Cliffs loomed before us. Half of the kids in the raft screamed for dear life while I giggled like a mad man. We all grabbed a hold of whatever we could find. For some of us, that meant the teachers legs, for others it meant the raft. For me, it was the life jacket of the kid next to me. Nothing could prepare me for the jolt though. When the raft struck the rock separating us from the waterfall, I lost my hold on the kid and went flying through the air. End over end, I did a proper cartwheel over the surface of the water, finishing with a full summer sault and a not so graceful "plop! splash!" For the second time that day, my head was completely submerged in the river.
Upon surfacing, I remembered once again what the river guides and teachers had told us. "Go feet first," they had said, "if you happen to fall out. Cross your arms over your chest and hold on to your life vest. Try to stay clear of the rocks and we'll pick you up when it's safe to."
Coughing and sputtering from the large amount of the Colorado River I had inhaled for the second time that day, I grabbed the opposite arm holes of my life vest and leaned back. My sneakers weighed down my feet and it was hard to lead with my shoes. Even without them I'd never been able to do a back float. I was a skinny kid with long legs. My body was out of balance for something like that.
Another rock loomed before me and I felt it slice directly into my shin as I did my best to bounce off of it with one foot. The river guides had been right - this place was dangerous, but it was also really fun! I giggled again, only getting a small bit of the fresh river water in my mouth. Mom really missed out on this adventure, I thought.
I went over the falls and watched the raft as another kid sailed off into the air, flailing around wildly like they had been thrown from a roof top. Screaming echoed off of the canyon walls. The other raft in our group had already made it down without loosing anyone, but there wasn't a dry pair of shoes or strand of hair in either boat.
As planned, I went feet first over the waterfall, straight down with my arms still crossed, and folloed up by going completely under the surface below. When I came up, I was laughing even harder. This was the trip of a lifetime and one I'd never forget.
Freddie pointed out, "There she is, Mr. Steinerson!" Freddie had been my penpal for my entire 5th grade year. She had become a pretty good friend to me through the old fashioned mail system. I was glad to see her watching out for me. The boat steered closer and Mr. Steinerson reached over for my life vest. He grabbed it by the neck and the river guides drifted us towards the shore.
The other kid that had flown out was Summer Sparks, the girl that had inspired my "Blind Man's Bluff" game with Michael. I'll never forget my surprise when I found out both of them had been innocent the entire time. Thankfully we had all gotten over that ordeal and were friends again.
Freddie Honga had grown up on the Hualapai Indian Reservation, as had her class mates. Mr. Steinerson's friend had been the 5th grade teacher on the reservation for years. Each year, the students would be assigned penpals with our parents permission. Then, towards the end of the school year, they would come stay with us for a week, and we would stay with them for a week.
Usually, with Mr. Steinerson, that week in Arizona with the Hualapai tribe meant white water rafting down the Colorado River. Mom was supposed to have gone with me, but at the last minute she told me she changed her mind and couldn't go. She said had too much to do. I understood, but I knew I would miss sharing this amazing adventure with her. The truth I didn't discover until my return from the trip was that she had major jaw surgery and didn't want to hold me back from the trip. It was very selfless of her and I loved her for it, but I wished I would have known. Back then there was a 5 year waiting list to go rafting down the Colorado River through the middle of the Grand Canyon with the Hualapai guides and Mr Steinerson had standing reservations. My mother would never have another chance.
I was dragged back into the boat finally. Waterlogged and feeling 30 pounds heavier than usual, I rolled into the floor of the boat and just laid there a minute. The guides fished Summer out of the drink and eased her to the floor next to me.
"I can't wait until it's over," Summer said.
"I wanna go again," I weazed, completely out of breath. She rolled her head slightly until she could look at me from the corner of her eye.
"You're crazy." I just giggled in response.
"Ok Troops," one of the guides called out to us, "time to pack it ashore." Mr Steinerson leaned over and asked if we were ok to eat lunch. Summer turned green and I shot straight up looking for the food. I really was fearless back then.
We cruised into a small inlet with mostly calm waters at the base of a rather sloped waterfall. Some of the kids remarked that it looked very much like a water slide. A couple of them toyed with the idea of wanting to slide down it, but the guides wouldn't have it. We needed to eat lunch first. (Yes, I do believe I found a photo of the exact spot where we sat and ate that day)
We piled out of the boats and sat on the sloped rocks around the inlet, setting our food on our laps to eat. They had packed lunches for us, and we had a regular feast that afternoon. With all the swimming I had done after falling out of the boat the second time that day, I was starving. I pulled out the chicken breast first and chowed down on it, forgetting all manners. My mother wasn't there, so who really cared how I ate? Next went down the apple as noisily as a horse would chomp a carrot. Finally, a Capri-Sun to wash it all down, and I leaned back on the rocks to dry out. I reminded myself of a lizard in the sun, baking on a toasty rock.
