Eventful whitewater rafting trip creates lifelong memories

  • My mother-in-law and father-in-law, Penny and Troy Brock, sat in the front of the raft. I was in the middle next to my brother-in-law, Dominick Brock, and in front of my husband, Roland. At the rear was our guide, Kloee. COURTESY PHOTO/ADAM HALLENBECK

  • Having little confidence in my physical abilities, I focused intently on channeling my strength into paddling as we made our way into the Class III rapids at Zoar Gap. COURTESY PHOTO/ADAM HALLENBECK

  • Meet what the guides call the “OS” rock. The abbreviation comes from the two words you say once you hit it and your raft tips over. COURTESY PHOTO/ADAM HALLENBECK

  • Water begins to gush into the back of the raft while some of my family members grab for the ropes in the middle of the raft. COURTESY PHOTO/ADAM HALLENBECK

  • The beginning of the end. COURTESY PHOTO/ADAM HALLENBECK

  • Underneath the surface, everything was dark. The sound of the rushing water was all that could be heard. COURTESY PHOTO/ADAM HALLENBECK

  • After our life jackets helped us to surface, I tried to grab hold of the ropes on the side of the raft like Kloee, but was swept downstream. COURTESY PHOTO/ADAM HALLENBECK

Staff Writer
Published: 9/3/2021 4:37:15 PM

Despite seeing so much of Franklin County and the North Quabbin region as a reporter, and now reading about it as an editor, experiencing firsthand all the recreational opportunities our area has to offer is something I rarely get the chance to do, with day-to-day responsibilities, lengthy home improvements and helping others always coming first.

That is, until my in-laws gave me the excuse to put on my tourist hat to check out something my husband, Roland, and I have been wanting to do for the five years we’ve been living in Shutesbury: whitewater rafting down the Deerfield River.

Maybe that’s not an ordinary experience for in-laws, but mine are anything but ordinary. My mother-in-law, Penny, lives to see the world. Don’t bother with an expensive present for under the tree at Christmas; she’d much rather have a memory than any material item. I couldn’t agree more.

Rounding out the crew is my 17-year-old brother-in-law, Dominick, and my father-in-law, Troy. While Troy is often the opposite of his wife, avoiding long car rides as much as possible, if the experience is worthwhile, he can occasionally be swayed, as has been the case for a George Strait concert and an Airbnb with a Zen garden and koi pond. Spending time on a river, whether it’s calm or rushing, apparently fell into the acceptable categories.

Penny booked the excursion through Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont. The Fife Brook Trip option, which covers a 5-mile section of the Deerfield River starting in Berkshire County and ending with the Class III Zoar Gap, is billed as the best trip for beginners. The cost ranges depending on whether you’re going during peak season and/or on a weekend. To book for Sunday, July 25, the price was $100 each.

With payment taken care of, all we needed to contribute in advance were our signatures on an online waiver, which also detailed what to wear. This includes shoes with a back, such as fully strapped sandals, water shoes or old sneakers — flip flops are not acceptable — and clothing not made from cotton as it holds onto water the most.

When July 25 rolled around, I prepared with a bathing suit beneath shorts and a long-sleeve Columbia brand shirt made from polyester. Labeled a Performance Fishing Gear shirt, it seemed up to the task of getting wet and drying out quickly.

As the person most familiar with the county, I drove us to Charlemont that gloomy morning to make our 11 a.m. appointment. Though rain threatened, the sun began to peek out as we headed up the Mohawk Trail.

Admittedly, I had never been to Berkshire East before, despite the popular assumption that all native Vermonters must either ski or snowboard. Walking to the lodge where we needed to check in provided us with views of the mountain itself, which was swarming with mountain bikers at this time of year, and the Aerial Adventure Park.

Once enough rafters to fill the several boats that were going out with us had convened, the seasoned veteran of rafting guides, Brian Pytko, stepped to the front of the room to give a tutorial on ideal responses under the numerous possibilities where something goes wrong. There were a lot more situations than I could have imagined.

