“Rafting is not worth dying for but it is worth doing.”
-Seth Dow


   In July I moved onto a small platform on the riverfront and marked my claim with books. The wooden slat came with its own mattress, a mid-summer rarity in a city full of vagabond guides. It boasted three tarpaulin walls and an angled, waterproof roof. I liked it there. On mornings when I didn’t have work I laid in bed with Pat the Cat until the sun cooked through the tarp and each night I refused to close my eyes before I saw a shooting star.

Taking people downriver became a routine: fear became a routine. I woke up each day and did things I was afraid to do because each day I got a little better. I knew for most guides the South Fork was not a scary thing. Good guides tested their limits, so when Mike asked if I wanted to see the Middle Fork I said, Hell yes.

The Middle Fork American River was a different brand of risk than I had previously taken. Running it meant taking a step up from class III rapids, simple features with mild consequences, to class IV and V, technical features with potentially life-threatening swims.

Mike said it was his favorite bit of river and I could immediately tell why. It took everything I loved about the South Fork and made it bigger, badder, and more wild. We went most of the day without seeing any other boaters, a far cry from the overcrowded McDonald fest that waterparks its way down the South Fork every Saturday. Every rapid was huge and fun. Class IV rivers won my heart. Your paddlers are better and inherently more interesting. You raft from dusk to dawn on clearflowing, undammed water. At the end of the day you sit back in the van and let your eyes shut, exhausted from the sun, for the long drive home. If I could guide class IV I would be satisfied for life.

Ruck-A-Chucky Falls is a no shit legit class V rapid. It is a threepronged, twenty five foot waterfall. The two outer channels drop into impending doom, as in, enter here and you will not come back out doom. Most of the water funnels through the middle chute but still spits you out onto some nasty undercut rocks. When we reached the lip of the behemoth, Mike pulled up to a rocky staircase river right. Last stop. The Chuck is not a commercially rafted rapid and I don’t know any guide who’d feel comfortable taking someone else down. Mike dumped me out not for my safety but his own. Every guide hucks the Chuck solo while the passengers walk around. Talk about going down with the ship. The thing that always got me was how the customers didn’t even watch. They just walked to the other side without ever looking back. As if the falls were a short commercial break. This was fucking life or death! If you swim a class V you are likely to be maimed or killed. LIKELY. But these are things you do not stress to paying customers.

See you on the other side. I said to Mike as he shoved off. Of course he didn’t answer; he couldn’t even spit. I watched him splash water onto his neck.

We had met with a traffic jam of sorts. The dregs of a multi-boat trip hovered in wait at the top with no way of knowing how much time to give the guide below. They faced nothing but a wide horizon line. In the last boat before Mike’s, Kennedy, a Zambian guide I recognized from another company was saying something to me. As nake eed wish. He said it twice before I realized he was addressing me. What’s that? I felt guilty for not understanding his accent. AS NAKE EED WISH. He said again, threw his hands up and started pushing himself closer to the lip of the falls. Then I looked at the rock where he had been pointing. I saw a snake eating a fish! It was all coiled up like a hose with just its neck out as it swallowed a long transparent fishtail gulp by gulp. When I looked up Kennedy had already blipped off the face of the cliff.

I ran up the stone trail for a better vantage point. From the highest rock all you could see was the very top and bottom of the falls. The enormous boulder that shaped the rapid also guarded its view from outsiders. Chuck was a fall you could only fully see while you were in it. You could take all the advice in the world from veteran river guides but you wouldn’t know the Chuck until you went down blind yourself. From where I stood Mike was small. He leaned over the bow of the boat and churned the water before him with his paddle. He set his angle at

11:00 to the horizon line then started to lean back for the drop. As he did so the raft began tipping sideways as if to flip at the top of the falls. JESUS FUCK. Mike was pint sized to me but I could see his eyes widen. He vaulted to the high side of the raft over three lines of tubing to push the black side down. Then he was gone. He had dropped behind the boulder. I waited for him to shoot out the bottom. Books have been written in the amount of time it took Mike to reappear. I may have peed my wetsuit. But he did emerge, upright, a soggy Kiddy in the pool of loose water flushing through the bottom of his boat. I ran down to meet him.

Did you see that? He asked, a mess of adrenaline. I know!
I said, taking up the bowline, A snake eating a fish.

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