An adventure planned on a whim

Published 12:00 pm Saturday, August 31, 2013

Having dropped 11-year-old Ruth off at Camp Skyline in north Alabama, I thought it would be fun to take Ginny and the boys whitewater rafting nearby.

Years ago, I had rafted down the middle Ocoee in eastern Tennessee. I vowed one day to return when my boys were old enough.

Ginny was not enthusiastic, but I insisted, arguing it would be a character-building, family-bonding experience.

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Rapids are rated on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being suicidal. The middle Ocoee had level 3 and 4 rapids. Very safe on a commercial raft with an experienced guide.

John, 16, and Lawrence, 14, had a blast, as did friend and neighbor Elliot Weill, 15. Ginny survived but it seemed I was constantly reaching up and pulling her back into the boat. She would somehow launch several feet into the air every time the boat hit a bump.

Lawrence, of course, wanted more and our guide was quick to point out the Chattooga as the only river in the South capable of a better adventure. It was two hours away.

I am a planner by nature. Lawrence, who takes after his maternal grandfather, is completely spontaneous. “Dad, let’s go.”

That is how my one-day up-and-back trip turned into six days of on-the-road travel. It was a big step for me to be so spontaneous. You can indeed teach an old dog new tricks. With a good car, a credit card and a smart phone, you can go for days.

The smart phone allowed me to easily plan a last-minute itinerary, book reservations and locate great restaurants and fun things to do. I used its camera to document the trip and the GPS to easily navigate. The e-mail feature allowed me to keep up with work as though I was sitting in my office. Amazing. This little device has changed my world. I like progress.

Our new plan included a day in Chattanooga, a day trout fishing on the Hiwassee and a full day on the Chattooga. The weather was marvelously cool with highs in the mid-80s.

I was most impressed with Chattanooga. It is a beautiful city with a vibrant downtown. How I wish we could get downtown Jackson to have such vibrancy.

Chattanooga has a new aquarium that is probably the best in the world. It has a beautiful pedestrian bridge across the Tennessee River. We also visited the Hunter Museum of Art which was impressive. Lookout Mountain offers a magnificent view of Chattanooga from 1,500 feet and it was lovely at sunset. That night we ate an awesome meal at Alleia.

The next morning we heading to Reliance, Tenn., for some trout fishing on the Hiwassee. Using fly rods, we caught and released 25 or so fish, but most of them were small. It was so nice just to be on this scenic river in the cool mountains.

When we returned to the Reliance country store, Ginny had made friends with the owner, a Knight, who swore she and Ginny were cousins.

After fishing we drove through the beautiful hill country of north Georgia on our way to the cute town of Clayton. We got there in time to dine at Zeppelin’s, a delicious restaurant with a ’60s hippy theme.

The next morning, we gathered at the Southeastern Expeditions outfitting cabin to begin our raft trip.

I had researched the safety of this trip, including watching You Tube videos of the actual falls we would go over. I figured it was just about at our maximum skill level. Statistically, it is safe. Unfortunately, someone had just drowned on the Chattooga three weeks before on the same trip with the same company.

“Great news,” the safety instructor said as we gathered for the orientation meeting. “For the first time in three weeks, Section IV of the Chattooga is floatable all the way through the Five Falls. It is at its absolute maximum level so we’ll have a really exciting trip.” Oh boy. I felt butterflies in my stomach.

We had an exciting but uneventful float to the Five Falls — the most challenging finale to Chattooga’s Section IV. The Five Falls are all level 4 and 5 rapids — the toughest it gets.

One wrong move in Corkscrew put us in the water. We briefly floated on top before we were sucked to the bottom and battered against the rocks. Both my legs were bruised up and down.

It’s usually the fat old guys that die. True to form, I was the one who came up coughing water. It was like being in a giant washing machine and there was nowhere to breathe.

There’s a reason you go with an experienced commercial rafting company. They were ready with a safety rope. When we finally popped to the surface we had seconds to grab the rope or be swept into Crack in the Rock and uncertain survival.

The current was so strong that when we grabbed the rope, we began pulling in the person on the rock holding it. “Let go and swim,” she screamed over and over at the top her lungs as we dragged her into the river. We all let go of the rope, swam furiously and made it to the rock, just yards from an immensely turbulent rapid.

Next up, a level 5 rapid Jawbone, where the fatality recently occurred. Lawrence turned to me and said, “I don’t really want to do this.” For the first time, I saw fear in his eyes.

It was amazing to see the attentiveness of the boys as the guide barked out instructions: “Right two back.” “Left three forward.” “High side now.” “Lean in.”

It was the longest and most difficult of our rapids, but we performed flawlessly and sailed through. There were high-fives all around.

We headed back to Jackson with an adventure story we will be retelling for decades to come. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.