It takes a solid hour to drive to White Salmon, Washington from Portland, Oregon, but the nice thing about being up at 8am on a Sunday is that the highways are clear, so the going is quick. There are definitely more mountains in this neck of the woods, and all of the vegetation seems drier (or maybe it’s just the drought and the sweltering summer we’ve been having here in the Pacific Northwest). Overall, though, it doesn’t look much different from the coniferous forests you can find around Portland.
Wet Planet specializes in kayaking and white water rafting. Their main office is a small house that has been reimagined into a store and souvenir shop that sells sunscreen, lanyards for glasses, and coffee. The garage area has been retrofitted into a warehouse where future rafters and kayakers can be fitted for wet suits, booties, splash jackets, helmets and life vests.
The outfitting process at Wet Planet is a well oiled machine. Staff members that I would later recognize as rafting guides are smiling and helpful as they hand me my wet suit with a casual joke about how the river is a crisp 42 degrees Fahrenheit today.
By the time I have my life vest and helmet strapped on I feel about three times my size, and while my mobility is still surprisingly good it still seems like I should be playing bumper cars with the other adventurers. We all hold onto a single paddle, and as we listen to a safety briefing I think we must look like a small, very safe aquatic army.
It isn’t until our lead guide points it out that we all notice the far off roar of the river in the background, rushing and constant. It’s almost like radio static.
After a short 5 minute bus ride to our cast off location, we are split into groups of six and introduced to the guides who will be taking care of us for the next four hours. My guide is Andy, a wiry fellow from North Carolina with a soft accent. Every rafting guide runs their boats differently, but Andy’s instructions are brief, efficient one-word commands, and his intention is truly to let us sight see while he does the brunt of the work. The rest of the boat is only called upon when he needs some extra muscle to wrest the raft from the grip of a rapid.
Our group is the first to send our raft out – right into the middle of a rapid. It’s been years since my last and only rafting trip, and I screech in delight as we roll through it. In fact, I’m so busy enjoying myself that I nearly drop clean off the boat. I only realize that I have to be more vigilant when Andy is yanking me back into my seat by the scruff of my life vest.
Alright, I think as I grip the top of my paddle and tighten the muscles in my core, game on.
Andy is a bit of a history buff, and he starts narrating some of the natural history of the area as we float downstream. As he does this, I gaze in wonder at the trees on either side of the river. There are willows and alders and towering conifers that seem to roll past us on a conveyor belt. The sky above us is a bright, defiant blue, and the river is so clear that you can see all of the rocks down at the bottom. I can’t help laughing as we crest wild waves and chilly water sloshes across our thighs. It’s supposed to be 42 degrees, but to me it’s a refreshing wake up after a grueling 55-hour work week, the first time I’ve truly looked nature in the eye in months, and I love it.