Some of the kids began exploring the slope a bit. They followed the waterfall up to the cliffs, looking for the source of the water. One of the guides announced that it was indeed a natural waterslide, and if we wanted to play on it we were welcome to. We just had to wait 45 minutes after eating and be careful. As soon as I heard that news, I was one of the first to the top.
I didn't slide down right away. Something in the back of my mind was telling me to wait just a bit. I stood and watched the first kid go all the way down, shouting and laughing the whole way. The next kid to go down went just a bit higher. The following did the same. Each kid that slid down the falls climbed just a little further up than the kid before them did. I figured that was the instinct I had felt, telling me to wait. I wanted to see how high they got before they dared go any higher. I didn't have long to find out.
Michael got as high as anyone, but dared not go any higher. None of the kids did. They were too scared to go any higher - but I knew I could show them all. Every single kid from both rafts were gathered around the slide, watching and cheering as everyone slid down. I got all the way to the top, as high as possible, knowing my butt would regret it later on judging by the miniature falls along the way, and I climbed into the streaming water. The rock surface beneath was smooth. I had to hold on to the dry red rocks around me in order to keep standing.
"You might be too high up," one of the guides warned me. I didn't listen and he shrugged his shoulders. He hollered to another guide, who told Mr. Steinerson what I was up to. Before anyone was able to tell me not to, I released the sides of the rock and began to slide down.
Summer was there cheering me on at the top. Michael was about half way up waving at me as I began my descent. He was on his way back up to beat my distance, I was sure. I didn't think he'd have the courage to go through with it though. Freddie was all the way at the bottom. She put her hands to either side of her mouth and shouted something to me, but I couldn't hear her. Apparently it was a warning of some kind. When she saw me starting to slide down, her hands went to her face as though she didn't want to watch. I knew then I was in some sort of trouble.
Mr. Steinerson grabbed a towel and ran to the base of the natural slide. In the back of my mind I figured I couldn't be in too much trouble or he would have come up the side.
Suddenly it hit me. It wasn't an idea or a thought, or even an eerie feeling. No, it was something much more sinister that literally hit me. A rather sharp rock grabbed hold of my jean shorts at the leg hole and held tight. I had too much speed at that point to slow down, and under me was so slick I couldn't if I had tried. I felt my shorts give way and the rock sliced straight through the fabric and into the back of my thigh. Just when I thought the worst was over, I got the weggie of a lifetime and lost more than half of my shorts behind me as I kept sliding.
I splashed into the pool below and Mr. Steinerson tossed the towel into the water. I wrapped my half naked bottom in the towel under water and tread water while trying to pick at the horrendous weggie from Hell.
Apparently that was Freddie's warning to me. Finally, when I was satisfied that the majority of fabric had been pulled out from between my cheeks, I climbed out of the water.
All the kids laughed so hard some of them contributed to the river with their tears. I turned as red as the Grand Canyon cliffs and climbed into the boat to sit for the rest of our lunch break. Freddie sat with me. She was such a good friend to me.
We finally pulled off for the night after a very cold ride down the river that afternoon. When we met up with the other rafts at a sand bar (pictured here is the actual sand bar), I finally was able to get to my bags and get a change of clothes. The soaking wet towel had done its job keeping me decently covered, but I was freezing and more than ready for a dry pair of pants. My legs resembled a porcupine's hide.
When I got back from Arizona, my Grandmother was at the school to pick me up. I had fully expected my mother. That was when I found out she was in the hospital. Panic set in. I could have easily drowned out there in the river when I fell overboard. I had cut myself on sharp rocks twice in one day and probably should have had stitches. Still, with everything I had been through on that trip I welcomed more. I never feared for a moment. Yet, when I found out my Mom was in the hospital, true fear set in.
Mom turned out to be fine. She had her jaws wired shut for 6 weeks, and keeping her from laughing wasn't an easy thing to do. I couldn't tell her about my river cartwheels or the slide weggie from Hell, because it would make her laugh or smile, causing her excrutiating pain. But, other than not being able to smile, she was just fine. That is, until she tried to eat watered down mashed potatoes through a syringe. What an adventure that was!
In loving memory of Freddie Honga of the Hualapai Indian Tribe.