaining himself Dan produced life jackets from the shed, quickly assessed our sizes, handed them out and then came up and adjusted them to actually fit our torsos. We gathered around the raft that was parked on the shore and he explained how to sit, how to paddle, and what to do if you fell out. His explanations were simple, plain, and not frightening.
“Just get on your belly and swim back to the boat or the shore.” That was all, no descriptions of hypothermia, or rocks bashing our heads. You fall out, get back in or get out of the water. I appreciated that.
We got in, shoved our feet into the cracks of the raft and he pushed us out into the Arkansas. The next few minutes he gave us instructions on how to help him steer the raft, mainly how to turn left. We rotated around a few times and in an easy manner he teased us until we got it right. And we were off.
It was like being taken down the river by Garrison Keiller, Dan, had a mellow voice sauced with just enough off a slow American drawl to make you want to listen to him. He seasoned his stories with easy wisdom and slow humor. He gave the teenage girl, Hannah, in our group a hard time by shouting, ‘so help me, Hannah,’ a phrase he swore that a friend used to use. He told the young people on the raft they should try to make it to twenty-five without any major emotional scars or physical scars, because when the doctor pointed at his knee and said, “‘That’ll never work right again,’ well, that was kinda disappointing.” He would flip the raft around in a leisurely circle, ‘see that rock up there on top of that ridge? Looks like Winnie the Pooh.’ And, yep, it sure did. Or he would say, ‘I like that tree right there,’ or ‘I like that rock right there.’ And sure enough they were pretty remarkable trees and rocks.
We did a quick unsanctioned cliff jump. Dan went first, as Scott and I stood next to him he pointed into the swirling water and said,
“See that rock?”
“Don’t jump there. See that rock over there?”
“Don’t jump there. Look up and look at that fence post right there, jump towards that and you’ll land in the right spot.” And off he went. I’ve cliff jumped before, but it’s still fun every time. There’s always the ‘will I or won’t I’ question as I look at the cliff. Usually I do. Then there’s the dread as you climb up the hill, avoiding rocks in your sandals, the heart cleaning adrenaline as you stand at the top, the pulse as you leap, the frightening shock and gasp as you hit the water, and then the final water crawl as you swim up and out (all the while squinting and pushing at your eye as you make sure you haven’t lost your right contact).
When my shirt turned out to be not as quick-dry as I thought it would be, he pulled over the raft and gave a few of the colder rafters splash jackets. When he saw that my shirt was soaked he offered an extra fleece he had. Being no longer a young fool when it comes to warmth I eagerly accepted his shirt and his help as he showed me how to strap up the sleeves of the jacket. He commented,
“Unh, you grabbed a large,”
“Should I get a smaller one?”
“That’s okay, you’re large,” meaning large of spirit I suppose.
Nearing the end of the trip he did another signature 180 of the raft and pointed out a huge beautiful house perched on the edge of Brown’s Canyon. We oohed and aahed, and remarked that it must have had a great view and how expensive it must be.
“What if we all had a house on Brown’s Canyon?” Dan asked. I smirked, a gently veiled conservation comment. For the last few moments of the trip he pointed out the green and silver color of the water and told us that this was a special time to see the river, the sun was just sliding down the western side of the peaks of the collegiate range. I was able to relax from my shivering for a moment and see a deer hiding in the trees of the bank, and to see greenish gold light drip over the Sangra de Cristo’s. Dan talked about he loved the river and hoped that by taking people down it he helped them to love the river as well. I was thankful to see our valley from another perspective and I know that I learned something from that trip as well.