High Side

The van picked me up at Denali Grizzly Bear Cabins and Campground, seven miles south of
Alaska’s celebrated Denali National Park. The campground offers wonderfully rustic
tree-lined sites, many within earshot of the Nenana River, and all I wanted to do that
afternoon was to relax in the campground and maybe nap in the rented RV. No such luck.
Instead I was destined to tackle a quintessential Alaskan experience — white-water rafting
on a glacier-fed river. I’ve never been so grateful for a missed nap. At Denali Outdoor
Center, located north of the national park in the sprawling hodgepodge of tourist-driven
businesses known as Glitter Gulch, I felt a buzz of excitement. Old and young, athletic and
not so, the potential river runners had to sign waivers before the guides assigned them
gear. I signed the contract without reading it, since I was certain it specified that
anything that went wrong was my fault anyway, including an outbreak of psoriasis or the
sudden reversal of gravity. We received our dry suits. These high-tech outfits would
ultimately prove to be wonderful, but upon being handed the suit by a guide, I immediately
felt self-conscious. It’s not that I would look stupid — actually, I kind of enjoy that.
The problem was that there were signs posted on the building instructing us how to put the
suits on, step-by-step, then mandating that we wait for assistance. Now, I haven’t required
help getting dressed for quite some time, so I was hesitant to follow directions. But when
I noticed that, after stepping into their neoprene booties, not one of the 20-or-so
water-bound adventurers who were ahead of me in the outfitting process could even guess how
to insinuate themselves into these expensive garments, I chose to wait for assistance. By
doing so, I avoided strangulation. When a guide told me to duck my head to the right as she
negotiated my dome through a rubberized slit — in a move Houdini would have found useful
— I felt less like I was being diapered and a little like an astronaut. The helmet added
to this effect. Our splashdown would come soon enough. But first, after being driven a few
hundred yards to the put-in spot, we were debriefed. Actually, there was nothing brief
about the safety speech. We learned what we were expected to do in the event that any of
numerous calamities were to befall us. Screaming bloody murder was not an appropriate
response. Suddenly, I felt the call of nature, a pressing issue, since the upcoming trip
was supposed to last more than two hours. The problem was that I was wrapped up tighter
than King Tut. Having no choice, I figured I’d figure a way out and headed for the trees.
That’s when a guy stepped from the forest and said, “You have to sign the register, too,
huh?” The fellow register signer turned out to be Matthew Driskell, the guide of the raft I
was assigned to. Matthew, also known as Mad Dog, proved to be the river guides’ river
guide. I’ve floated, bobbed and bounced down many rivers, and never have I had a guide who
was as knowledgeable, entertaining and enthusiastic as Mad Dog. He had the bearded,
wild-eyed look of a man born to tame rivers, and he’s done so on many waters. He had only
been in Alaska for five weeks when I visited in July, and this fact became all the more
amazing as he narrated our journey down the Nenana. The knowledge he imparted of the
passing geology, of the time-compacted rocks, the subterranean forces and the advancing and
receding glacier that formed the canyon was enough, I believe, to earn us each an honorary
B.S. in geology. Or some kind of B.S., anyway. But before we were exposed to this rocking
and rolling, Mad Dog introduced me to the other members of our raft, soggy, shivering folks
who had signed on for the four-hour trip, which included two hours of scenic floating. That
the others were soaked from the float — as opposed to the canyon-running white-water trip
we were about to take — indicated to me that we were in for some fun. As we negotiated the
11 miles, however — dropping through Class III and IV rapids called the Knife, Train
Wreck, Roller Coaster, Two Rocks, Flip Hole and Black Jack, among others — my dry-suited
brethren praised me time and again for my vigorous paddling. I was thanked for joining
their raft for the white-water section of their river-borne excursion. I realized that, as
we plunged into holes, getting slapped by waves of 36-degree water — yes, Fahrenheit,
people — the others seemed to be caressing the water with their paddles. It was
unsynchronized futility. Just as I started to worry that our sorry technique would force us
to employ some of the self-rescue procedures we’d learned, I realized Mad Dog was manning
large oars, rather than just another ineffectual paddle, and that he was preventing us from
going splat. Then, when we arrived at a calm spot, Mad Dog said that we could set our
paddles down and jump in if we wanted — into the near-freezing water. I thought he was
kidding. When he assured me he wasn’t, I hit the river with a gleeful splash, then marveled
at the dry suit’s apt name, at the canyon walls slowly gliding by above me, at the chilly,
milky glacial runoff. Only in Alaska, I thought.

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