“Breakfast of Champions” and a Wetsuit’s Lesson in Humility
Dawn arrived after a night of light sleeping interrupted by tossing and turning due to unfamiliar surroundings and the self-awareness of sharing a room with people I don’t know.(1) Despite early Autumn’s teasing of cooler weather, we were in that wonderful prime time of warm days and cool nights. I love these precious few weeks where you need a fire at sundown, but by noon you’re stripped down to shorts and t-shirts. As it turns out, a few of us worried that the weekend might be too cool to enjoy being in a mountain river (most decidedly as we cuddled around the fire pit the previous evening), but things were working out with daytime temperatures topping out around the 80°F mark.
Slowly but surely, everyone woke up and were moving around. An attempt at making coffee in the “kitchen” proved a bit futile since the coffee maker was way too small to provide enough for the dozen of us, and someone mentioned that the outfitter’s dining hall offered a complimentary breakfast, so we marched down to enjoy a morning feast. One of the basic rules of travel is unless a hotel has an award-winning restaurant, anything labeled “complimentary” roughly translates from ancient hotel-speak as “sucks balls.” Granted, one or two places might surprise a weary traveler with strangely edible or even tasty food, but otherwise it’s a safe bet that whatever is served will be 1) about as yummy as old cardboard with that “former homeless guy’s bed in an alley” flavor, and 2) worn off less than an hour after eating it. I’ve had my share of undercooked powered eggs and rubber-posing as sausage, so I didn’t have any lofty expectations (and again, this was a river outfitters and camp, it isn’t supposed to be five star). Choices were a tad sparse, so our “feast” amounted to coffee, bananas, English muffins, stale doughnuts and fresh-from-concentrate juices. Sometimes, food is just the stuff you need to get you from Point A to Point B, so we inhaled what we could, then went outside to determine our next steps.
The outfitters reported that the river water temps were somewhere in the “very low 60s,” so the idea of toughing things out in just swim trunks and quick-dri shirt was giving visions of shrinkage dancing in my head. The prospect of potential hypothermia, as well as my testicles climbing so far back up that I’d need to re-experience puberty for them to drop again wasn’t very enticing. The wetsuit rental was next to the assembly area, so a few of us trekked over to find out rental rates and availability. Whether it was God, fate or blind luck, the outfitters weren’t about to run out of wetsuits, so we all put in to rent a pair each with the accompanying jacket. Having collected our gear and given the meeting time for our ride, we marched back to the cabin for what might be the most fear-inducing part of racing down wild rapids – donning a wetsuit.
I remember once watching a Red Skelton skit on TV where he pantomimed trying to work his way into a girdle. It was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen, and it didn’t dawn on me that karma might get me back for laughing at that silly bit…until now. In general, I hate wearing tight or constrictive clothing – suits and tuxedos are living Hell for me, spandex feels creepy (in more than one way), and a “banana hammock” is out of the question.(2) Thing is, wetsuits are specifically designed to match every curve and nuance of your body, while feeling like it’s trying to slowly smother you to death. Up until now, the tightest thing I ever wore was a pair of biker shorts, and I hated every moment of it. Since I’m like most people, I could stand to lose a few pounds, so slowly pulling on my wetsuit proved yet another reminder that I need to crank up my gym attendance a notch or two. Once inside and sweating to death in my personal neoprene self-cooker, I couldn’t help pondering about how many others did the same thing in my wetsuit…as well as how many people may have kept warm in their wetsuits using a more…practical method.(3) This dawning realization ensured that there wasn’t enough hot water or soap in the entire state to cure my OCD issues tonight.
(1) Admittedly, I’ve always been very self-conscious around new people, and especially my sleeping habits given that 1) as I mentioned earlier, I snore, 2) as a kid, I would go to bed in PJs and wake up nearly naked because even back then I hated feeling too warm, and 3) I’m an introvert, so I generally don’t like being in places where I have no personal space. In fact, when I’m dating someone, my sleeping habits radically alter from being a firing-a-cannon-off-next-to-me-won’t-work-because-I’m-a-dead-to-the-world sleeper to a wakes-up-at-the-drop-of-a-hat light sleeper.
