My life as a figurehead

Action Whitewater Adventures of California operates on the south fork of the American River from Camp Lotus; (888) 9-ACTION or

It took two sturdy eight-person rafts to carry all the participants for Action Whitewater Adventures of California’s inaugural “writers and editors whitewater rafting trip” down a 10-mile stretch of the American River’s south fork. In our boat, guided by a mellow man named Joe with a penchant for A Course in Miracles, the conversation shifted lazily from the recent arrival of Canada geese on the river to quantum physics to the best way to hike with a Chihuahua. In the second boat, the topic of conversation was Chuck Norris.

The guide of our sister vessel, a young man whose name might have been Todd or Daniel or Harold (all three were in circulation), seemed to have committed most of the jokes from to memory. The bulk of our pre-trip safety talk consisted of one-liners, like, “When Chuck Norris falls in water, he doesn’t get wet; water gets Chuck Norris,” which spurred one rafter laughingly to inquire whether the actor would, in fact, be making an appearance. The two rafts stayed in sight of each other during the entire six-hour trip, in case either got into trouble on rapids with menacing names like Meat Grinder and Troublemaker. Whenever we got close enough to our sister vessel, we could hear the action hero’s name on the wind.

We were perhaps 20 minutes into our trip when Joe announced that we needed a hood ornament for the next rapid. “I don’t have time to explain,” he said in an urgent tone, as we surged toward an expanse of churning whitewater punctuated by jutting boulders. “We’ll demonstrate with Becca.”

I whipped my head around in confusion. “Give me your paddle,” he urged, reaching out his hand. I surrendered it.

“OK, quick! Lay across the front of the boat like a hood ornament. Go!”

“Like a what?” I thought. “How the heck …?” But my body was already in motion. I flung myself forward, beaching my belly on the front lip of the boat and arching my head back like a carved woman on the prow of a ship. Just then, the boat hit the whitewater, bouncing and bucking.

The view was spectacular, my face just a foot off the water’s roiling surface, the rapids’ cool spray erasing the fatigue of the previous week’s heat wave. I laughed in exhilaration. Then—mouth wide open—I was hit in the face with a wall of freezing water. I think I screamed, but I’m sure no one heard.

In an instant, the boat was through the rapid, and I was the world’s least triumphant hood ornament, hanging limp and disheveled over the front edge. Somewhere behind my shoulders, my sunglasses and hat dangled by their respective leashes, which uncomfortably cinched my neck. I wriggled back to my seat, straightened my accessories and resumed paddling. “That looked like fun,” somebody said. I assured them it was.

Therein lies the paradox of river rafting: Experiences that seem at best uncomfortable and at worst dangerous—extreme sun, cold water, strenuous paddling and potential drowning—become simply “adventurous” in the context of a summertime boat trip. Though we later found out that someone had drowned on the same stretch of river just a week earlier, thankfully no one fell out of either boat on our voyage. (I definitely fell into it more than once, landing on my ass when we hit rough patches of water.)

At lunchtime, with our guide’s blessing, we jumped off rocks into fast-moving currents and laughed as we struggled to right ourselves and swim to shore while rushing downstream. Life jackets helped by automatically pulling our heads above water—most of the time.

Later in the run, when the river’s pace slowed, we took turns swimming alongside the raft. Though the sun was oppressively hot, the river was too cold to stay in for long. Eventually, I compromised, dangling my feet into the current over the raft’s edge, content with the humble knowledge that when Becca Costello gets wet, water does not get Becca Costello.