The shuttle driver was waiting at the top of the trail when their vehicle pulled in. Jay was the first out, running about, taking in the northeast’s scenery. “If you go around that tree line, right over there, you can see over the cliff’s edge, look at the first stretch of rapids,” suggested Judah.
Jay’s eyes went wide, and he literally sprinted away to get a look at the beginning of the kayak trip while everyone else unloaded the gear and the boats. The driver waited patiently, so he could take the vehicle to the final take out point. This always seemed to be the point where arguments arose, and this time was no different. Judah argued with Mac about weight placement and how long it would be before his boat arrived. Bethie argued with Liam about leads, and Mac argued with Liam about who was supposed to bring the extra beer. By the time Jay got back, a few shades paler than when he left, the fifth kayak had arrived and they had portaged everything in, waiting at the base of the trail by the water. “Um, are all the rapids like that?” he weakly asked Judah while they walked the dry trail. Judah descended the hill with ease while Jay skirted gnarled and protruding root outcropping.
Liam walked to him and put a reassuring hand on his upper arm. “Jay, we will take it slow, just like we practiced. Just follow Judah’s line. You can do this.”
Jay bobbed his head up and down. Bethie could see the anxiety behind his eyes. She wanted to go to him and hug him, but there was this new invisible, unspoken barricade between them. They both felt it, but neither one acknowledged it out loud.
The water was low, because of the lack of snow-melt and rain that spring and it flowed in white foam and froth over the obstacle course of boulders that protruded above the water level. The put in well just above the rapids, to the left. It was a marshy area with tall reeds to navigate to get the boats in unobstructed depths. To the left of the put in was the towering wall of the reservoir. “Listen, Jay,” instructed Judah. “I want you to paddle left towards the wall until we are all in the water. Once we are all in, Liam and I will take the first two positions, you drop in behind Liam, follow my line. Then Bethie will go, and Mac will paddle cleanup right behind her. Got it?”
Jay nodded, his bright green eyes soaking in the massive structure of the reservoir wall, watching the water spill in small streams over the top, staining the cement in dark streaks. His heart was tapping out a double time beat.
Judah focused him in on his face. “It’s all about communication out there on the water. You remember what we went over.”
Jay nodded again. He squared his shoulders, straightened his spine, and grasped Judah’s shoulders. He looked like a smaller version of Judah’s strength. “I remember, let’s do it.”
“That’s my boy,” whooped out Mac, slapping him on the back as he sloshed through the muddy marsh water and to his boat.
Everyone clamored into their boats and a multi-colored row of kayaks set out on the first leg of the journey. Judah led the line, as stated, and soon the five were pitching and winding through the rough and tumble waters of the river, navigating the rocks and swells. The sounds of excited hollers and yips of adrenaline filled the fresh, open air across the river, mingling with the rush of the rapids.
Judah hit the end first and back paddled to turn and watch the rest of the crew descend through the waves. Liam joined him at his side and both of them cheered when Jay arrived, wet, but exhilarated. He held his paddle up high and threw his head back laughing. “I made it! I did it. Oh man, that was terrific! Are there more like that?”
Judah and Liam looked at one another, with a knowing smiles. “You did awesome, dude,” encouraged Judah. “The next set is just beyond that highway bridge. You think you can handle it?”
Bethie and Mac arrived in time to hear Jay yell out a “hell yes”. His blonde hair shown like a beacon on the river and he paddled up ahead of everyone, the joy he was experiencing was palpable.
“Should we tell him about the next set?” asked Mac before he floated down river beyond the remaining three. Liam’s expression grew concerned, and he plied his paddle with more effort to catch up to a charging Jay. Everyone followed suit, well aware of the rush Jay was feeling. It was a natural high, a shot of confidence that made first timers believe they had conquered the world.
Bethie trailed behind the back of the small fleet, soaking up the sun, her legs and feet out of the cockpit, resting on the deck of her pink boat, a leg on either side of gear secured at the bow with the elastic deck lines She felt at peace out there on the water, with her brother and her friends. The first year of college was tough, mentally and emotionally. It felt like she was taking a cleansing breath out on the river. Her body relaxed and released months of educational stress.
