I played baseball and football during my heyday. I even played one year of organized basketball—not very well, I might add. Something about being vertically challenged was the polite way they put it.
The way I look at it, anything that makes you perspire profusely should be considered a sport. Why else would you push yourself to exhaustion? So in that realm, I guess mowing the lawn can be considered a sport.
But in all of my athletic training nothing could quite prepare me for the rigors of riding the rapids of the Housatonic River. Last weekend, I joined my friends from the men’s group of the Rock Church in Waterbury for a fun-filled camping adventure.
We spent a wet, soggy night in the rain, roughing it as only men acting like boys again can do. Only a real man can enjoy being soaked to his shorts, choking on the campfire smoke as we laughed the night away at the Housatonic Meadows State Park campgrounds.
The following morning our prayers were answered. We awoke to bright sunshine and Pastor Bill Ulsh of Beacon Falls got on his cell phone to call Clark’s Outdoors to see if our rafting adventure was still on.
The river was running a little high due to all the rain the past month but it was all systems go for a day riding the rapids. We were driven upriver to Falls Village where we would begin our 10-mile, four-hour excursion.
We stood on a little beach area adjacent to the power plant in Falls Village as our guide began to tell us our final instructions. A little uneasiness crept through me when I realized he wasn’t going with us. I thought that was odd as I tried to adjust the cumbersome life jacket that was strapped to my portly frame.
He told us about the four series of rapids that we would face and how to maneuver through them. After several precautionary warnings about safety tips, we entered our rubber crafts as we were set to sail.
The upper part of the river was quite calm after we managed to get through the first set of rapids. It certainly took all of my athletic ability to not get pitched out of our raft as we were jostled around by the first outcrop of rocks we passed.
From there it was smooth sailing as Tom and his two teenage sons, Cameron and Connor, joined Dan and myself in the first raft. Miguel and Roy were in the second raft with their two sons, Miguel Jr. and Roy Jr., along with our fearless leader, Bill, and Dave, who was two weeks away from his wedding.
Tom was the perfect captain to have in our raft. If I were to ever go to war, this is the guy I would want in front of me. His fiery disposition actually had us feeling quite safe in spite of what we might face during our journey.
We totally ignored the warnings of staying away from strainers—downed trees along the side of the riverbank. We used the calm waters and low-lying branches to practice steering our craft through these hazards.
Little did we know at the time that we would be doing ourselves a favor learning how to maneuver the raft before we faced the mighty rapids ahead. We came across little swirls in the river that were bubbling up. We assumed they were snapping turtles.
After the fourth time we saw that, it dawned on us that it was actually a riptide that was pulling us toward a crop of rocks under the water. That would be useful information later on when we faced the real dangers of the river’s fury.
We got to the Cornwall Bridge and the river took on a life of its own. All we saw were whitecaps and we could only hear the thunder of the river at that point. We desperately tried to keep the raft straight on into the rapids.
The river churned violently as we strained with our paddles to keep us headlong into the swirling flurry. We were catapulted out of our seats as the craft’s nose dived through the first rapid and everyone hung on for dear life.
The roar of the river began to die down after we managed to get through the 60 yards of treacherous waters. There were a few more mild rapids we faced but nothing like what we just went through.
We approached our campsite in record time—just about three hours—due to the fast-moving water. We could see in the distance a rock protruding from the river about four to six feet in the air.
I noticed the swirls and bubbles in the river and immediately knew this was not a good sign. I instructed our team to paddle toward the far shore so we wouldn’t get pulled into the rock.
We moved swiftly around the rock, crashing into another set of turbulent rapids from a safe distance of about 30 yards. The second raft approached the massive rock and was unable to get out of the whirlpool’s riptide.
The raft was swept up onto the rock as we sat in our craft laughing and joking at their misfortune. Then we began to realize the direness of their situation. The two young boys scrambled out of the raft up onto the rock.
Dave and Roy tried to push the raft off the rock as Miguel steadied the youngsters on the rock. The next thing we knew the raft filled with water and began to sink, sending Bill plunging down the river.
Our peaceful adventure suddenly turned into a desperate situation. We tried to paddle back up stream to retrieve Bill from the frigid, swirling water but to no avail. The second raft finally got free from the rock but the boys were stranded on the outcrop with the water churning violently around them.
That’s when the firemen, ambulance and state police showed up and the rescue operation was underway. The boys were brought safely to shore and our rafting adventure concluded with the boys insisting on finishing their harrowing journey.
As they made their way through the woods back to their raft, Bill wanted another glimpse at the rock that caused this near catastrophe. But little Roy Jr. summed it all up: “There’s the rock that saved my life.”
Ken Morse is a contributing writer for the Citizen’s News.