Great Fun on the Truckee River

Tom Williams

© Copyright 2020 by Tom Williams

Raft on the Truckee River.

When we decided to spend a week in the Lake Tahoe area, my wife, Karen, immediately went to Trip Advisor to see what there was to do. And what did she land on? Truckee River Rafts! I reluctantly agreed to at least consider them. I am not a fan of getting wet, but I figured I could stand it, since she wanted to do it so badly. And when we saw the rafts peacefully floating along the river as we drove by on that first day, I said to myself, “Why not? How hard could it be?”

We got on board our bright blue river raft, each with an orange paddle. We brought along a bag full of snacks, drinks and sunscreen, the latter of which we applied liberally to arms, legs and necks. I sat down amidships, with Karen in the front, and we waited for the water to carry us along.

All was well for a while. The river was clear down to the bottom, and the banks made a lovely scene to float past: pine trees in the background, with willows overhanging the water in places. We made a few pulls with the paddles to discover how to steer, but frankly, as I learned later, sitting amidships was not the best place to steer from.

About twenty minutes into our adventures, we could see there was small set of rapids up ahead. Beyond them was a wide, calm pool, where the rafts ahead of us had already stopped and their occupants were wading or swimming in the water.

We barreled into the rapids, not really knowing what we were doing, and sure enough, we hit the rapids broadside and hung up on two rocks. Our instructions at the beginning had been to “rock the raft until you come loose, or push off with the paddle”. Well, no matter how hard we rocked, as soon as we seemed to be free of one rock, we would ride up on the other one. We hung there for about thirty minutes, rocking and pushing with our paddles and enduring the stares of our fellow travelers further downstream. Finally, a couple of the employees, who were riding down the river in one of the rafts just for that purpose, came wading up the rapids (they weren’t all that deep—that was the problem: not enough water going over the rocks to float us loose) and pulled us into the current. It was rather embarrassing to go gliding into the pool beyond, greeted by the sarcastic applause of the other rafters. Oh well!

We paddled through the pool as quickly as the current and our basically ineffectual strokes could take us and entered the faster-flowing current to take us downstream. No sooner had we cleared the pool when the current took us smack into an overhanging willow tree, which knocked us both into the floor of the raft. We were not really succeeding at this at all! More embarrassment, more inquiries “Are you all right?” We felt like a pair of klutzes, which is of course what we were!

A little further down the river, we saw a likely beach where we could stop and eat our snacks and rest for a bit. It was while we were stopped on the beach that I noticed, in watching the other rafts smoothly float down the river, that every one of the rafts had someone in the “stern” of the raft, sitting on the edge, guiding the raft with strokes from the paddle. Ah ha! I said to myself, that’s how they do it! So, when we had finished our snacks and Karen had waded a bit in the river (remember, I don’t like to get wet. Weird, I know, but that’s the way I am!), we set out again, this time with me in the stern sitting on the edge of the raft and steering with the paddle.

Oh, how much easier it was! A little stroke on the right side, and the bow pointed left. A little stroke on the left, and the bow headed right. I was able to negotiate our passage down the smoother parts of the river, through a couple of tiny rapids, and under two or three bridges without getting stuck once. Yes, a couple of times another raft ran into us, and we did have to push really hard against the bank to avoid a couple of overhanging trees, but we were learning to control the darn thing. And it was rather pleasant just drifting along with the current of the river.

This was all very nice, until we got to about fifty yards from the end of the float. At that point, the river descended over a set of Class 1 rapids. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but those rapids were long and tricky, and we also had to negotiate around a bend. We made it through about half of the rapids with little or no effort. I was still sitting on the back of the raft and attempting to steer between the rocks with my left and right strokes of the paddle. Karen said, “Isn’t this fun?” and I said, “Well, if nothing else, it’s a good mental exercise.” Almost at that very moment, the current slammed us hard into a rock about fifteen feet from shore.

The shock of the collision knocked Karen to the floor of the raft, and her paddle went flying into the river. I felt myself falling backwards into the river. I put out my left arm to break my fall, and, miracle of miracles, kept my paddle tight in my right hand. I landed in the water, which was only about two feet deep but flowing very fast. As soon as I had landed, the current lifted the raft, with Karen sans paddle in it, on down the river. When I looked up, I could see that the raft had stuck against another rock about ten yards further down the river. Our instructions at the beginning had told us, “If you fall into the river, stand up—it’s not that deep.” My first thought was, if I could get to my feet, perhaps I could walk down the rapids to where the raft was hung up. No sooner did that thought go through my mind when I saw the raft come loose and start off down the river again. Karen had her hands in the air, I guess indicating to me she could do nothing about it. And she and the raft disappeared.

So, there I was, half lying on my left side in two feet of swiftly flowing water. At 69 years of age, I am not in the greatest shape in the world, so it was a struggle to turn so I had both hands and feet under me. I tried to use the paddle as a stabilizer, but the water kept pushing the paddle away. Frustrated, I figured out if I used it with the handle down in the water, the current would not cause it to collapse. I finally was able to stand up and wade to shore. Just as I got there, one of the employees was coming down the bank to “rescue” me. Of course, I was soaked from my neck down, and when I looked at my left arm and left knee, I could see bruises and two cuts that were bleeding slightly.

The employee and I walked across the bank that formed the bend in the river, and we could then see the landing on the other side of the river. We got in the raft he had used to come get me, and I was soon reunited with Karen, who was waiting on the dock. She had had to be rescued, too, since she had no way to control her raft when it came out of the rapids to the pool at the bottom.

Another employee put some hydrogen peroxide on my cuts and bandaged them up. We soon were able to board the bus back to the parking lot, and our adventure was over. Except for getting stuck on the rocks at the first rapids and getting knocked into the water near the end, it was a very pleasant time. Would I do it again? Maybe, but not very soon. My shoulders are still sore from paddling, and I still have the scabs on my arm and knees as trophies. Great fun on the Truckee River! How hard was it! You decide!

I am 69 years old, a retired high school French teacher.  I currently am a part-time minister at my church. We live in Beaumont, California.

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