I am standing at a sandy access point to the Arkansas River, watching the rushing water create whitecaps downstream while two guides unload the raft. The only thought that comes to mind is ‘How did we get here?’ Yes, we flew to Denver and drove three hours around snow-capped mountain peaks and through flat grazing land, arriving outside of Salida, but the better question is why are we here?
Six years ago, my mom finished cancer treatment and added whitewater rafting to her bucket list. Last year, at age 55, she reiterated her interest. Instead of “stuff,” I gave my parents a trip to Colorado for Christmas. Five months later on a sunny, cloudless Saturday morning in May, we are wearing borrowed black wetsuits that Dad is excited about because he thinks he looks 30 pounds lighter.
Dan, our guide, is a sturdy man in his mid 30s with a precise passion for his second career, having previously worked in sales. Just as any rafting guide should, Dan sports a dark beard with a trace of gray. During his safety lesson, we check every life jacket buckle, ensure our helmets are sufficiently snug, and listen with a hint of disbelief when Dan says Mom can pull Dad back into the raft by using the buoyancy of his life jacket to her advantage. (Thankfully, we never test this.) We learn paddling jargon like ‘forward one’ and ‘backward two’ and to paddle in unison.
Fortunately, we have Lucas as an extra safety precaution. An outdoor education student, Lucas is Danish with tan lines at his wrist from wearing long sleeves while rafting. As an intern, Lucas counts as half of a guide; regardless, the additional expertise calms our nerves.
The only thing left to do is get in our raft with six paddles for five people. Because falling out and holding on to the “chicken line” – the rope that spans the perimeter of the raft – leaves no hands free to rescue a paddle. Half sitting on the outer edge of the raft and half on the seat, Dan calls out, “Forward one!” This is really happening.
It will be 30 minutes before we see our first set of rapids.
Before waves of 5°C water land in our laps.
Before the aptly named ‘Toilet Bowl’ flushes us out of its rapids backwards.
Before my parents laugh with child-like joy.
Before Dad exclaims, “I have no stress right now!”
Mom crossed an item off her bucket list, and I got to share an experience with my parents that we won’t soon forget. Later on in Colorado, Mom said sleeping in a tree house is also on her bucket list.