“… class four and five rapids. You’re all experienced, right?” Guides from Ultra Adventures began assigning participants to the rafts.
“Excuse me?“ Sammie anxiously got the lead guide’s attention. “The brochure said this trip is good for adventurous first-timers. We’ve never been rafting. Except for Extreme Rapids at the water park, but that probably doesn’t count, right?”
Derek smiled affectionately at his energetic wife. She was always full of life, but even more so when she was nervous.
“You both look like you’re in good shape.” Derek and Sammie each stood a little taller with that observation from Johnny, the lead guide. “Are you comfortable in the water?”
“Sure.” Derek answered for both of them, but Sammie had another question.
“Why? Will we be in the water?”
“Most likely not. I’ll take you guys with me, along with a couple of the more experienced whitewater rafters. You‘ll do fine.”
The six rafts meandered along the winding Arkansas River. Due to a light snow pack that winter, the river was exceptionally low. Johnny used the leisurely float time to give further instructions.
“We’ll be doing lots of technical maneuvers to get around the exposed boulders. I need you guys up front to watch for rocks under the surface. We’ll also be going through some really narrow chutes. Remember to keep your paddles up so you don’t get snagged on a rock.”
Derek saw the look of apprehension on Sammie’s face, and tried to distract her with the local scenery. A myriad of cottonwoods and cactus with magnificent pink blossoms adorned the river’s banks. Johnny pointed out big horn sheep in the crags.
Abruptly, the laid-back float trip turned into the thrill seeker’s ride promised in the brochure. Sunshine Falls, the first major rapid, looked intimidating, but was navigated successfully by each raft. Sammie’s adrenaline was shooting through her body as they hit the next rapid, Sledgehammer.
“Back, back, back.” Johnny was furiously barking orders. “Watch the right.”
“Whoo, hoo!” Sammie was having a blast working her paddle and bouncing off the rugged boulders.
Squeeze Box and Narrows proved to be appropriately named, especially with the low river level. Sammie watched in amazement as each raft maneuvered through the slim passageway that looked more like a violent stream than a river.
“You have about two seconds to look up at the world’s tallest suspension bridge before we hit Wall Slammer. Watch for submerged rocks up front. It could get hairy if we get ourselves wedged.” Sammie’s stomach dropped at Johnny’s warning.
“Hard left -- now!”
Rushing water forced the raft to the right, while the river flow demanded a sharp left. Despite intense paddling, the vessel was violently thrown into the wall of the deep ravine. Careening off boulders, the raft stuck with a jolt between two semi-submerged, jagged rocks.
The sudden, violent moves dislodged Sammie’s feet. Derek heard a shriek, and looked up to see Sammie’s petite wetsuit clad body flying over the front of the jammed raft.
Sammie landed in front of the treacherous rocks holding the raft captive. When she surfaced, she mentally replayed Johnny’s falling-overboard instructions.
Hold onto your paddle. Check.
Don’t panic. Half check.
Hold your paddle up in the air. Check.
Feet up and pointed downstream. Uh-oh.
Derek could only watch as Sammie worked to turn herself around in the aggressive rushing water. At any moment, the rapid would release her and spew her down the river. If her repositioning maneuver was unsuccessful, she would be racing down the river backwards. Even with a helmet, Derek knew this was potentially fatal.
Sammie fought off panic as she continued to struggle. The deafening roar of the rapids sounded like a ferocious lion attacking its helpless victim. Laying her head back to pray and rest, Sammie saw an ominous shadow creeping towards her.
Oh God, no.
The violent waters of Wall Slammer were forcing the lodged raft through the rocks, and over the top of Sammie. She knew her chances of survival were slim, but she would not succumb to the vessel’s path of destruction.
Kicking violently against the waters sucking her under the raft, she gave a last desperate cry.
“God. Save me.”
Two big hands grasped the top of Sammie’s life vest and yanked her from death’s grip.
“Who pulled me out?” she gasped.
“He did.” Derek nodded to one of the experienced rafters who was intently paddling through Boat Eater.
“I already did.” Derek kissed Sammie’s head and returned to paddling.
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