(2) As I said before, you supply your own brain bleach.
(3) Known in NASA social circles as the “Alan Shepard Maneuver.”
A River Guide with Missing Toes
After waddling down to the assembly area in our wetsuits, water jackets and shoes, we received a brief lecture about how the-ink-is-still-wet waivers we just signed ensure that we can’t sue the outfitters upon our deaths, and that the gear we were about to be given was essential to preventing said deaths. Our river guide John called out for us to circle around him for his additional lecture on the day’s itinerary. He seemed like a nice, articulate, mountain man-goateed guy, though I couldn’t help staring at his flip flop-adorned feet and notice that several toes on each foot were missing from various knuckle points. While I know you don’t “need” your feet for river rafting, the question floating around in the back of my mind was “is this something I should be concerned about?”
After a few more pieces of advice from John (e.g., falling out of the raft is bad, drowning is bad, not trying to help rescue yourself is really bad), we loaded up into the buses for the hour drive to the launching point. En route, the river guides rode up front, offering more advice about how to survive the rapids, what to expect at certain points, and as we passed through the towns of Oak Hill and Fayetteville,(1) a review of the local restaurants, including Tudor’s Biscuit World. We all agreed that the name alone justified a visit to before we all went home.(2) Between lack of a good night’s rest, still sweating to death in my wetsuit and sitting in a stuffy bus, the warmth coaxed me into a sleepy state and I tried closing my eyes a few times. However, I was repeatedly shaken out my trance from the many bumpy roads and sharp turns that no former school bus was ever meant to take at high speed.
(1) As luck may have it, I spent three years of my childhood in Fayetteville, NC. The main differences between the two places are that Fayetteville, NC has the Army’s Fort Bragg next door and possibly higher standards for local table dancers.
(2) See Day 3.
Into the Drink
The launch site was busy with groups rallying around their rafts or taking off into the rolling water, and after a final reminder of things to remember (don’t fall out, don’t drown, help save yourself), we lifted up our raft and dropped it into the river.
And that’s when I remembered the reality about wearing a wetsuit.
The nice thing about wetsuits is when you actually want them to keep you warm. They work well because, in addition to being super insulating, they trap water inside, allowing your own body heat to warm it up. The thing is, that trapped water first needs to actually warm up before it’s really effective (and this is assuming you’re not pulling an “Alan Shepard”). That fact escaped my realization before we clambered into the river. As the raft was ready for launch, we were nearly up to our waists in the water, so when John told us to jump into the raft, our compliance was as instant as it was enthusiastic.
The course we took started near Ender Waves (Class III), and shortly afterward we hit our first set of rapids at Backender (Class IV). Having never been on real rapids before, the dawning realization of risking life and limb suddenly hit me, and one of my raft mates observed that I looked a little “concerned” at the time. I tend to approach new experiences with a little trepidation (e.g., I barely slept the night before I got my first tattoo because I was imagining what it would feel like).(1) When it comes to dangerous activities, I’m obviously not much different – in fact, I still remember the first time I went repelling. It was over a gorge in western Virginia off of an unused train bridge and I must’ve spent a solid 10 minutes staring down, trying to psyche myself into trusting the rope and harness holding me. The fact that I have a mild fear of heights didn’t help. However, once I commit to the activity and feel the adrenaline rush hit me, I’m as giggly as a school boy.(2) As we hit the first real rapids, the rush hit and I was all smiles the rest of the way down the river. There’s that hyper-moment of fear when you see churning white water, or having your raft dump into a “pit” of foaming water at Canyon Doors (Class IV) and then slam into the raging wall of rapids now over your head at Heaven Help You (Class IV), followed up by the sudden enthusiasm for more. After the first few rounds of riding the rapids with moments of wondering if any of us were about to drop into the water, we were whooping it up until lunchtime.
In the pictures, I’m on the right, second from the front and wearing sunglasses. Caroline is the one wearing a jacket with green sleeves behind me.
