Death Float 2015: The Time We Accidentally Rode a Pool Toy Down Class 3 Rapids

Ed and I recently returned from a lengthy journey during which we traversed many states and visited many people we know. Most of our travels were fairly conventional, which is not always desirable, so after about a week and a half of relative relaxation I started getting a little annoyed that there wasn’t much in the way of adventure on the trip. Then this happened, which (mostly) shut me up about adventure for the next several weeks.

We were taking a cabin weekend with some friends up in the mountains of Pennsylvania, partly with the intention of having a nice, relaxing float trip down Loyalsock Creek. Our friend Dave’s dad had done it, and had said it was easy, so Dave, his wife, a friend we call Bob, my dear husband Ed, and I assumed it would be easy for us as well.

We went equipped with various conveyances suited for our expectations. Dave and Kelli took their canoe, loaded with lunch, sunscreen, Ed’s sneakers, life vests, various keys and wallets in a dry bag, and their two Alsatians (with their doggy life vests). Bob sat in a typical Intex inner tube, to be towed by the canoe.

Ed and I had brought an excellent hybrid of the other two vessels: a brightly colored Intex Explorer 200, which is an inflatable boat that is rated for two people or 210 pounds. Together, Ed and I weigh about 300 pounds, and are forced to assume, based on the numbers, that whoever designed this small but handsome watercraft was expecting two children in a swimming pool instead of two adults in the great outdoors. Sure, it was overloaded and overcrowded, but for a nice, relaxing float down a nice, relaxing stream, we figured it wouldn’t be an issue. We just got married in March, so we’re still newlywed-minded about being cozy together.

Ed and Rae in the Explorer 200

Bob took this shot partway through the excursion using his cell phone, which he wisely kept in the dry bag. Ed is wearing one of Dave’s shoes, as he wears a full size larger than Dave and was only able to squeeze into one of the shoes at this point. Also, I’m still amazed that I didn’t lose my sunglasses. [click for larger]

Now, there’s a map of the local area in the cabin, which Dave used to determine that if we put in at Hillsgrove and got out at Sandy Bottom, it would be maybe two to three miles and we would definitely be finished by the thunderstorms predicted for 2 p.m. as long as we left early enough in the morning. This we did, leaving one car at Sandy Bottom and bringing the other two to our point of departure at Hillsgrove.

After a 20-minute excursion to get sandwich bread and ice (that should have taken five minutes if we’d run to the correct store or 45 minutes if Ed had driven to Forksville at a more advisable speed, which only foreshadowed our collective failure to ask enough questions before acting…but I digress), we got our vessels into the water.

Dave and Kelli had their dogs in the canoe, Bob sat in the inner tube (with a spare one nearby, in case someone needed it), and Ed and I squeezed into the Explorer 200, nested, facing the same direction and trying to make progress with the plastic oars.

Bob had no oars, and thus tied his tube to the end of the canoe’s tow rope. The other tube did end up tied to Bob’s tube, though I can’t remember exactly when; if it wasn’t yet, the tow rope was through the plastic loops on the empty tube and then tied to Bob’s.

The day began with an overcast sky, so Ed and I decided to wait to apply sunscreen as we were quite occupied by trying to propel our watercraft. I assumed we’d figure out how to paddle the thing if we just kept trying, and then we could deal with sun protection later. The water was nice and calm, so worst case, we figured, we’d just paddle incompetently the entire time.

But after traveling a pretty short distance someone announced, “I see some rapids ahead.” It didn’t look bad to me, maybe just like slightly faster water.

Of course, I was completely inexperienced and also wrong.

From where I was sitting, several things occurred in quick succession (probably less than 10 seconds total):

  1. We came up to the rapids.
  2. We started going very quickly, which was kind of fun.
  3. I realized we were heading straight for a tree or leafy branch sticking off the bank.
  4. I used the oar I had to push us away from that.
  5. I realized we were heading for a jumble of sticks or dead branches near the same bank.
  6. I pushed us away from that.
  7. I ducked to slide beneath a log that nearly smacked me in the face.
  8. Then, suddenly, we were stuck in a V-shaped cluster of tree remains in the middle of the rapids.

Meanwhile, Dave and Kelli’s canoe tipped over, and Bob had tried to get out of the tube just a bit too late and so was dragged horribly across the rocks.

Ed and I now realized we had to get out of the Explorer 200. I found myself sitting on the slippery, slimy log that formed one side of our vessel’s trap, working desperately to keep my balance lest I fall, get swept away, and get knocked unconscious on the rocks. My feet were growing numb in the shockingly cold water. I don’t even know how Ed managed to steady himself. His flipflops came off and were lost down the creek. I thought for a moment about removing mine to save them, and in hindsight it might have gone poorly if I’d tried. So I lost mine as well.

While I was struggling on that slippery log, I was fighting to remind myself of the reality of the situation. This was not a Disney ride. The outcome was not certain. Ed or I could fall off that log and be severely injured, or killed. This is not a drill. This is real life. I prayed for help, or safety, or something, I don’t remember what, now.

