Pirates of the American River

At least I remembered the sunscreen.

This is how I console myself as I peer through the water late on a hot Saturday afternoon. Just a few minutes before, Marletta and I had decided to jump from the raft we’d been floating in along the American River. The sun was toasty warm and the water icy cold, and we were only a few hundred feet from shore. It seemed like, we reasoned, a good time to enjoy one last dip.

The water, however, was deeper than we realized. Although it was still shallow enough to stand, Marletta thought we should swim.

“Take off your shoes and just paddle to shore,” she said.

I should have listened. Instead, I trudged my feet along the rocky river bottom, and it was only minutes before a flip-flop floated off, disappearing in a swirl of sediment.

We searched for a few minutes until finally I shrugged my surrender.

The river wins. The river always wins.

Still, not a bad loss, considering the number of hours we’d been there, floating, drinking, eating wild blackberries on the shore and otherwise generally lazing about.

In fact, aside from a soggy bag of chips and my husband’s shorts, which, early in the day, suffered a mysterious rip in the leg, the day had drifted by, largely calamity free.

After nearly six hours on the river, no one in our nine-party group had fallen overboard or gotten disastrously drunk or sick. Even better, I realized, my skin, slathered in sunscreen from head to the tops of my usually neglected toes, remained sunburn free.

The adventure started midmorning in the car. As we flew down Highway 50, Becky related stories of growing up in Carmichael, where she lived out her summers floating down the river, a modern-day Huck Finn with blond hair and cutoffs.

“We spent the summer here, and we’d always get bombarded by the river pirates,” she said.

River pirates?

“Yeah, they were these kids who’d swing from ropes on the cliffs and jump from boat to boat, demanding beers,” she said.

Of course everyone gave them beers, she said. What else could you do?

We didn’t encounter river pirates today, but the waterway was crowded nonetheless.

There were bodies cast in every shape, tint and degree of aging. The common factor: endless amounts skin, baking beneath the 90-degree sun, and endless hands clutching an array of beer cans—this despite a stern “No alcohol” sign posted near the river’s access point.

Once, we exchanged beers with a couple of guys in a nearby raft. Their request to trade two cheap beers for just “one really good one” seemed reasonable and fair.

There were, certainly, an inordinate amount of bros. Female companions accompanied some, but largely they seemed to move in gender-specific packs. At one point, we passed a sandy strip teeming with them.

“That’s the Island of Lost Boys right there,” my husband said.

Or the Island of Lost Bros, perhaps.

“Sometimes you’ll see groups of women there, too, mud-wrestling,” Jeff added as we coast by these Budweiser-soaked hormones dressed up in Abercrombie & Fitch and puka-shell necklaces.

A dull din of noise emanated from the mass, drifting up into the sheer blue sky. It was impossible to make out a single word.

Finally, the raft reached shore, where a leather-skinned lady stood with a garbage bag, waiting to collect a gold mine of crushed cans. It was much later than we realized—after 7 p.m.—and our bodies were weak from too much sun and water.

My husband chivalrously lent me his flip-flops and we trekked to the shuttle bus where, on the ride back to the parking lot, a skinny, drunken teenager fell asleep with his head wedged into my friend’s side. He looked down at the kid and just laughed, shrugging his surrender.

The river wins. The river always wins.