It was a sunny, bluebird Saturday, one of those days you must spend outside.
Our crew was gathered on the riverbank; geared up in wetsuits, life jackets, and helmets. Paddles in hand, we were ready to push off on a 17-mile rafting adventure down the South Fork of the American River near Coloma, California.
The twenty something of us, nearly all novice rafters, were a sight to be seen. Stacked with tight fitting wetsuits, ruthless humor, and the mindset of ‘what could go wrong?’ We were a live example of Karma’s low hanging fruit. Yet there we were, ready to send it down river.
As we finished inflating the last raft, a stranger emerged out of the low-lying shrubs, advancing towards the group. He was elderly, with more fingers than teeth and skin reminiscent of leather. It was clear that he had spent his early days in Coloma, chasing a flash in the pan, and by the looks of it, he still might be. As the man approached us, he introduced himself as Goldflake - he was what you could call “river folk.”
In his slow country voice, Goldflake began to bestow some much-needed wisdom on the group. The section of the river we were headed into was running high and fast, with multiple class 3+ rapids that we needed to be prepared for. He knew this river like the back of his leathery hands and wanted to pass on his tips. So naturally, in typical groupthink fashion, we ignored him, and shoved off our three rafts, hardly taking heed of his warning.
The last thing I remember, was him calling out to us: “Whatever you do go left at Fowler’s Rock!” He was half chuckling, knowing we were screwed. Looking back I wish we would’ve listened.
An hour passes and we've loosened up as the beers started to flow. The river was calm and we were easily navigating the smaller rapids.
I remember thinking Ol' Goldflake was a little heavy handed in his warning as we took every obstacle in stride. But then it happened.
We reached a point in the river where we found three other boats that were preparing for the next set of rapids. They had stopped to survey the scene as professionals do, and were choosing their line down the half mile of oncoming rapids.
As we took a moment of pause, it became clear that we were headed into a much narrower section of the river. A gorge, sandwiched by tall rock faces on either side.
Our lead boat, roughly 100 yards ahead, with the most experienced guide, heads in first, deciding to send it down the middle; confidence soaring after an afternoon of mild rapids. The first big wave knocked the boat off balance and into a monster of a hole, flipping the boat, and launching the entire crew and all contents into the river – 7 down.
Following closely behind them, raft #2 was committed to the same line and doomed to the same fate, launching the paddlers through the air - 14 down.
They say if you play with fire, you’re going to get burned. Well, I’d love to hear what they say about whitewater rafting. Because we were instantly screwed.
With our friends being swept downstream, our boat, captained by Deso Founder, Jordan Basile, made a split second decision. Recalling Goldflake’s words he swiftly changed course, safely steering the raft left of the man-eating hole.
But the long series of class 3+ rapids had only just begun.
We were surrounded by our friends, frantically scrambling to position themselves in the water, some of whom were clinging to anything in reach. Fight or flight instincts kicked in and moments before the next rapid we hauled in the nearest floating friend and braced for impact.
Fighting for position in the current, we had no choice but to stick to our guns and rescue our friends once we were out of danger ourselves. I remember passing friend after friend with looks of sheer terror on their faces. Let me tell you it wasn’t easy.
Passing the two-thirds mark, our spirits began to rise. We knew we had made it through the worst and could safely navigate the remaining rapids. With renewed confidence, the world came back into focus. I vividly remember passing a quivering friend who had managed to hop back in a boat. Clearly shaken, and ghost white in the face, he had an iron grip on a low hanging shrub, taking a moment to collect himself.
It was about this time that a miracle happened, the guide boats that had scouted the river began to catch up to us, sending throw bags and rescue lines to many of the stranded crew. Two elderly women hauled a wet soul into their boat demonstrating brute strength and tact as they safely navigated the churning waters. Plus two points for the ladies.
Our boat rounded a bend in the river, tied up, unloaded and started to head back upstream. But after only a few steps, and much to our surprise, we realized our friends had all been rounded up and were coming down the river. Wide-eyed and completely shaken it was clear that our group’s collective dignity was swept away in the current. We took stock of the situation: No casualties, minimal blood and nothing broken. So after at least ten head counts and a collective hail mary, we piled back in the rafts, our ego’s as bruised as our bodies, we finished the run.
So being a crew of twenty, we celebrated living through the day with a copious amount of Old Republic beers. Later that night, stumbling down the street and into the Coloma Dance Hall, the big bar in town, who did we find? The legend himself, Goldflake.
Flashing a single gold tooth, he laughed, telling us he knew we were doomed from the start.
Photo credits: Eric Dahmer, Michael Wilkins & Jordan Basile