Thursday, August 10, 2006


Last weekend I went brownwater rafting in Wisconsin. It's kind of like whitewater rafting, only the water is a murky brown color. It was the 17th year in a row I made the journey north from Chicago to eat, drink, and get very, very wet. As always, it proved the highlight of my year. I partied in a remote field with 43 fellow revelers – some veterans, some virgins - all looking forward to spending a weekend away - from something, somewhere, or someone.

I remember the first year I went: 1990. Seems like it wasn't that long ago until I think of everything that has happened in the world since then. It was 2 years before the golden economic era of Clinton/Gore began. Before the first Gulf War. A whole decade before the Y2K scare. 1990 was a fairly long time ago.

I was a lot younger back then, and didn’t know what to expect from this "rafting trip" experience. I remember I packed a pillow and sleeping bag for the long ride up. That was it. I mooched cheap cans of Clipper beer that still had the pull tab tops, leftover hot dogs from whoever had them, and slept under a tree with some girl I’d just met, which sounds like more fun than it actually was. We actually SLEPT there, without touching one another. I also had really bad asthma that night…and it rained.

The following year I brought up a tent and asthma medicine and fared much better. With the elements, that is, not the girls. I guess once word got out that I'd spent a whole night with a drunk girl and didn’t make a move, folks pegged me for light in the aquasocks. It was an embarrassment I was quick to outgrow - at least quicker than the time I was reportedly manipulating myself in my sleep by the campfire. I steadfastly denied those reports, by the way, with little success. But for some reason, when a story like that gets out, people WANT to believe it. So my nickname was Strokey the Bear for a couple years. Whatever.

In the years that followed I taught myself how to play guitar and started jamming fireside. I invented my own tunes and strummed them drunkenly in the flickering firelight, howling like a lonely coyote, eyes closed to the moon. The rafting trip has always been the one place I could play and sing in front of people without butterflies. The songs I wrote way back when have aged better than I have – they capture the spirit of an inspired young man with a lot left to learn. Singing them these days reminds me of how far I’ve come – and makes me wonder how much farther I’ll get to go.

Back in the early 90’s I was young and fearless. While most of the stretch of the Wolf River we run is pretty tame, there are a number of spots along the way where the current picks up and you can get pitched into the drink ipretty quick if you’re not smart. Or not sober – which is common. Heading for the rapids, most people strap on their life jackets and hunker down in their rafts. My partner and I, however, would take our shirts off, stand up, and wave our oars above our head. At that age, reckless was cool. These days it’s irresponsible. Most of the time we surfed our way down without incident.

MOST of the time.

Every year I've become a little less daring. For some reason, that fearless spirit has left me – I worry more now, and take fewer risks. And not only on the river, but in life. Strange how time can change you in ways you don’t even realize. Until you look back and think about the things you used to do and shudder – amazed you ever made it this far.


On late Friday afternoon, as the sun began to flirt with the pine tops, I looked around and made an interesting observation. There was laughter everywhere. I closed my eyes and just listened. It was beautiful. People were joking and laughing and sharing stories. I could hear the excitement in their voices and it made me smile. The campground was about as happy a place on earth as you could find.

When I opened my eyes I saw that every single person was grinning from ear to ear. Lobbing bean bags. Tossing footballs. Playing cards. Taking pictures. It’s not all that often in life that you see so many happy people in one place. And that’s when I realized the EXACT reason I looked forward to this trip every year. It wasn’t about the rafting or the camping or the grossly irresponsible binge drinking – it was about PEOPLE. Shiny, happy people.

And happiness is contagious.

It’s easy to forget about all of the bullshit that plagues our day-to-day existence when we’re surrounded by that much happiness. We become kids at recess – not a care in the world…and those three days every year are our 10 minutes on the schoolyard. Our time to play. Our time to stretch out our legs. Our time to scream for no reason. Our time to call each other “gay” over and over and over again. I don’t know why we do that, but we do.

17 years after I first went rafting, I have enough gear to fill a full-sized sedan. I sleep in the comfort of a large tent on an air mattress under a warm sleeping bag. I bring my own food and drinks – usually enough to share. And when it comes time to hit the rapids, I strap on a life jacket and hunker down. I’m not the same person I was back then. I’m older, wiser, and scared shitless I might get tossed out of the raft as we approach Big Smokey Falls. But I still go back every year because it's the happiest place I know.

And because the river is symbolic of my life. I wake up every day in the middle of it. I float along carelessly most of the time, knowing there will be tumultuous rapids ahead. When I was younger, I didn't know enough about the rapids to fear them, so I faced them standing up, and unprotected. But now as I float along, I have exprienced the perils firsthand and I know the dangers ahead. So when I hear the roar of the falls in the distance, I hunker down and fasten up my vest. The river is the same, but my perspective has changed. And while each day is as familiar to me as the banks of the Wolf, I look at things in a different way than I once had.

One thing has always remained true throughout it all - good friends sure do make the float down fun.

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