July 25, 2011

River Rhapsody

There is in California a well-kept secret: the whereabouts of a river- secluded in a gorge- hidden by two mountain ranges.

On Wednesday we all- the eight of us and our grandparents- Poppi and Gaum- went river-rafting. We endured the hour or so of hair-pin turns to get there- and equipped ourselves with rash guards, wet-suits, hand-fin-gloves, hats, glasses, water-shoes, and a fair bit of sunscreen. We attempted to color-coordinate our various accessories- but in the end set out looking much like brightly colored tramps- our shoes, wet-suit, and air-mattress swung over an arm.

It is reachable only by way of an abandoned highway. For an hour you must walk in direct sunlight- the rising mountains to your left and to your right a cliff-drop into the gorge.

The chatter between us passes the time as our feet traverse the rocky highway deeper into the mountains- farther away from people, medical help, and proper bathrooms. We at last reach the turnoff where we leave the road and carefully descend a steep (and unsteady) dust footpath into the gorge. My sister takes my brother's arm- for her shoes have no traction and she does a great deal of discomforting slipping on the way down. After a quarter of a mile or so we reach the river where we put on our wet-suits and water-shoes and take our first dip into the river.

But the journey you must take in the blistering heat only magnifies the reward received in reaching the water. At first it is a shock of cold- and then the coldness is gone- and it is only a refreshing cool. You let your limbs slip under the rushing torrents- your feet find footholds between the river-bed stones.

We wade and stumble around rapids a bit up the river till we reach the first and second pool- my favorites. They design water parks after such places- clear, crystal, spherical pools spilling one into the other.

A veritable paradise- Diana in her infancy must have made these pools her bath- her radiant fingers smoothing away the edges from each stone till they gleamed, lunar pillars, around her aquatic palace.

We seat ourselves on the edge of the first lagoon- where the mothers and my little sister spend the day. From our packs we pull sausages wrapped in cellophane, carrots, and cheese. Those of us strong of lung (I do not include myself) blow up the ten air-mattresses which serve as our rafts. And then we are on our way- pushing off into a deep, green, shadowed lagoon.

In other places you can scarcely see the river floor- the waters turn from a languid green to an impenetrable black. In these secluded waters- who knows what lurks beneath the surface- sheltered in the shadow of the rising cliffs- hidden by the mountains.

This river is one of the few places where the rapids are large enough to enjoy- but not large enough to be of any serious danger. But this year the water is higher than normal (even higher than the other two times I visited in June) so we end up having to scramble around the falls- the current too strong to fight our way against. In between these scrambles we drift and paddle our way across lagoon after lagoon- till reaching our destination- where the gorge narrows and climaxes in a waterfall. In this particular section of the river the cliffs narrow so as to make a sort of passage between the mountains- so narrow you can touch both stone faces simultaneously as they rise above you for 20-30 feet.

Between Schylla and Charybdis you waver. To stay in the unknown depths of the black lagoon- or  to venture on into the foreboding enclosures of the stone passage, cliffs, and caves?

Through the passage you drift- dragging yourself along by the stone walls till the passage widens into a pool. Here the waterfall crashes down in a roar of wave and foam. My brother scares us by clambering up the rock face with the aid of two ropes and his own two adventurous feet- higher and higher above the stone and falls and water. We breath easier when he is back down. 

Where are the pirate ships? The smuggler's caves? Where in these depths do the mermaids play?

As we turn and head down-stream- this time with the current on our side- we pass two young men who are cliff-jumping. One of them lends his goggles to Paul who informs us that the depths of the pool are some thirty or forty feet and three-foot fish are swimming beneath us. (I didn't need to know that.) Paul takes the lead and he and I, close behind, blaze the trail ahead of everyone. We are both the lightest in our group- at 95 pounds- and we slide down the falls that cause others to capsize. Soon we are far ahead- and remain ahead no matter how many times we wait for the others to catch up. I am the first to sight our starting point- where we stow our rafts and return to the water unencumbered.

Beach yourself on a rock in the sun- let your feet bath in the rushing water- laugh and wave at those on shore.

We pull out our remaining victuals and the lot of us- on a rock in the water- rest from our toils and give each other back-massages. Then we begin the three mile walk home. 

Can we really leave this wonderful place? The cliffs and the river? We're here. For the moment. Here in California's best-kept secret. 

We reach the cars- we change back into clothes and shake off the sand. The day ends perfectly with Poppi treating us all to fantastic dinner- where we dine on pea soup and butter-lettuce salad, ravioli and baby-back ribs, sole and salmon- and for dessert a peach bread pudding and chocolate gelato. We crawl into beds- covered in scratches and bruises- aching all over- and full of good memories. Some of us are likely to return tomorrow.

But where is this Eden? I cannot tell. For I have become a secret-keeper.


  1. You have spun the water in these photos ... absolutely beautiful!