For context, I am not someone who has confidence in my physical ability to do anything that doesn’t involve maintaining my seat on a horse’s back. I’m sure this is part of what led me to a career that involves sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day as opposed to lifting, carrying, pulling, pushing or otherwise physically handling things. I was quickly beginning to feel like I’d be the weak link on this raft. How was I supposed to help someone if they fell overboard?

Though Brian did a great job acting out for us how this might happen, including enthusiastic exclamations of “I’m saving your life,” I was beginning to feel my heart beat faster at the very thought. We also learned that if a guide shouts “high side,” we should move to the highest corner of the raft to prevent it from flipping, and that perhaps the most common accident involves the person sitting next to you on the raft accidentally ramming you in the cheek when they pick up their paddle.

Or, if you do happen to end up in the water, you should put your feet straight out and float downstream. One of the worst possibilities described involves when someone falls out of the raft and their first instinct is to try to stand up, but their foot becomes caught between rocks while battling the forceful current. This certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard this type of story. I can remember reading newspaper articles about instances where this happens to a child and they get pulled underwater. Sometimes being a journalist makes it all too clear what the worst-case scenario is.

After providing us with our personal flotation devices, helmets and paddles that are stored in a shed outside, we piled onto a bus — with windows open and masks on, as are the current COVID-19 health safety guidelines on public transportation — for the trip upstream to Florida, where our guides pointed out the eastern end of the well-known Hoosac Tunnel before dropping us off riverside. While the trip probably wasn’t long at all, it allowed plenty of time for me to stew in my own nerves. This was probably the case for Troy, too, as Penny pointed out the nervous look on his face more than once.

Once at the river’s edge with our guide, Kloee Wheeler, we took our places in what was the largest raft of the fleet. While it might seem natural to sit as close to the center of the raft as possible to prevent falling out, Kloee explained you should sit nearly on the sides. You then wedge your toes under the seat or side in front of you to cement your footing.

Penny and Troy took the front seats, which get hit with the most water. I was happy to take up the more-protected middle next to Dominick, and Roland sat behind me. That made three people on one side and two on the other, with Kloee in the back center. She was responsible for much of the steering, which to my eye appears to be a very difficult job that puts your muscles and flexibility to the test.

With Kloee’s bellows of “All forward,” we made our way out onto the water. Early on, the rafts took turns on some more tame fun referred to as “surfing,” where you paddle directly into a rapid until water begins to fill the boat and the rafters get sufficiently doused. (I should note, these inflatable rafts have strategically designed holes that allow the water to drain.) It required momentum and coordination on everyone’s parts to go in the opposite direction as the water is flowing, but it was simple fun — good for both cooling off and putting a smile on your face.

As we made our way through Class I and II rapids, my nerves began to ease. We were gaining synchronicity after some early paddles bumping, the gray skies were continuing to part and there was sufficient downtime between rapids to observe the beauty of the Deerfield River and the surrounding environment.

There were also several spots with calm water where the guides stopped to offer us a chance to swim. Roland used the opportunity to pull his little brother in, and Penny loves swimming, though Troy and I couldn’t be convinced. It did give us a chance to observe Kloee’s method for pulling people into the boat. You grab both sides of the person’s life jacket and pull them up while using your momentum of falling back, so the person just about falls on top of you. This method means getting fairly intimate with strangers, but I could see why it’s physically the easiest.

On quiet water, some of the other guides showed their rafters how to do tricks, like a “wheelie.” Yes, it looks just like the variety done on motorcycles, dirt bikes or four-wheelers. The guide attaches a rope to the front of the raft and, with the rafters having moved to the back of the boat, leans back until the front of the raft lifts off the water. The guide inevitably falls in, which they didn’t seem to mind, but Kloee noted the potential for flipping a raft that way is high. No thanks.

It was during these quiet times that I took the opportunity to thank Penny for taking us on this adventure. My parents would have never done something like that with me, and I was having so much fun I’d be willing to partake in a repeat performance.

Maybe that’s where I went wrong.

