The River Riders

Best I remember, the year was 1989. I was one of several guys who took some time off and volunteered to take a group of Jr. High kids on a backpacking adventure through the New River Gorge in West Virginia. Five days of freeze-dried Backpackers Pantry meals. Five days of mosquitoes the size of an F18 fighter jet. Five days that probably gave me the hitch in my back that I still carry.

Our trip included one day of whitewater rafting down class III, IV, and V rapids. For the uninitiated, this is the terminology that defines what it feels like to run your underwear through the grind and spin cycle in your Maytag. The river guides use names for each rapid to add excitement to the trip. Names like Bus Stopper, Double Z, and Monster Mash.

As in that moment when the guide screams at the top of his lungs, “Hard forward ladies and gents. Hook your foot and hold on with your toenails. We’re about to drop into the Monster Mash. If you fall out, put your feet forward and we’ll pick you up down river.”

That pretty much sets the tone for the entire day.

Months later, my dad was listening to me tell about the trip as I showed him the pictures I took with my waterproof Kodak instamatic. He would have been 66 that year, recently retired from the foundry. I didn’t know it then, but the idea of going down the river stirred something in him.

It was the next spring. He called me.

“I’ve been thinking. Let’s you and me go down the New River together. I think I’d like to try that.”

We did the two-day trip early that summer. Two rafts with eight people and two guides. A third raft with all the gear and groceries. No freeze-dried food packs either. The guides cooked up steaks for supper. Bacon, eggs and biscuits for breakfast.

The riverside camp wasn’t much more than a sandbar along the river’s edge. The sand made for a soft cushion under our sleeping bags. The sound of the river made for some peaceful sleep that night. And the coffee was never better the next morning as the fog settled down inside the canyon walls.

Dad said, “We should do this again next year.”

I remember being amused at his enthusiasm. A kid thinks of his dad as a plain and practical man, not an adventure seeker. He’s the guy who feeds the cows, plows the garden, pays the bills and fixes leaky faucets. He’s not a river rat. So, where did this guy come from?

The next winter we started making plans. One of the guides from the New River said we should try the Yock over in Maryland, short for Youghiogheny River (Yock-o-gain-ee). We didn’t have a better idea, so we set things in motion.

We rolled into Friendsville, Maryland on a hot summer afternoon. A small Early American town of about 500 people with odd accents. John Friend settled here before the Revolutionary War.

Colonial architecture oozes from the pores of this town. There’s a stark white Episcopal church building on the corner of Maple and Second Avenue with a Williamsburg red front door that looks like it belongs on the cover of a Hallmark card.

The Yock flows under the bridge on Highway 42 near our motel. Friendsville is the pickup point for out-of-town rafters who run the Upper Yock.

Early the next morning we made our way down the street to the Jubilee Diner.

“You fellas from outta town?” The hostess was making friendly talk, just like you’d expect in Friendsville.

The diner was empty except for us and one guy at the table in the corner. Long ponytail down his back. Clean shaven except for a thin goatee braided to his chest. He was wearing turquoise jewelry. Wrist bands and rings. A sleeveless leather vest with colored beads sewn into the front. And the kicker, two feathers tied and dangling down the back of his head.

We guessed he might be a river guide. The guys and gals that run the rivers every summer are a unique group. It’s a young person’s game. Sun-soaked skin like leather. Always the long hair. Adrenaline seekers, most of them. Sometimes working the east coast runs. Sometimes working the west coast. Depends on the time of year. They go where the action is.

We left the diner and followed our directions to the outfitter’s camp. This part of Maryland kisses the Appalachians. The roads wind through the wilderness and through the deeply wooded forest of the river basin.

When we pulled up into the site, we could see several stacks of rafts beside a wooden shed. A fella looked up and waved to us. It was our breakfast buddy from the diner.

“High. I’m Dave. You must be my team for the river today.”

Dave was taller than he looked at the breakfast table. His dress was American Indian, but his accent was Upper Yock all the way.

“It’ll be about an hour before the dam releases enough water for us to make our run, so we’ve got a little time to kill. Let me show you around.”

Dave lives in a tree house. I mean that, literally. Up about 15 feet in the canopy of a large oak he has a 10×10 house with a hammock and a porch. He has a pulley system for getting supplies and groceries up to his kitchen, which is a double hot plate that sits right next to the five-gallon bucket he uses for a John.

“You wanna come up and look around?”

I took him up on his invitation. I climbed the make-shift boards and ropes into Dave’s house. Dad stayed on the ground.

Dave likes to think of himself as a member of the Sioux Nation. Every year he spends time out in South Dakota at their annual gathering. He is learning the “way of the Sioux nation” because he finds purpose in that. Dream Catchers sway in the wind from tree branches all over this place. He’s even built his own sweat box in the ground not far from his treehouse.

“It gets really hot in there, but it clears the mind and body. That’s where Wakan Tanka gives me my visions. If you want to try it out, we’ve got time.”

Dave smelled like maybe he spent a lot of time sweating in there. I passed.

Out on the water, the Yock was as good as the New River. Dave certainly knew his way around and often gave us his best Sioux war cry. He guided us through rapids like Zinger, and Triple Drop, and Meat Clever.

I am now the same age Dad was back when we became river riders. And I think I now understand why he wanted to go.

A man can’t stop living just because he gets older. He does things that are meant for younger folks with good bones and balance. He keeps moving anyway he can just to keep the body functioning.

What the heck! Maybe there’s a river yet that needs riding.

One thought on “The River Riders

  1. Oh, how Mike and I loved white water rafting…back when the bones could take it! It’s one thing I would love to do one more time, but I know better.


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