River Rafting Adventure
By Steve Gillman
My river rafting adventure was only "ultralight"
for the first thirty miles. This is because I didn't count the
weight of the bicycle until I was done riding it and had put
it on the raft. All I carried otherwise was a small backpack,
a hatchet, a saw, scraps of rope, food, water, a garbage bag
bivy sack, a hat, and odds and ends; maybe fifteen pounds total.
It was to be a biking, hiking, and river rafting trip.
It was late May, so I could stay warm in my homemade bivy sack,
without a sleeping bag. I might wear my hat, and pile up some
leaves to sleep on. If the mosquitoes were bad, I would use my
head net, which, I had learned, would also trap warm air around
my head, keeping me warmer. I had matches and a lighter, in case
I needed a fire in an emergency.
Thirty miles of pedaling had brought me from my home in Traverse
City, Michigan, down the back roads to the Baxter Bridge, on
the Manistee River. It was almost 10 a.m. I pushed the bicycle
into the woods, and rolled it along, lifting it over logs, until
I was a mile upstream. Looking around at the trees, I knew this
was the place to start the river rafting part of the trip.
Sometimes Adventure Involves a Lot of Work
The first tree was the biggest, and I almost couldn't drag
the ten-foot sections to the river after cutting them. They were
perfect, however. Dead, dry-rotted Poplar was always good, because
it was like Styrofoam inside. It cut easy, and floated well.
White Cedar was the best quality, but it was more difficult to
find, and to cut.
When I had hauled enough logs to the river, I got into the
water and pulled the first two pieces in after me. I tied them
together, then tied two long thin poles to them perpendicularly
near either end. The other logs were guided, one by one, under
these two rails, and tied in place. By early afternoon I was
finished. With the last piece of rope, I tied the raft to shore.
I found and cut a good rafting pole to guide me. I was ready.
Tom Sawyer Day
My first river rafting adventure had involved four of us.
I advertised it to my friends as an adventure-disaster, sure
to get them wet and cold. Three took the bait. Apart from snacks
and water, we took only a hatchet, a small saw, and whatever
scraps of rope we could find. It all fit into a small backpack.
We parked near the river and hiked a trail upstream until we
were a few miles from the car. The plan was to build a raft,
using only dead trees and our scraps of rope. We would then get
on it and go rafting back to the car.
It was dubbed "Tom Sawyer Day," and became a much
anticipated event among an ever-changing group of participants.
Since it was, in equal parts, fun and dangerous, we didn't usually
bring beer. Even sober, it was enough of a challenge to keep
a thousand-pound pile of logs, with four people on it, from going
where it wanted to go. Where it wanted to go inevitably involved
pain and cold water, but with each trip I managed to learn a
little. Sometimes we even stayed dry.
Sometimes Adventure Involves Math
The first trip, Roland and I were cutting and hauling logs
to the river, while Cathy and Leslie cooked hotdogs over a fire.
We began to do geometry on a piece of birch bark, trying to figure
out how many logs were needed, allowing for the dishonesty of
the women's stated weights.
"Cedar weighs 37 pounds per cubic foot," I told
Roland, "leaving a lifting capacity of about 27 pounds,
given that water is 64 pounds per cubic foot." The girls
were laughing at me. "The volume of a cylindrical object
is pi times the radius squared, times the length, right?"
Roland agreed. We counted out the logs and began to build the
raft. When finished, we had a floating pile of old rotten logs
and two frightened women.
Sometimes Adventure Involves Getting Wet
Leslie and Cathy sat on a stump in the middle of the raft.
Roland and I stood with our poles, ready to fend off the banks
of the river and the overhanging trees. We did this successfully
for at least fifteen minutes. Then, when a low, horizontal tree
refused to move, Roland pushed us all off in order to regain
his balance. We quickly gave up trying to find the bottom of
the river, and swam after the raft. Sputtering and cursing at
Roland, the three of us climbed back on.
This first rafting trip was in late April, when the water
is still like ice. The sun warmed us, but our feet were almost
always in the water. It was bad enough that the raft didn't float
very high off the water, but then it began to change shape before
our eyes and under our feet. "It's a square. No wait! It's
a parallelogram. Now it's a square again." The girls decided
that there was too much geometry in river rafting, so a few minutes
later we let the raft drift close to the shore, where they stepped
off into the shallow water.
The water, however, wasn't as shallow as we thought. Once
they had reappeared and climbed up the sandy bank of the river,
we waved goodbye. The trail took them to and from the river on
their way to the car. The next time we saw them, Leslie was hiking
in her wet bra and panties. This part of the adventure story
was crucial to recruiting other young males in the future. The
trail went into the forest again, and the girls didn't see us
for thirty minutes.
Sometimes Adventure Involves Running
Actually they saw the raft first, floating quietly down the
river by itself. Soon they saw Roland and I, running along the
opposite side, trying to catch up. This was because of a tree
that stuck out from the bank, low to the water. We were unable
to avoid it, despite our excellent rafting skills, and thought
we could jump over it as the raft passed underneath. It seemed
like a reasonable plan at the time. It didn't seem so reasonable
when Roland was pushing my face into the sticks in the tree while
climbing over me to get to shore.
The raft went on, not noticing our absence. We ran through
swamp and woods, pretending this was part of the plan when the
girls saw us. The raft came near the riverbank just as we caught
up to it. We leapt for it, and we were back in control. More
"How do we get off?" Roland asked, when we were
near the car. We decided that we just had to get close to shore
and jump. Roland was still hanging from a tree when I started
up the big hill to the car. Tom Sawyer Days went a little smoother
after this first one.
Sometimes Adventure Involves Being Pointed At
After pedaling thirty miles and hauling logs for hours, I
was tired, but satisfied. It was the best raft yet, and I was
soon rafting down the river, under Baxter Bridge, and into the
National Forest. I noticed immediately that these rafts float
better with only one person on them. There was just one small
group of houses to pass before a long uninhabited stretch. My
bicycle stood proudly in the center of the raft, tied in place,
with the backpack on the handlebars.
The first guy to see me yelled hello, and pointed me out to
his wife. The second didn't know what to say. The Manistee is
not a well-traveled river, especially not by bicyclists. A few
minutes later I was past the houses. Around the next bend, a
whitetail deer saw me and backed off through the cattails. Probably
went to tell his wife, I thought.
I floated for hours. Apparently my previous river rafting
experience was paying off, because I managed to miss the trees,
rocks, riverbanks, and to stay dry. I was even able to sit down
and soak up the sun for a minute or two at a time. The latter
was always interrupted, of course, by the necessity to jump up
and use the pole to avoid something.
Early in the evening, I stopped, disassembled the raft, and
began pushing my bicycle through the woods. A mile later I found
a trail, and got on the bike. A mile after that I met two guys
on a two-track, out four wheeling. The ice-cold beer they gave
me made them into instant friends, so I told them that, no, I
wasn't just out bicycling. I was river rafting. They weren't
sure they wanted a new friend, so I traveled on.
Eventually I decided to just keep going. Sixty miles of bicycling,
a couple miles hiking while pushing the bike through the woods,
three hours of log-hauling, and five hours of rafting, all in
one day, seemed like a worthy goal. And the mosquitoes were worse
than I had anticipated. Sometime well after dark I pulled into
the driveway and stumbled into the house, my biking-hiking-river
rafting adventure completed.
Michigan Backpacking - Three