The Farmers Go Rafting

It was the sixth and last day of our family vacation in the southern-most reaches of the Rockies, near Salida, Colorado, where the snows of the Sawatch Range melt and gather speed, falling down the mountains to make the rapids of the Arkansas River, running high and blue-lip cold.

All week we watched the Arkansas run fast – 2400 cubic feet per second. CFS really measures sound, not speed. At 2400, you look your friend in the eye and shout. The roar of the river in our ears had been like fans cheering us on to tackle the biggest rapids, but now our guide had demoted us from Class IV to the easier Class II rapids.

It was like our coach had benched us. I didn’t say anything, but my wife saw my look and said, “If we don’t go, we won’t get our money back.”

I broke the news to my ten-year old, Will, and his thin shoulders dropped to nothing; he turned away. Before he could say anything I said, “Look, we’re doing this for Grandpa’s birthday, so we just deal with it,” then bent over, not far these days, and kissed him on the top of the head.

My mother-in-law, Bea, apologized, knowing we’d like to do the big rapids, but at her age, she wasn’t so sure.

“I understand; the trip will be fine,” I lied, as I hunkered down in the velvet seats of our river transporter. Our guide, Big T, drove a bronze van with carpeted dash. There must be an unwritten code among guides to use only pre-1980 vehicles to transport clients — either old vans or school buses.

Big T left his Missouri hay farm for Salida a few years back. My father-in-law and I are both Fescue farmers, so we all had a lot to talk about. Throwing several hundred square bales onto a hay rack and into a barn gives people a common bond.

“I don’t miss it,” said Big T, “I got ten cents a bale and my little sister got five for driving the tractor. And my dad could make a tight bale.”

“I don’t miss it either, but the most I ever did was five hundred a day,” I said. This is the kind of conversation grass farmers have. Competitive hard work is a reward in itself for us, and we tend to brag about hard work for minimum returns, which is the exact opposite of city people.

We drove down to the water, surrounded by the honey smell of pine. Big T backed the trailer to the river and asked a volunteer to be the head paddler, the one that would take paddle commands and to whom the other paddlers would synchronize their strokes. I took a very subtle step back, a trick I learned in military school. My sister in-law, raised her hand. She rolled into front right side of the raft and we piled in behind.

Big T yelled the paddle command, “Two ahead!” We stroked twice, and then the river sucked us out to the green and white water and we accelerated. The kids held onto the side ropes and when we hit the first standing wave, the raft folded back while spray thundered down. Susanna, my daughter, laughed one of those high, loose, innocent laughs of the unencumbered and Big T laughed along, saying, “Hearing that never gets old.”

About the author

Rich Evans visited the coastal cities of northern Europe tramping around as a fire room wiper in the Merchant Marine, but now the rolling…

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