The ride home with Judah wasn’t awful, not having to listen to the constant jabs and jokes between him and Liam was a nice reprieve and she found that Judah and she could hold their own, conversing on literature and survival skills. They’d all met at thirteen. Liam and Judah became instant competitive friends. If they weren’t running, trying to best each other, they were biking, or skiing, or out on the water. Everything was a race with them and often Bethie was left behind, waiting. At first, she stressed about riding home with Judah alone, but after the first thirty minutes it became easy, natural.
She watched his back, the lines of his muscles beneath his tech shirt flexed with each stroke of his paddle. Liam was lingering. It wasn’t like him to fall behind like that. It was Mac’s marbled yellow boat sailing through the water towards Judah at a good clip. Liam was beside Jay, most likely lending pointers for the next stretch of rapids. That was her brother, always willing to lend advice. She watched the interaction, Liam’s hands moving while he talked, and Jay fully focused on what he was saying.
When she came upon them, she maneuvered her boat around them. “You two riding clean up this go ’round?” she teased and paddled to catch up to Mac, but not before her eye caught Liam laying a reassuring hand on top of Jay’s.
Bethie knew her brother would help him through. If Jay watched the three of them go before and Liam lingered to call out the turns, he’d get through. Her boat rocked and pitched in the first rush of the rapids. She tucked her feet back in and set them to the foot braces. Her earlier thoughts abandoned while she maneuvered through the rocks, following the stern of Mac’s kayak.
Water splashed over the front end when her boat dipped and submerged under a rolling wave. She banked to the right finding a calmer line. Judah was through and at the shoreline waiting. Mac hit the end and sailed into place next to him. Bethie bounced through a rougher patch at the end, for the thrill of it and then paddled hard to get back upriver to the first two. Jay and Liam were still in working hard to get through.
“Left,” hollered Judah, his voice barely heard over the roaring water.
“He’s got it,” Mac announced, popping the tab on a can of beer.
Bethie chewed on her bottom lip. Jay was guiding his nose with enough skill and she thought he’d make it, but a wave swept him sideways and he struck a boulder on his port side. Water pounded against the starboard side and rushed over the coaming, filling Jay’s cockpit with river water. Liam struggled to go by him, close enough to give him a shove. He hit a swell and went past Jay, leaving him hung up on the rocks, his boat teetering on the edge of slipping over. Bethie knew the water wasn’t deep. “Push with your paddle!” she yelled through cupped hands.
A large wave hit the stern of Jay’s boat and lurched him forward. He shoved his paddle in deep beneath the rock holding him and he pitched forward, riding the line again. Liam reached the waiting trio, his face blanched of color. He swallowed hard and watched Jay fight against the rapids, making his own way, forgetting the line. The audible sound of a kayak scraping rock echoed over the banks of the river. Judah cringed. Mac tipped back his beer and Liam called out directions. Jay bobbed right past the waiting and anxious crew, his face a mixture of fear, vivacity and satisfaction. His clothing soaked, and his hair was a matted mess of river water and perspiration. He laid his paddle over his lap and leaned back, stretching over the back hatch. His fingers combing through his tangled locks. Then, he let out a roar of laughter. “That was amazing,” he shouted, thrusting his fist into the air.
“Pull up to the bank,” called out Judah. “You gotta get the water out.”
Judah took off and met up with Jay, helping him out of the boat. Together they took out gear, lifted the bow into the air and drained the ample amount of water out of the kayak and back into the river. Judah took the opportunity to check the keel and hull for damage from the rocks and then loaded the gear back inside and on the deck. Liam was up on land and Bethie watched her brother wrap Jay in a hug. “You scared the crap out of me. I’m glad you’re okay.”
Mac stayed in his boat and drifted along the bank. “Lost your river virginity, dude. It’s all fun and games now.” He lifted his can of beer high in an appreciative gesture to Jay and then slammed back the remaining contents.
Bethie observed it all, silent. An odd flutter in the pit of her stomach.