News traveled fast. Two weeks after lucking into a barely used raft--one week after buying oars and frame--two days after test floating a local lake--and 24 hours after planning an inaugural run down the Gauley with two friends, the first request arrived.
I was assembling a repair kit--tools and parts covering my floor like a hardware store puked in my living room--when Mark, a Chicago-area boater, texted.
“Heard you got a raft. Was thinking we might join for the Gauley overnight. Cool.”
I studied this unexpected message. Was Mark’s final period supposed to be a question mark? And putting a "the" in front of "Gauley overnight" suggested imminent domain--was it still my trip or did it now belong to humanity? Finally, this mysterious "we" deserved scrutiny. It could be a "royal" reference, or refer to Mark plus the 1985 Bears Super Bowl Championship Team.
I texted Kev: "Hey, did you or Jeffers spread the word about my raft?"
I continued building my repair kit while waiting for a reply.
My raft. Never written that before. It had a nice ring.
I began boating as a raft guide out west, a life which included countless overnights in cool places with great friends. When I moved east, I exclusively kayaked and quickly acquired the gear for self-support overnights. But, I only did one. My overnight kit ranged from the Rockies to the Appalachians, in the back of my truck. Rarely were people excited about heavy boats on new rivers, eating tough jerky and damp granola, living out of ripe drysuits.
I started looking for a mid-sized raft to pack light for overnights--just a few dry-bags and a basic backpacking cook-set. I wasn’t interested in carrying a kitchen sink, walk-in dutch oven, or Atlas-V rocket stove. My dream raft would allow long, relaxing trips to the river, skipping the daily shuttle grind and hectic hurrying. I wanted to step it down in a used fat-tube raft that wasn’t all used up. Fat chance of finding that.
After several years, I got lucky. I was visiting my buddy, a newly minted doctor, recently moved to a wealthy subdivision in Chattanooga. While biking around his neighborhood, I passed a cavernous mansion with an open garage. Inside, a big blue raft sat softly inflated on a canvas tarp. Chatting with the owner, I learned he’d bought it on a whim, taken the family once to the Hiwassee River. They complained more than paddled. He wasn’t sure they’d go again. I pointed at my buddy’s house and said if he wanted to sell… Three months later, it was mine.
My phone rang. It as Timbo. Local paddler, frequent trip leader, big fan of the Gauley. My eyes darted. I felt surveilled. I paced my apartment before answering.
At the back-door, I peered through the peep hole, half expecting a fire-line of boaters passing up dry bags.
"Heard you got a raft," said Timbo. "If you don’t mind, a few of us would join for the Gauley."
There was that "the" again. I explained my desire to keep it light, especially for my first trip with my raft.
"We don’t have much," he said. "And we can help with group gear. You probably don’t have a fire-pan yet? We got one."
Don’t want one, I thought. "Well, I’m not--"
"What about a cooler?"
"Have one," I said.
"Second one would probably be good."
A bell toned, indicating an incoming text from Kev. I just said we’d be there and could run shuttle together.
"Timbo," I said. "How many kayakers are you talking about?"
"Just six or seven."
You don’t want to bring your families? I thought. Maybe some distant cousins you haven’t seen since childhood?
"You got a camp table?" asked Timbo. "I got two."
Probably made of oak, I imagined. I chewed on my lip. Could I fake a broken arm?
Afterward, I called Kev.
"I didn’t invite anyone," he insisted. "Just mentioned we’d be there with the raft."
"You sure?" I asked.
The line went silent.
"Okay, technically that’s not true. I didn’t invite Timbo or Mark. But I did invite Pat from Ohio."
"Pat from Ohio?!"
"I figured he’s on the way. Sorry I didn’t ask. He just loves overnights."
Which Pat from Ohio wouldn’t love getting his gear carried down the river? With Kev and I in the raft, plus Jeffers and now Pat from Ohio kayaking, I decided we were full and no longer accepting applications. I texted Mark and Timbo the news. Fortunately, they were understanding.
"No problem," wrote Timbo. "I’ll bring my own raft."
The following weekend, Timbo and crew paddled down river, while I was sorting my straps. Kev paddled and I rowed. Jeffers kayaked. Pat didn’t make it out of Ohio.
We packed light, just a dry bag each. One kitchen bag. A thwart bag for safety. We scouted the big drops. Perched once. Had a rough line at Sweet’s Falls, but came through. My arms felt like sacks of flour when we spotted the tents and gear of Timbo’s camp.
As I tied up next to Timbo’s raft, I recalled his final text. Wait, I thought. They had their own raft this whole time?
What do gondolier’s sing?
"O Sole! O Sole Mio!"
Great. Now I’ll have to carry an accordion, too. At least Pavarotti won’t be looking for a ride.
More from Mike Bezemek’s ‘Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters’ series