We stopped at a covered patio area set up for the lunch break, and we were ready for some food given that our river riding had definitely burnt off our meager breakfast. We ate our fill of sandwiches, potato and pasta salads and nearly drank our body weights in water. However, that’s also when the other reality of wearing a wetsuit hit, and I rushed over to the nearby trail to figure out how to tactfully peel off enough of the wetsuit to relieve my I-drank-too-much-coffee-this-morning bladder. The trail was far enough away from the rafters to get the job done without exposing myself, but I noticed a dozen other men looking for their own spaces in similar fashion. In short order there was a whole group of us sighing in relief while trying not to make eye contact.(3)
With full bellies and anxious to get back into the river, we were off. The rapids along the Gauley River varied mostly between Levels III and V, so there was plenty of exhilaration throughout the afternoon. There were a few rapids where John suggested people hop out and ride through them in the water, so a few raft mates did just that. I’m kind of kicking myself for not having done that since it looked like fun, but had a final chance in the last leg of our trip. Just before passing through either Lower Stairsteps or Roller Coaster (both are Class IV), John suggested that if we were feeling “particularly frisky” to jump out when he yelled “GRENADE!”
Now, like most people, I’ve done a few things or gotten myself into a few situations that are arguably among the stupidest things I’ve ever done. I like to think that the majority of those times were either unforeseen or unavoidable, but the fact is, I’ve done and probably will continue to do some really dumb shit. There are some prime examples – playing adult flashlight tag on a wooden, castle-style playground after a few too many drinks, trying to jump a dirt ditch on my bike as a kid, dating one or two of my less-than-stellar ex-girlfriends, etc. To date, the hands-down, grand prize winner is riding my motorcycle through a tornado cell. I was trying to race an imminent storm front from the dealership back to my home, but time ran out and I ended up in torrential downpours, almost zero visibility, flash flooding, slick roads and winds so strong that I had to lean into them at a 45° angle. It wasn’t until I was home with the news on that I discovered it was a full-on tornado cell terrorizing the area. And this was on top of having to share the road with the DC area’s not-so-cordial drivers who are assholes under the best of circumstances (and even worse if they’re driving a Lexus, Mercedes or Toyota Prius).
So, when John yelled “GRENADE!”, only two of us went for it. I’ve been through rapids while tubing and even in the water during some of those river rides, but nothing like these. With the water moving as fast as it was, I expected to drop in, pop back up and fly through the rapids – quick and easy. However, my first thought after dropping in was “Why am I not coming back up?” And when I finally did, it was just long enough to swallow a mouthful of oh-so-healthy river water.(4) Suddenly realizing that I was no longer in full control of my fate, I took to heart John’s last cardinal rule (help with your own rescue) and began swimming as best I could back to the raft, which from the voices I could hear, my raft mates understood that I was far from being a happy camper at that moment. Somehow I managed to grab the raft, still hold onto my oar (we were told to do so no matter what) and help my raft mates yank me up by my life jacket, which ended up halfway over my head by the time I was back in the raft. The other guy to jump in was having similar issues, so while still gagging and coughing up river water, I leaned in with one or two others to grab him out of the water. I managed to get a solid handhold of his lifejacket’s shoulder strap, but also his sunglasses, as well. As we lugged him back into the raft, I felt the sunglasses snap in my grip, and suddenly, the concern for his life was a distant second as he yelled “MY OAKLEY’S ARE BROKEN! MY OAKLEY’S ARE BROKEN!” He was a nice enough guy, but my impression of him was that he had a bit of a too-serious-for-his-own-good streak, and I wondered if I was going to spend the rest of the trip listening to endless griping while negotiating the reimbursement for his sunglasses. Fortunately, they were designed to snap back together and life was happy again (a few of us discussed later how it was kind of annoying to hear someone bitch about broken sunglasses while helping him not drown).
The last big rapids were Pure Screaming Hell (Class V), which definitely lived up to their namesake, and a final thrill of a trick maneuver where we partially landed the raft on a rock outcrop, then letting the river pull us back in and around for a wildly fun 360° spin. The rest of the trip was a lazy river ride until we reached the end meeting point, and loaded the rafts and gear onto the trailers for the trip back.
