Ripped tide: White-water rafting with Zoar Outdoor

Friday September 21, 2012

The raft is a blue rubber tub with "Zoar Outdoor" in yellow on the side, and I am sitting on one round rubber side at the bow. We have just pushed off from the bank, and our first standing wave over a flat rock has sent us sliding into froth.

Our guide asks us if we're willing to go over it again. We turn and head back, not up the rapid but into it. Cold water jets across us, and we all spontaneously start laughing out loud.

As the bow plows into the baby waterfall, and the baby waterfall falls into my lap, I catch on: I'm sitting in the bow, so I'm going to be first in the way of every splash.

I am laughing in sheer energy and delight.

It was perfect September that day on the Deerfield river: warm in the sun and breezy, and the leaves just turning here and there in a tinge of red or yellow

It was perfect September that day on the Deerfield river: warm in the sun and breezy, and the leaves just turning here and there in a tinge of red or yellow. The raft held six of us -- the guide, a couple from Connecticut, their son and his partner from California, and me.

The river banks rose to unbroken green hills, crossed here and there by a railroad bridge, and a freight train stretched high up along the bank, not far from the eastern end of the Hoosic Tunnel.

This was my first white-water rafting trip. I have drifted on a river before -- in a flat calm, and with plenty of time, I can persuade a canoe or a wooden dinghy to go where I want to. But currents and obstacles need more skill to handle -- and I am afraid of speed.

On a beginning trip with Zoar Outdoor, the river slung and doused us enough to exhilarate us, and our guide, assistant rafting manager Michael Parker, kept us relaxed.

Rafting manager Brian Pytko, who paddled his kayak alongside us or the trip as a safety boat, told me in summer they take as many as 130 people at a time and start splash fights among the rafts.

In fact, he makes relaxing a priority.

"I can teach anyone how to guide a raft," he said. "I can't teach them how to have a good time," to talk with a troupe of Girl Scouts one day and a bachelor party the next. "It's not 'can they catch this eddy or ride this wave.' The staff who do well here enjoy meeting half a dozen people a day and pick up what kind of experience a family is looking for."

In one deep place, we went swimming. Fully clothed and strapped into an orange vest, I slid into the water and re-learned what it meant to float in a life jacket. I tipped my head back and spread my arms. The water was cool, and I could drift without even the slight effort of a back float.

We drifted down river and talked about our lives. We fell silent as a blue heron coasted onto a branch or a family of mergansers flapped in the shallows, black and white ducks with coppery crests.

Parker steered our boat from the stern, using his paddle as a rudder, and Pytko's kayak sheered away with a deft slant of the blade and a line of foam. Parker told us about play kayaks built for doing tricks like somersaults.

I felt some sense, from this distance, of how much a good kayaker can do.

We went through our one class three rapid in a zig zag between boulders, steering straight at the first, pivoting off the bow and swinging backwards through the gap. My seat tilted upward, and I landed slithering in the bottom of the boat in a pool of water. Imagine that in a kayak, with little more between you and the water than a plastic skin.. We could simply whirl and shout, while Parker steered us through.

After that, the smaller rapids felt tamer, and I managed to keep my balance when we steered deliberately into a boulder. I thought of riding a horse over a hunter jump: Sit up straight and look over, not at it. It worked.

Rafting also reminds me of riding because the rhythm of movement absorbs and soothes. For these few hours, all that matters is the sweep of the paddle, the pull and smell of the river, the tense and release of muscle in the shoulders and the movement of the current.

"Everything's fine when you reach the water," Pytko said. "Most people who are nervous aren't nervous after the first 10 minutes."

He's right. One splash and I'm hooked.


The water level in the river seemed relatively low. I kept my feet up, away from the rocky river bottom.

"The bottom is always changing," said rafting manager Brian Pytko. "This river is shallow. There are 10- or 15-foot holes; other areas are four inches deep."

At the dry end of a dry summer, rivers run low, and this one gets enough water to float the rafts from the one of the 10 hydroelectric power companies along the Deerfield River.

The company has a lease with the state that guarantees regular releases of water into the river for recreation. So we launched within sight of the dam and rode a release of water downstream.

Weather raises and lowers the water level as well.

"One storm can change things," Pytko said. "The trees aren't sucking up as much water" at this time of year.

In fact, he said, about a year ago hurricane Irene came through, swept Zoar's raft barn into the trees down the road and scattered kayaks and equipment as far as Holyoke.


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