In which the raft holds just enough

As high school came into its last year, I finally got to take a backpacking trip. This has been a dream of mine that was long term in coming at least in my memory because when we went when I was pretty young, there was a lot of suffering on my part being a bean pole, and a lot of complaining in consequence that my family had to put up with. By the time I started feeling strong enough to tackle the epic challenges and adventures of backpacking, my family was moving away from it, and I was just far enough outside of the group in high school that did go that I seemed to always miss the trips. This particular spring, I finally wrangled my friend into a two day trip through the West Fork of Oak Creek, and one of said backpacking group decided to tag along. This promised to make it an excellent adventure with some pretty amazing comradery.

We packed up with our cloaks as we were the Lord of the Rings kids at school, and this was the perfect chance to really use the products of my sewing skills. This camping trip was bound to be not at all a slog into Mordor but one with all the luxuries that science and modern technology could enhance. I even got an inflatable, and very heavy, raft from Wal-Mart to put our packs in since there are at least two swims that are unavoidable in the course of the first day. After we were dropped off by my mom, we started off in high spirits and enjoyed the rock hopping and scrambling through the dry creek bed that features the first several miles of the trek. Eventually, water started playing hide and seek with us at first in the deep and shady pockets below boulders and then as every growing pools as the streambed excavated its way into the level of the aquafer that gives Northern Arizona its lifeline. As wading became unavoidable, we discovered that the water fed from spring snowmelt was cool and refreshing.

This is a lie. The water was freezing.

While my mental fortitude was much stronger than as a child, I was still as skinny as can be, and memories of near hypothermia in Buckskin Gulch loomed large. At last, we came to the first unavoidable swim. I pulled out the raft that I had been toting around and dutifully started to blow it up. This took quite a while as it was intended to be a raft for two children. My friends gave me a friendly hard time about it, but it did give us ample opportunity to read all the warnings and specs for the raft. Among these, was the statement that the raft was good for at the maximum 195 pounds.

As we had all weighed our packs and generally knew our own weights, I was elated to discover that me + pack = 185. I was good to go if only I could figure out a way to paddle or send the raft back. My friend was there for the rescue in this avenue since he was carrying a rope. Thus, I stated that I was going to try to float in the raft across the pool rather than swim it, and they could then do as they chose if my method worked.

They looked to me to be incredulous, but I was determined to avoid getting soaked if I could. My first attempt to sit in the raft cross-legged with my pack on nearly ended in a wet disaster as the raft promptly folded in on itself and began to sink.

I only avoided my pack sinking with it because I had not committed my weight fully and managed to get back out as we were still in the shallows.

I then tried to lie down across the top of the raft spreading my weight as much and as easily as I could (the raft said it could take the weight after all). We also were armed with our shaky knowledge of AP physics which was purportedly better than the teacher’s in which we learned that pressure was related to the square of area, so there was much more to be gained by spreading out.

It worked!


The raft was afloat, and I could tell that it was not really heading to the briny depths. The only two problems were that if you shifted to much, that part of the raft would buckle and pour refreshing, freezing water straight down your chest. Too much of this and the raft would probably sink. Second, there was no way to move the raft while laying prone on it was to paddle with your hands. If you used your full arm though, problem number one presented itself. Thus, forward progress was in only at the pace that your hands powered by forearms could propel you while keeping the rest of your body rigid to keep from sinking and away from the water that was gradually accumulating in the bottom of the raft.

Ok, the third problem was that your face was smashed in the front pontoon of the raft and you couldn’t see.

My two companions were thus steering me in a bazar game of hot and cold where they shouted left or right while I tried desperately to stay dry (and not cold).

I finally made it across, and we discovered that there was a solution to the steering problem for the next two voyagers. After they pulled the boat back with the rope, they could throw it to me, and then I could pull on the rope to ferry them across (unless, of course the pool went around a bend as we discovered at the next pool where everyone got to paddle by blind direction).

This worked efficiently for my friend who was about my body type, but our third adventure buddy was quite a bit stronger and thus more dense than we were. With is pack, he was weighing in at almost exactly 200 pounds, which was over the raft limit. Still, he decided to try it as we were significantly less bedraggled than expected.

As he flopped onto the raft, he let out a whelp of shock as the water started to pour in. We looked on with all the anxiety that you can at a slowly unfolding disaster, yet the raft managed to find equilibrium. His front was wet, but he was afloat with his pack. He also had a baseball cap on, so he could see absolutely nothing of where we were dragging him. We slowly managed to ferry him to us, and we got to go on to perfect our technique and even snap a blurry picture (featured).

The rest of the trip was bolstered by our feeling of ingenuity and punctuated with the beauty of the backcountry canyon, jokes about hyponatremia because one person’s ramen noodles only had 800mg of sodium instead of 920, and the promise of increasing luxury as we came to maintained trails and victory meals at the end of the hike.