(1) If you don’t have one and/or are thinking of getting one, yes, they hurt like Hell. However, this experience introduced me to the fact that I have a high tolerance for pain, too.
(2) However, this isn’t the same thing as the notorious “Giggly Scott” who, as we discovered one New Year’s Eve, loves to come out when I’m both drunk and dead tired.
(3) We were all well-schooled on the unofficial Man Law of no chit chat at the urinals.
(4) It’s a few weeks later and no visit from “Aunt Giardia,” thank God.
There’s No Graceful Way to Take Off a Wetsuit
Once back at the outfitters, it’s fair to say that, like a visiting relative who stays after you’ve cleaned everything and stripped off the guest bed, the wetsuit had outlived its welcome. Fortunately, I was wearing a quick-dry shirt and shorts under the wetsuit, so I could strip it off as soon as we walked over to the rental counter. Any visions one might have of Baywatch type people in sexy poses while stripping off swimwear in slow motion are pretty much torpedoed in the aftermath of a white water rafting ride. Several of us let out a collective sigh of relief as we unceremoniously removed the Velcro shoulder straps and peeled off the top halves of our wetsuits. Though it was late afternoon, the temperature was still in the mid-70s, but the cooler air hitting us felt as refreshing as an arctic blast. Unfortunately, the act of revealing ourselves with less grace than actors auditioning as zombie extras for The Walking Dead also reminded me that I REALLY had to pee. Consequently, the need to get rest of the wetsuit off became a Hell of a lot more compelling than simply avoiding being smothered. Throwing off water shoes over open gravel while bracing myself against a wall with one arm and half hopping out of the rest of the wetsuit proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that I hadn’t missed my calling as either a professional dancer or ninja. As we handed our wetsuits back, a woman next to me asked why they were being thrown in what can best be described as a vat of steaming “wetsuit stew.” The outfitter clerk working the counter answered back by asking me if I had peed in my suit. I answered no and he unceremoniously called me a liar.(1) The woman nervously laughed and quickly shuffled off, no doubt to take the longest, hottest shower of her life.
Freed of our wetsuits and feeling the first chills of pre-Twilight, we scampered back to the cabin and took turns waiting for the one and only shower to become available. This was my first shower since the previous morning, so I was feeling about as uncontaminated as a New York City taxi cab and probably smelled worse. In short order everyone was cleaned up and we went down to the outfitters’ local bar to watch videos of the day’s ride. Most of us went back to the cabin for burgers and hotdogs, but a few, including an intern from Caroline’s office and a very cute girl in our group who were flirting with each other, stayed to enjoy the “nightlife” of the rustic West Virginia bar scene.
Back at the cabin, beers were popped open, rum and cokes mixed, and burgers and hotdogs were grilled. Well fed, buzzed and now craving dessert, we carpooled down to where the others were camping to circle around their fire pit and attempt to make smores, which became more a free-for-all of roasting marshmallows and telling dirty jokes. As the night progressed, exhaustion began picking off one weary soul at a time until a bare few of us remained around the fire. Eventually, Caroline’s intern/coworker and female friend showed up, drunk and/or high and all giggles. Shortly before wrapping things up, the girl wandered over to the next camp to hang out with some people we met earlier on the river. Strangely enough, Caroline’s intern/coworker suddenly stood up and marched off without saying a word. As we packed up to head back to the cabin, the intern/coworker was long gone and we elected to go searching for him en route to the cabin. However, the consumption of alcohol had taken its toll, so we were taking turns relieving ourselves before loading up in the cars. As we were waiting outside, who should show up but the object of our search. For whatever reason, he decided he wanted to go back to the cabin and apparently waiting for us wasn’t an option for him. Satisfied that everyone was where they needed to be, and completely exhausted, everyone crawled into their respective sleeping bags and/or onto their stone-like mattresses for a well-earned night’s rest.
The delicate grunts and snorts of the snoring dead whiling us away to dreamland.
(1) You’ll simply have to live with the mystery of whether I actually did or didn’t.