"For every problem there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong." -- H.L. Mencken
It's a singularly American rite of passage, reading Mark Twain's masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I was a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland, and the story of Huck and Jim and their raft trip down the Mississippi affected me in a way that Jay Gatsby and his silk shirts, or John Marcher and his figurative beast, or George Babbit's conformity or even Natty Bumppo's "noble savage" ever would. Huck discovered adventure, beauty, self-reliance, peace and true human values by rafting down the river. "It's lovely to live on a raft," Huck said, and I believed him. I wanted to raft a river.
I lived just a few miles from the Potomac, the "River of the Traders," as the 17th-century Indians who bartered tobacco and catfish near my house called it. One Sunday in May my father, at my urgings, reluctantly took me on a hike on the towpath of the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) canal up near Great Falls, 15 miles above Washington where the broad river is squeezed through an obstacle course of massive boulders and in just a half mile roars downward some 75 feet.
Juno, our golden retriever, saw a squirrel and made a beeline down a tight path through a welter of vegetation. I followed, leaving my father on the towpath, and found myself on the edge of a 200-foot-high cliff overlooking the Potomac as she swirled through Mather Gorge, a granite defile that was described at the turn of the century as "The Grand Canyon of the East."
The sight was dazzling, the fast currents spinning the reflecting light as though thousands of silver pinwheels were washing downstream. I was hypnotized, drawn towards the shimmering water, and I knew I had to get on that river.
Monday morning I announced to Miss Hammond, my English teacher, that I wanted to build a raft and journey down the Potomac just like Huckleberry Finn. She said fine, as long as I didn't miss any school. The three-day Memorial Day weekend was coming up, so I thought that would be the chance.
I recruited my camping friends John Yost, Ricky Vierbuchen and John Kramer. John Yost was something of a prodigy, two years younger than the rest of us, having skipped two grades before reaching high school. He was in the German and French Honor Societies, a National Merit semi-finalist, a Mathlete, on the Varsity Soccer team and in the Mountaineering Club. He was also on the In-School publicity committee. I had met John at the Bethesda River Bowl, where I accused him of cheating when I looked at the score sheet he was handling and saw that some my strikes and spares had disappeared. He made a nervous, high-pitched laugh, and put the points back, and we became friends.
John Kramer was a dancer, a member of National Thespians, the swim team, and the president of the Mountaineering Club. He was a fluid athlete, nimble and long-muscled as a cat, with a soul capable of boundless verve. Kramer took me caving and showed me the joys of the underground.
Ricky Vierbuchen was taller, stronger and more studious than anyone in our circle, also a member of the Mountaineering Club and the Cross Country Ski Team -- but he shared a glee for the mischievous. Together we pranked through high school, including running a fake candidate for student body president (J.H. Plumb came in a respectable third) and taking off on various outdoor adventures.
For the Huck Finn raft redux I also brought in friends Dave Nurney, Fred Higgins and Steve Hatleberg, and together we started gathering the equipment we'd need to build our raft and float the Potomac. None of us had ever been in a kayak or canoe, yet alone a raft. We picked out an eight-mile run through Mather Gorge, one that expert kayakers had been running for years. As we talked to the experts, though, including a Scuba rescue team who routinely retrieved drowned bodies from the river, the prognosis was we wouldn't make it through in a log raft; the rapids were too treacherous.
Word of our expedition spread through the student body, and the editor of the Black and White, the school newspaper, Dan Reifsnyder, approached me for the exclusive story. At 17, Dan was already hard-boiled, and he smelled disaster in my little plan. He made no pretense of his looking for blood, or a spectacular failure, to fill column space in an upcoming issue. I said I was happy to give him the story, but I was certain he'd be disappointed: We planned to make it down the river on time and intact.
On Friday afternoon we all set up camp not far below Great Falls and, with axes, started cutting the timber we needed. We rolled the logs to our assembly spot down by the river and began binding them with cross pieces and eight-inch gutter nails.
Our raft was about half-finished when a stentorian voice echoed across the canyon. "Have you ever messed with a German shepherd?" It was a park ranger, calling from atop a palisade of gneiss on the Virginia side, a huge German shepherd at his side. "You're on National Park land. You can't cut down trees, you can't build a raft and you can't camp. Now get outta there before I come get ya."
It was the end of our dream trip. We slowly packed up and trudged back to the parking lot. On the drive out we passed a ranger vehicle coming in with a dog in the back, and guessed it was our friend with the German shepherd.
We still had two days of the Memorial Day weekend left and couldn't go back home, not with everyone expecting us to have at least attempted our raft expedition. So we headed for Bear Island, a popular camping spot below Mather Gorge, and holed up there for the rest of the long weekend, swimming, fishing and trying to forget our failure.
Great Falls of the Potomac River
Monday night we were all back at my house cleaning the camping gear when the phone rang. It was Dan Reifsnyder, and he wanted the scoop on our expedition.
I put my hand over the receiver and talked to our team. "Let's tell him we did it," I proposed with a grin. "We can't," Steve Hatleberg countered. "It's not the Christian thing to do." In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck had to battle with his conscience because according to the morality of society and the church, he should have reported Jim, whom he had come to love as a brother, as a runaway slave. His final decision in Jim's favor was concluded with his famous reflection, "All right, then. I'll go to hell!" I looked around at our group, then back at Steve, and said, "All right, then. I'll go to hell!" and put the receiver to my mouth and started to tell Dan about our raft trip.
On June 9, the article appeared, entitled "Rapids Capsize Craft; Raftsmen Score First." It went on to say, "The raft had to be scrapped in the middle of Yellow Rapids. 'We scrambled for the inner tubes and kept going,' boasted junior Richard Bangs ... 'You wondered if you were going to live,' 'Man, was I scared.' 'It was out of sight, like an LSD trip.' These were just a few of the emotions described by the group, all of whom made the entire passage alive."
The article gave us some notoriety and inspired us to form "The Raft Club," which was the seed from which would sprout SOBEK, the international rafting and adventure travel company I would later co-found. Steve Hatleberg couldn't live with our secret, though, and one day told Dan the full and true story. To Dan's credit, he never pursued it in print, but whenever I passed him in the hall he gave me that drop-dead stare editors around the world have mastered. And, it made me want to make good on the Potomac.
It was still early summer when I saw an ad on the bulletin board at the grocery store. It told of a 17-and-half-foot fiberglass Old Town canoe for sale, for $150. I called all the members of The Raft Club and asked if anyone would go in with me on halves. Ricky Vierbuchen had the $75, so we bought the canoe, painted R&R on the stern -- we flipped a coin for top billing -- and toted our new toy down to Bear Island. We launched and headed upstream, towards the crystalline mouth of Mather Gorge.
We were awkward paddlers and the canoe crankled through the water as though drunk. We bobbed and weaved upstream and slowly picked up some proficiency as we angled towards Difficult Run Rapids, marking the end of the gorge. The white-breasted water got faster as we got closer, and my blood accelerated correspondingly. This was exciting.
Then we were in the rooster tails of the rapids, being flung up and down on a dizzy aquatic seesaw, paddling with all our strength. "Let's go higher," I screamed over the rapids' roar, and we sunk our blades deeper and lunged forward. Then the bow snapped to its side, abruptly capsizing the canoe and precipitating us into the spume. We'd been christened as river runners.
Hear how I fell in love with moving water:
Photo: Flickr/Christopher Connell
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