Take Me to the River

I am standing at the edge of the Nantahala River within the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. Beside me, clutching my hand tightly, is my eight-year-old daughter, Malu. It is her first time river rafting and she is excited and a little scared. I, on the other hand, am terrified.

I have a fear of water, you see, and have foolishly decided the only way to get over it is to take my children rafting. When I am with them, maternal protectiveness always triumphs over fear. That was my logic when I planned five days, whitewater rafting in North Carolina. I don’t want my daughters to inherit my fear. As for me, caught up in caring for my kids, I would forget to be afraid. That was the plan anyway.

So I stand in this remote spot, deep within the Smokey Mountains, far away from – I can’t help thinking – ambulances and hospitals. To get anywhere means driving an hour. An eagle circles overhead; elk graze; we scout for black bears as we drive through empty roads to reach a picturesque spot that epitomises what nature lovers and tour guides call “the great American wilderness”.

I clutch little Malu’s hand tighter as our guide, a dashing long-haired young man named Hoke, pulls the raft near us. The afternoon sun glistens in the water as we – my husband, two girls and I – climb aboard. The river tugs at the boat and we are off.

Slender trees in temperate green rise up the gorge. The river is broad and playful, with swirling eddies, shimmering ripples and frothing water over pebbles. I try not to think of the raft overturning as I tighten my life jacket.

Cradled at the bottom of the Nantahala gorge, its namesake river means “land of the noonday sun” in the Cherokee language, perhaps because the steep gorge allows sunlight to hit the river only when the sun is directly above. It is one of seven rivers that flow through the Great Smokey Mountains, all with musical American Indian names: Chattooga, Ocoee, Nolichucky, Cheoah, and the more prosaic Pigeon and French Broad.

We sign up with the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), mostly based on recommendations from friends. Since 1972, NOC has been guiding rafting trips in the area. Best of all, from my point of view, we could pay per river trip, and just a day in advance. In other words, I could chicken out at the last minute.

Each of the rivers we raft during our trip – Nantahala, Pigeon (twice) and the French Broad – involve the same procedure. We arrive at NOC’s river outpost half an hour before the trip, clad in swimsuits. Each outpost sells rafting supplies – deck shoes, sunblock, goggles, towels and swimsuits – for those who have not come prepared. We pay for the trip (US$47; Dh173) per person for the Nantahala; $300 (Dh1,102) for an overnight trip on the Chattooga), signindemnity forms and are off. Most centres offer free windcheaters and trousers for those who feel cold on the water. I always take them; my husband never does.

For those who have rafted in the Colorado, Zambezi, Ganges and other world-renowned rivers, the Nantahala, with its gentle rapids, might seem a wee bit dull. After bouncing through the first two rapids with nary a bump, even my children become restless.“What are some of the exciting rivers you have run?” asks Ranju, my 12-year-old adrenalin junkie.

Hoke smiles. “Each river is interesting,” he says. “Each rapid is exciting and different. No matter how many times you’ve run it.”

Over the next few days, as I encounter other guides – brawny outdoorsmen; some loquacious, some taciturn – I realise that this is a pattern. Our guides love rivers, all rivers. And they have a healthy respect for what a river can do. One of the first things we learn is what to do if we are thrown overboard. Three things. Four, actually, as my eight-year old recites: “Float on your back with your feet out in front in case you hit rocks; grab the throw-rope so you can be pulled back into the boat; never stand up in running water, however shallow. If your feet get caught under rocks, the river will pull you forward and you can drown.”

The high point of the Nantahala is the final, class-three rapid called Nantahala Falls. Since the water levels are good, Hoke says it is likely that we will get drenched. “Will I fall overboard?” I ask. “Unlikely but possible,” he replies.

I choose to sit in the back of the boat right beside Hoke. My husband, Ram, and Ranju sits in front, with Malu sandwiched in the middle.

No matter how prepared you are, going through a rapid is always a sudden and somewhat shocking experience. One moment we are floating along lightly and the next, we are surrounded by raging whitewater.

“Dig in,” yells Hoke.

I freeze. Ahead of me, I can see my husband and daughter lunge into the water with their oars. Even Malu is hard at work. Mist sprays my eyes. Suddenly, a huge wave of water rises and drenches us. Ranju whoops with joy. Shocked out of my stupor by the cold water, I loosen my death grip on the oar and begin rowing. But it is over.

That evening, over a pizza dinner at the Best Western Inn in Cherokee, where we base ourselves, we plan the next few days. Hoke has recommended rafting the Pigeon next. It seems to have more interesting rapids, judging by their names: Rooster Tail, Big Bend, Roller Coaster and (just in case we don’t understand what this river is about), a class-four rapid called Lost Guide.

Every day we wake up ravenous and devour a hearty American breakfast – eggs, bagels, pancakes and coffee – then drive to the river, usually for an hour through America’s vast untouched forests within the grand Smokey Mountains. For the Pigeon, we drive via Gatlinburg, one of the prettiest (and most touristy) towns in the area. We will raft in the morning and spend the afternoon exploring Gatlinburg.

The thing about river rafting is that you cannot plan it. The Pigeon, for instance, starts with the Powerhouse, a class-three rapid that offers novice neurotics such as me little time to prepare. We board the raft and almost immediately it seems we are engulfed in water. Our raft lunges towards a giant boulder, which churns up a raft-load of water over us. We drop several metres, swirling around. I scream the whole way through. Almost as suddenly as it starts, it is over and we bob gently down the stream.

My husband and children love the Pigeon so much, we decide to do it again the next morning. That evening, we walk around Gatlinburg, my children carrying candy apples. At night we find a restaurant called Mojitos, where my husband and I share a huge fajita and are finally able to relax without anyone barking rowing orders at us.

For our second time on the Pigeon, we do something unusual. As soon as we pass a rapid called Superglue, our guide orders all of us to row backwards. By now, I have a rafting formula: close eyes, follow orders, hold the baby (my eight-year-old). We row backwards to make our way up-river until we reach a giant boulder that shields us from the river’s pull. “Keep rowing,” shouts Rob, our guide, and suddenly, we are on top of the rapid, surfing Superglue. I am, as usual, in the back, but this time, I am shocked into keeping my eyes open. The quick flowing water comes at us, but the raft, contrary to all laws of physics, it seems, stays unmoving, right on top of the rapid. We all row hard, hypnotised by the water pouring off a ledge and under our raft. It is a most amazing sight.

On our final day, we drive to Asheville to raft the French Broad. It turns out to be my kind of rapid – long and lazy without too many jerks, yet enough excitement to keep the girls busy. Or maybe I had just have got used to the water. At one section, the guide docks off a ledge and asks if people want to jump into the water. Of course they do. And I, resigned by now, follow. I shut my eyes, hold my breath and leap. As the water splashes around me and I sink into the cold, darkening abyss, the familiar panic takes over. Just as my lungs feel like they are about to burst, gravity releases its chokehold and buoyancy takes over. I emerge from the water. My husband takes one look at my ashen face and holds out his hand.

“You’ve come a long way, ” he says with a smile.

I have.

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