Writing should stand on its own, but this one needs some preface. I write fiction, and other than this blog I don’t do much with nonfiction. The piece below is an exception. Being a teacher leaves me with a couple months in the summer, and I fill those months with whitewater—both playing and working in it. I’m a raft guide, and I hop in the kayak whenever I get the chance. The story below is an experience of mine from last summer that kept nagging at me until I wrote it. Though it’s nonfiction, the style and voice are representative of my fiction (first-person, anyway). I don’t have any interest in submitting this one to journals or magazines, but stories need a place; this seems like a good one.
First Saturday after the levels fell, a run nearly completed, I approached the Falls. Alright, folks, I said. We’re coming up on Nantahala Falls. You see where that water is starting to turn white? The river’s going to turn to the right and then left and the Falls will be in front of us. As we go through those curves we’ll be in a wave train that builds in size the closer we get to that rapid. The raft’s going to be rocking and water might be splashing you in the face but I’m going to be calling for a few strokes so be sure to dig in for me when I call for it.
We ran it. Normal flow line. Just left of center. Scooped Bottom-Hole with the front left of the tube, covering my riders with white spray. Three strokes and we pulled to a stop. They blinked the water out of their eyes and laughed.
Good Job, folks, I said. Y’all were great out there. We can take a break here and watch the other rafts come through.
We sat and watched. Rafts followed the same line, and kayakers punched through, covering their chests with spray.
A canoe approached the Falls. It’s rider wore a dark helmet, and a white beard cupped his face. A small dog sat up front in the bow peeking its pale head over the point of the boat. White and gray—a Jack Russell, I think. As the canoe made the left bend to approach the Falls he turned a hard left and pulled into the calm Eddy against the bank and waited, eyeing the rapid.
Alright, guys, I said. We’re going to head to the takeout. We’ve got about a hundred yards to go. All forward.
We left the Falls and navigated the remaining stretch of river.
The Cherokee had named the river Nantahala. I’ve often corrected tourists on their pronunciation, but it’s likely the word hasn’t been pronounced correctly by anyone, including me, since before there were guides, tourists, raft companies, a National Forest, a Forest Service, Duke Energy, a hydroelectric plant or a Tennessee Valley Authority.
Whatever its pronunciation, it translates into land of the noonday sun or midday sun or something like that. The Nantahala carves through the Gorge of the same name, and the mountains stand dark and green on both sides, casting cool shadows on the gray curling waves, and when the sun is high the river glows an ambered copper. But there hadn’t been sun for weeks—midday or any other hour. Rains had fallen and Nantahala Lake had reached its capacity. White Creek was rushing fuller and whiter, and the ground was dark and bloated. The Nantahala kept its name but had swelled to something new. Some rapids had washed out to flat rushing surfaces while others had peaked as tall black waves or churned into burly holes.
Nantahala Falls, the river’s final obstacle, is its largest rapid on any day—a midlevel rapid that requires some mild maneuvering—but it had grown to a tall and rushing train of spiked waves stretching down the river’s center like a spine.
Rafts flipped. Rafts didn’t often turn over on this river but they were dumping their passengers. Red, blue and yellow. Eyes wide. Helmeted heads bobbing and riding through the froth like beads. They always smiled when they were safely to shore.
Everyone made it safely to shore.
That was a weekend. One weekend. The levels lowered to normal, the sun shined, casual boaters returned to the river traffic, and for days we told the stories to customers who had missed it.
See that rock over there? we might say. That big one. When the river was up that rock was almost completely covered. Yeah. Hell yeah it was high. It was fun too.
The week after, the Nantahala seemed like a tired river. And I ran it with a tired enthusiasm. My guests didn’t notice.
This concrete beach on the right here is where we’ll get out, I said. I’ll hold the raft against the edge. Wait till I’ve got it secure before you crawl out. I’ve seen more injuries at this takeout than anywhere else on the river. Your legs get a little numb after sitting in this raft for a couple hours—I’d hate for anyone to go face-first into the pavement.
Everyone laughed and I pulled the raft over, slid into the water, and pressed my knee and weight into the tube, securing it against concrete that had been under water a week earlier.
Watch your step, folks, I said. Be sure to take all your gear with you back onto the bus. The other guides and I will stack these rafts up and join you in a few.
The canoer with the dark helmet and white beard pulled over at our takeout. The man was wet. Wetter than he should have been. He had a pained look on his face—mouth pulled open and teeth showing through his spray beaded mustache. He was out of breath.
I pulled the raft onto the concrete and set my paddle aside.
A woman in light jeans and blue t-shirt came down the steps. She was full in the stomach and thighs and her hair was short and gray. She moved quickly toward the man.
I stopped to look.
The old man reached into the canoe and pulled out the wet and limp dog, unhooking its leash. The dog’s hind legs and head hung limply from the man’s forearms.
He’s not breathing, I heard him say.
Give him to me, she said.
She took the dog from his arms and began massaging, rubbing its body and chest. With her back to us, she held and rubbed while the man stood aside, still breathing hard.
Other rafts were pulling into the takeout and customers were unloading, looking for a place to be.
Alright, folks, I said. Go ahead and get onto the bus.
Many of the customers still hadn’t noticed and that’s what I wanted. They started to file and load on while we stacked the boats.
As I worked I could hear the woman’s cries. They were quiet but forceful. Please, she whimpered. And she rubbed.
Another guide stepped up beside me. What happened over here? he asked.
I think he had a spill at the Falls—had the dog strapped in, I said.
Dumbass, he said. What was he thinking?
I know, I said. That dog could have swum to shore easier than him. Got caught under the boat, though—strapped in and all. That’s my guess.
That’s a nice canoe, though, he said. Whitesail. Those are sweet whitewater canoes.
Yeah, it’s nice, I said.
The guide took his gear and joined the customers on the bus, and I took another glance at the couple before I did the same.
The woman had stopped rubbing, and instead held the wet dog’s body close to her chest between her breasts, its head snugged under her chin and over her shoulder like a small child. The light blue of her shirt had darkened to navy through the front, and as I stepped away to board the bus I could still hear her low, quavering cries over the burble and static of the river.
Please, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Please, she cried.
The old man put his hand on her back.
I stepped up into the bus and stood next to the driver. Is it clear? he asked.
I looked down the road. Yeah, you’re good, I said.
The bus lurched and I placed both of my hands on the backs of the seats in front of me, facing the riders. The air was heavy with humidity and the smell of mildew.
If ya’ll had a good time out there today let’s hear some noise, I yelled.