Running Rapids

(excerpt)

Brian and Sophia had been canoeing on the Koyokuk River for five days when they came across the raft.  Brian was steering in a daze, his stare fixed on Sophia’s neck.  He’d just noticed a small red pimple, at the line of his wife’s short blond hair, when they rounded the corner and Sophia said, “Look,” pointing with her paddle.  On one side of the log raft, the center of which was piled high with green army packs, a skinny guy and a stocky girl with a dark pony tail were dipping plastic paddles into the water.  A guy with long dreadlocks sat by a rudder, swiveling it around, the muscles in his back, his shoulders, swelling with each movement.  Sophia looked back at Brian, smiling widely.  “What?” he said.  They were gaining on the log raft. 

“Nothing,” she said, and turned to face forward. 

The people on the raft spotted them, pointed, stood up, waved, shouted.  Sophia began paddling hard. 

“Slow down,” Brian said. 

She looked back, still clawing at the water with her paddle.  “What? Why?”

“I’m trying to control us,” he said.  Controlling the canoe – keeping it out of shallow water, clear of the rocks that loomed every once in a while, away from the shore where trees, the shoreline eroded by high water, had fallen, a tight fist of branches into the gray water – had been harder than he’d expected when they’d planned this Alaskan trip.  In several situations, when the water ran quick through narrow spaces, only luck had kept them afloat.

“Steer,” she said, waving at the rafters.  In her excitement she stood up slightly in the front of the canoe and Brian imagined her falling into the fifty-degree water, knocking the canoe over as she went, and in this depth, with this current, they’d both drown.  But she controlled herself and was back in her seat, paddling with renewed vigor.  

The log raft looked handmade and sloppy, the people looked a little wild: two men and two women.  The men were bare-chested and both women wore black sports bras.  They were all tanned and filthy and grinning widely.  Brian straightened up in his seat, trying to flatten his rounding shoulders.

            “Hey there,” one of the women shouted, in some kind of European accent.

“Hello,” Sophia screamed back, though the distance between them had closed.  Brian steered the boat, grinding his teeth at the way it swung into the river’s central current where the raft was drifting.  He knew part of the reason he’d been having such a difficult time with the canoe was Sophia’s inconstant paddling.  She’d stroke hard on one side, then switch without telling him, give two big strokes, then lift her paddle up.  It meant Brian was continually adjusting, switching sides, turning his paddle this way, that way, no the other way, harder, then even back paddling sometimes, to keep from going in the wrong direction.  But now, after five days, they were on the home stretch, only two days from the Bettles Lodge, where they could sleep in a bed, take a shower, eat a hamburger, drink a beer. 

“How are you?” one of the women said.  She had short red hair and sharply articulated muscles in her stomach. 

“I like your raft,” Sophia said.

“Oh, no,” the guy with the dreadlocks said.  Despite his ridiculous hair, the man was, Brian saw, handsome.  “This is a terrible piece of shit,” he added.  The others on the raft laughed and Sophia joined them.  The noise rang around the tree line.

“Did you make it yourself?” Brain said.  He was having some trouble keeping his canoe even with the raft. 

 “Yes,” the girl who hadn’t spoken yet said, with the same European accent.  She was short and pudgy, with powerful looking legs and dark hair pulled back in a greasy ponytail.  “We chopped down the trees.  Then lashed them together.  And then we made the raft.”  When she smiled her teeth were bright white.

“How long have you been on the river?” Sophia asked.

“Oh, fuck,” the girl said, waving her hands in the air, at the green line of pines that slipped past on the shore, “forever.”

“Two weeks,” the guy with the dreadlocks said.

“Wow.” Sophia smiled and looked back at Brian.  She looked like she was having fun, so he smiled at her.

“We are going to stop,” the guy with the dreads said, pointing to a gravel bar they were moving toward. “Would you like to stop? To eat?”

“Great,” Sophia said.  “We’ll stop, right, Brian?”  Everyone on the raft looked at him.  He nodded and said of course they would, then pushed his canoe past, to get to the shore ahead of the raft, thinking if they tried to go in at the same time they’d likely crash and that’d be the end of the green canoe. 

-This story can be read in its entirety in the Fall 2003 issue of The Antioch Review.   

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