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An Outward Bound Adventure

There are five rafts -- two for supplies, three for us. Raft groups are drawn up carefully, like scrimmage teams. Stan, Conn, Crystal, and I are with Zeke. Zeke takes us through the basic paddle commands: forward, back, left turn, right turn, and California paddle, a sort of flaky half-stroke. The Rogue is wide and calm, appealingly flat. Crystal spots a mountain beaver sunning on the riverbank; a rare sight, Zeke says. Surrounding us, another local species: the river family. Characteristics include beer coolers, lawn chairs, dogs in bandannas, boom boxes playing "Long Cool Woman" -- all in rafts not much bigger than ours. We paddle past steep coniferous slopes on one side, broad meadows of manzanita on the other. Abruptly, the river narrows and drops; there's a low roar in the distance.

"Stop," orders Zeke. "Hear Rainie?" His eyes gleam a little.

Rainie, I recall, is the rapid that the last Outward Bound group navigated backward. We have learned that all the rapids are rated according to difficulty, from I to VI; we're now notified that Rainie is a class VI. From above, Rainie looks a little like Niagara, with bigger rocks. We watch a group of kayakers negotiate the rocks like low-scoring pinballs. The river families go down as docilely as passengers on a Disneyland ride. We hike back to our raft. Suddenly Zeke seems to be barking all the paddle orders at once. I respond by California paddling. The river's authority is greater anyway: we paddle maniacally, carom between boulders, scream, get soaked, swallow water -- and it's over.

Some other things happen our first day on the river, but they feel a little anticlimactic. Crystal takes over as captain. We watch a run of chinook salmon, learn how to upright a capsized boat. I also learn, toward the end of the day, quietly paddling along, that every time I thought I was left-turning I was right-turning.

Arrive at Whiskey Creek campsite by sunset. Tasks are assigned for the next three days. OB tasks are an intricate business. There are kitchen crews, cleanup crews, tarp-layers, historians, journalists. Tonight, I'm responsible for choosing a passage from the OB "Book of Readings" to recite before dinner, and for cleanup duty after. I look up the selection from Woody Allen, hoping to find his old joke: I am two with nature. Discover instead an est-like sentiment worthy of Werner Erhard: People can be divided into three groups: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. Wonder if I'm a watcher or a wonderer.

Dinner is something stir-fried. While we're eating, my cleanup partner, Tim, the marathon runner, sprints to the river several times to fetch water. By the time I clear the plates he has boiled water, set up soaking, washing, and rinsing tubs, and is fixing a gas leak in the propane stove.

We form a circle around a kerosene lamp. Sandy points out how rare it is that we take a few minutes just to reflect, suggests we do this now and afterward anyone may share whatever they wish. One of the guides breaks the silence to congratulate the other guides on their efforts today. Larry, historian for the day, shares what he has learned about animals inhabiting the shores of the Rogue: there's the black bear, the Pacific rattlesnake, and the common scorpion, which hides in dark places like shoes and carries enough poison in its tail to cause fatal convulsions. Deb says she's beginning to realize this isn't a vacation. Crystal expresses gratitude for the special connections she is starting to make and, in a Judy Collins alto, begins to sing: "The river is flowing/Flowing and growing./This river is flowing/Down to the sea."

THREE -- Crystal says her influences range from Wilhelm Reich to Basque shamans. At dawn she leads us through some tai chi movements and a routine that involves walking on all fours and growling in order to get in touch with the ape within us. My back has the flexibility of concrete. Don't know whether it was the loudest snoring I've ever witnessed, surprising firmness of sand, or being downwind from outhouse, but am fairly certain I didn't sleep.

After breakfast one of the guides, Richard, uses pebbles, sticks, and a plastic toy boat to demonstrate raft maneuvers and terms. We learn how to ferry and thwart, to look for eddies (safe pools) and sleepers (which conceal rocks). It all seems much clearer to me now. I volunteer to captain my raft this a.m.

I'm with Zeke and Conn again, along with Deb and Bill M. I issue orders -- left turn, right turn, stop. We circumnavigate sleepers and aim for eddies. Zeke mentions that we're coming up on Wildcat, a class III rapid. I nod, calmly say, "Forward paddle." Approaching the white water, I urge the back paddle, a favorite command of Zeke's and a kind of stalling tactic. But then we're on top of a sleeper, Zeke is yelling his own commands, and I'm having a hard time distinguishing them from those of Sandy, whose boat is lunging toward ours. What she's screaming sounds like "duck" -- and then she broadsides us, sending Bill M.'s camera equipment flying and Conn overboard. When we've hauled Conn back in the raft and Zeke has steered us to an eddy, he takes a deep breath and says, "Okay. That was good to back-paddle at first. But the worst position you can EVER hit the white water in is sideways."

Deb takes the helm. The water is glassy for miles. After lunch we stop for an initiative -- a rappel off one of the canyon's sheer cliffs. Am not good at gauging cliff heights, would say this was roughly 20 stories high. Hiking steep tortuous trail up back of palisade, am put in mind of Mount Everest. Several years ago a childhood friend managed to scale Mount Everest; on his way down, however, he lost his footing and fell off.

At the top, guides cheerfully assist with our harnesses, repeatedly stress safety of belay system. To no one in particular, Sandy says, "If you're a little nervous about doing this, you might want to go sooner rather than later." Am unaware nervousness shows until Cate begins massaging my shoulders, suggests I go soon. Then I notice difficulty breathing and odd paralysis in legs. Meanwhile, people are hooking up and launching off like ballooning spiders. I make my legs deliver me to Zeke, who is supervising the descents. "Awright, PETER," he says. "Let's do it for your pug. Do it for Pugsley."

Overhang is so sharp the ground below is hard to locate. Focusing intently on my own hands, gripping rope in manner that will ensure burning of palms for two days, I start to inch my way down. In no more than 60 seconds my feet are touching the earth and my back is getting pummeled by Christian, Deb, the other survivors. I feel light, faintly embarrassed by my mountaintop histrionics.

Have I had an OB epiphany?Later my mood is more speculative than triumphant. The only problem I have with contrived challenges is the feeling that I've never lacked for the real thing. Seated around the kerosene lamp that evening, with the floor open for sharing and most having shared, I feel compelled to say something relevant concerning the day's events. Finally I offer this: "On top of the mountain today it came to me how much I take for granted."

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