The swiftly moving waters sparkle in the morning light. Swirling currents splash against the rocks near our put-in, the spot where we'll launch our inflatable rubber dinghy, pick up our paddles and begin our journey down the Colorado River. Standing in a life vest, waterproof booties and an extra-thick coat of sunscreen, the guide's warnings about what to do if we capsize echoing in my head, I seriously question my sanity.
How did an out-of-shape, thoroughly nonathletic and reasonably intelligent person like me let herself be talked into going whitewater rafting?
That's what can happen when someone else plans your activities. That someone else was our hostess in Aspen, where some friends and I gathered for a weeklong, all-female summer holiday. It sounded like fun. But when actually faced with the reality of shooting the rapids in what looks like an oversized bathtub toy, I begin to have doubts. This anxiety increases when I find myself sitting in front with another rafting beginner. I'm nervous. But it turns out the others are terrified, so the two of us get the lead seats by default.
Our professional escort, Chris, is positioned at the rear where he'll do the lion's share of maneuvering. His explanations about how the rapids earned the names "Maneater," "The Wall" and "Pinball" do little to ease my anxiety.
The beginning is the hardest part of the course. Class III rapids, defined as difficult, large, irregular waves up to 4 feet, keep us careening at a fast pace through roiling pools, going forward, sideways and occasionally in circles. With all my energy and attention focused on staying aboard and obeying instructions — "Paddle forward NOW! — I have little time to enjoy the landscape. I do notice big birds wheeling overhead and worry they might be buzzards awaiting the opportunity to pick at my waterlogged corpse, until someone says, "Look at the hawks."
Midway through the trip, the waters calm down to Class I and II level, leaving me free to see the sights.
We pass the Hobo Pool, a swimming hole fed by a natural hot spring and favored in bygone years by guys who rode the rails. We marvel at caves cut into the dolomite and limestone rock face by centuries of wind and water. The trip turns out to be a glorious run through the deep red-rock gorge of Glenwood Canyon, a place of breathtakingly beautiful geological scenery created over the last billion years. Trees, rooted in postage-sized patches of soil, cling to the cliffs, seemingly defying the laws of nature and gravity. We float, free-swirl and work our way downriver, soaking up sunshine and panoramic views of craggy mountain peaks, sprawling ranchlands, patches of forest and long-abandoned homesteads with crumbling shacks to mark the places where people once lived.
Five hours later, we drag our unwieldy craft ashore and lug it up to dry land. A fabulous lunch awaits us. While wolfing down burgers and brownies, we agree that the trip has delivered on its promise of an exhilarating ride. At a cost of $85 per person we've gotten more than our money's worth of adventure and excitement — and a terrific meal, too!
We've been splashed, bounced and swept along with just the right amount of thrills and chills. Now that it's over, and we realize that we've never been in any serious danger, we feel brave and ready to do it again.