And I do tend to extrapolate. So in my head, the thought was: “If it’s going this way this early into the trip, at this rate we’re going to get stuck and almost die probably another 15 times at least, and also lose all the stuff we brought.”

Somehow — this part is a blur for both of us — we managed to get back into the Explorer 200 and into the next calm part of the creek, then to the smooth-rock shore, to assess the situation. Ed and I were both shoeless, as the only missing cargo from the tipped canoe was Ed’s pair of sneakers, and the flip-flops were unrecoverable. We were all now very aware of what we would actually be facing on this “lazy float,” yet we had no idea how to adequately face it.

A second set of rapids was visible not too far off. It was determined that Bob could hold the tow rope but should not be tied to it, so he could let go quickly as needed. It was also determined that we should walk around the rapids on the stony shore. I don’t remember now whether Dave or Kelli rode the canoe (with the dogs!) over these rapids, but I don’t know what else they would have done.

Ed and I were too busy making extremely slow progress over the algae-covered rocks on the river bottom, barefoot, leaning on the oars for a little stability, rather than making a futile attempt to steer the boat directly to shore. The going was painful. The water was still horrendously cold and we were constantly slipping, nearly falling over and slamming various parts of our feet into the stones. Every step was murder. With decent shoes, like Bob, we would have been fine. I remember praying that my dear Ed wouldn’t fall.

Finally, Dave came over and escorted first me and then Ed to the dry rocks, which were still painful and difficult for the barefoot but much less slow and slippery.

This rocky shore did not line the entire river, but it appeared when needed — at shallow, rocky rapids, which makes wonderful sense. So, for a while, the plan was this:

  1. Enjoy the calm sections.
  2. When rapids are ahead, get to the stony shore and walk, unless you have a canoe that can handle it.
  3. Get back in the tube or Explorer 200 after the rapids.
  4. Repeat.

Ed and I took to facing each other in our watercraft, since facing the same way didn’t work well at all. And he took both oars.

As the day wore on, adjustments were made:

  • After the initial plan had proven slow, Dave lent Ed his own sneakers as he felt sorry for the loss of Ed’s. Dave wears a full size smaller than Ed, so my dear husband wound up wearing them halfway on when he used them, but it did help some.
  • Later, when most of the rapids seemed pretty calm and maneuverable, Ed slowly and precariously guided the Explorer 200 across the rapids, on foot, as we encountered them, and Kelli guided the canoe across. Dave and I sat in our respective vessels. I think Bob still carried his tube.
  • Later still, Ed returned Dave’s shoes and we switched to Kelli walking Ed across rapids in the canoe and Dave walking me across in the Explorer 200, largely to give Dave’s feet a break. Of course, we still rode through the calm sections with our own spouses. And Bob, ever relentless, unflinching, carrying his own inner tubes on his own two feet like a forgotten hero, was still just fine on his own.

Now, I don’t remember the exact order of the episodes of the day, but these details are important for understanding the entire ordeal:

  • At some point in the middle of the adventure, Kelli and Dave lost one of their paddles, but Kelli eventually spotted it stuck against a rock downstream and so took off across some rapids to retrieve it like a proper mountain woman. I, on the other hand, was almost unable to open the safety seal on the peanut butter jar at lunch.
  • At some other point, while Ed and I were lagging behind, everyone else noticed a kayak stuck against a stump in some horrible configuration, suggesting its rider had either jumped ship, barely squeezed out alive, or died there. The kayak would have been difficult or impossible to free, but Bob got a new paddle out of the situation, and with it some navigational autonomy.
  • The sun eventually came out, probably before Dave got his shoes back, but Dave kept saying things like, “We must be almost there. It can’t be far now. We’re definitely close,” so Ed and I figured we may as well skip the sunscreen altogether. After about an hour of this, we changed our minds, and decided to apply sunscreen to our now-burnt skin. Better late than never.

See, it turned out Dave had misread the map and the “we’re almost there” hour actually occurred in the middle of about a five-mile journey that, in the end, took a few hours more than we’d anticipated. Thank God we brought a lunch. And thank God the thunderstorms were tardy.

Once we were finally, finally back to Sandy Bottom, and one of the cars had been retrieved from Hillsgrove, and the canoe was on the dolly, and we were bringing everything back to the parking lot, the sky finally opened up and we were fairly soaked by the time we got back to the cabin.

And somehow, in my memory, this is all recorded as a fun summer day.

Eventually, Ed looked up the Explorer 200 on YouTube and found that this is actually a vessel of choice for many GoPro-wielding adventure-seekers (see here and here, for example).

We have yet to leave the Amazon review, but I’ll give it five stars for performance, if not for maneuverability.

Ed and Rae in the Explorer 200

At least it was pretty. [click for larger]

This has been a harrowing true story (with too many parentheticals) by Rae Botsford End. For various unrelated thoughts, come find me on Twitter, and for real writer updates, like my Facebook page.

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