We were nearing Zoar Gap, the singular Class III rapid on the stretch of river before we would get out of the water. Kloee began to prep us for how we’d need to handle it, and a particular rock we’d need to avoid. The guides seem to refer to it as the “OS,” or the abbreviation of the two words you say after you hit it and your raft flips over.

That’s exactly what happened. One minute I was focused intently on putting all my strength into paddling in whatever direction Kloee shouted and the next, everything was dark. The sound of rushing water filled my ears. The raft had flipped completely over before I could even think about holding my breath.

Not that holding my breath was something I had practiced. I never swim under water; only above water and never in places where I can’t touch the ground. I was out of luck in both cases.

Though it’s hard to recall exactly what was going through my mind under water, I would be lying if I said I didn’t think the worst for a second — that I might not surface at all and that this was not how I pictured everything ending for me. How did I picture the end? Just four days shy of my 27th birthday, I really hadn’t thought that far.

It felt like an eternity before my life jacket popped me back up to the surface. Roland, who is a much stronger swimmer than I but still no match for the rushing current, managed to surface behind me and put his arm around me while I was gasping for air. As we floated farther away from the rapids and the water slowed, I was able to put into practice what Brian had said about putting your feet straight out so that they don’t catch on rocks.

As I was floating backwards, I couldn’t see the other rafts that had successfully navigated the Class III rapids, including Brian’s raft that stopped to pick us up. I watched the earlier method of pulling people into the boat be put into practice again so that we were falling on top of strangers, in this case our heroes — though there were no shouts of “I’m saving your life” as in Brian’s earlier reenactment.

The raft we joined had been full before, with a bunch of retired gentlemen who we suspected must be used to going on these sorts of outings together, as they were well prepared with gear when we first saw them in Berkshire East’s parking lot. With an extra five of us, it was a particularly tight arrangement, but one that I couldn’t help but find refreshing in a strange way, after living in so much isolation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this instance, the fear of others we’ve come to experience as the norm was nonexistent. We couldn’t be more thankful for them, and they were genuinely concerned for us. In calmer water downstream, a pair of kayakers even brought us some of our paddles that had gotten swept away.

A previous scab on Roland’s arm had been ripped open somewhere in the process, leading his father to ask, “Roland, is your arm OK?” One of the older gentlemen asked, “What’s wrong with my arm?” It turns out there were now two Rolands on this raft.

Meanwhile, Kloee was the only one who hadn’t joined our entourage. She was working to right the overturned raft and collect any additional lost paddles. Having previously worked as a horseback riding tour guide and knowing what it was like to not have everything go according to plan, I really felt for her.

Once our feet were securely on land, Brian took out his first aid kit to bandage Roland’s arm, along with Dominick’s scraped knee. Our only loss was Roland’s glasses, which floated downstream.

All the rafters helped carry the rafts out of the water and up the embankment, where we got back on the bus and returned to Berkshire East in a daze.

By the time we made it back to the parking lot, our clothes had practically all dried, thanks to the helpful advice on the type of fabric to wear. Roland and Dominick shook hands with the elder Roland and his raftmates who had pulled us out. I recall saying to one of them, “Nice to meet you,” after he pulled me up. What a unique icebreaker this excursion turned out to be.

After an experience like what we had, maybe the logical life-preserving response would be to never put yourself in a similar situation again. But, oddly enough, I would consider going again.

This isn’t the first adventure we’ve had, and it won’t be the last. I’ve fallen off a jet ski on Cape Cod. I’ve fallen off more horses than I can count. And while you’re reading this, I might be trying out snorkeling on the coast of Colombia while on our honeymoon. Any of these situations has the chance to end badly, but they can also be joyous occasions if you take the chance. As my mother-in-law pointed out, that whitewater rafting trip is time spent together that we’ll never forget.

Shelby Ashline is news editor at the Greenfield Recorder, where she has worked since graduating from the UMass Amherst in 2016. Reach her at 413-772-0261, ext. 270 or sashline@recorder.com.


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