Imagine the excitement Meriwether Lewis and William Clark experienced when they ventured down the Columbia River in present day Washington state on their grand expedition westward into the Northwest Territory. Theirs was to seek a water route across North America and explore the uncharted West.
Our own Lewis and Clark expedition shoved off from Coloma with everyone in our party anxious to get afloat down the South Fork of the American River. Unlike the 8,000 mile, two-year Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, our adventure would take us 10 miles downstream and last approximately four hours.
Where Lewis and Clark’s team traveled by hollowed out canoes, our mode of water transportation was a rubber raft provided by Gold Rush Rafting Company. (Just one of almost 20 rafting operations on the American River.)
Our guide this day was Diane Harrington who goes by “Dee.” Hailing from West Virginia with a degree in geology from the University of Kentucky, Dee is an experienced “River Rat” with six years of service on the South Fork.
After signing all the necessary legal documents with instructions leaving our belongings to loved ones, we were fitted with life preservers.
“Tighten your life-preserver straps securely!” One instructor announced. I would soon learn the definition of “tight” as my lungs collapsed and my face turned blue from the lack of oxygen.
Regardless of what happened that day search and rescue teams would have little problem finding my body floating downstream. Just look for the over-inflated blue Smurf.
Our crew of six located our raft on the riverbank. And it was comforting not seeing the letters S.S. Titanic inscribed on the side of it though I’ll admit at this point I was sizing up my fellow passengers to determine which, if any, would need to be tossed overboard if necessary to abandon ship.
“Dee” true to her educational background, did a fine job not only steering us out of danger but describing the wilderness we traversed through.
“As we approach the bend ahead, be sure to look to your left to catch a glimpse of the ‘gorilla’,” she informed us.
Centuries of water rushing through the canyon hones boulders into familiar shapes and this one (with slight imagination) did look like the head of a gorilla. And further downstream we would float by a rock protruding out of the river that looked remarkably like that of Frankenstein.
The first leg of our trip was tame as rapids go. It allowed us time to develop our rowing technique. With Dee shouting out rowing commands at the back of the raft we soon became a well-oiled synchronized rowing machine.
“OK! Give me three strokes!” She yelled, instructing us to pick up the pace to attack the rapids ahead. “Put your body into it!”
At this point I felt like Charlton Heston in the epic movie “Ben Hur” (minus the ankle shackles) rowing headlong into a sea battle.
In between rowing and navigating around boulders Dee took time to explain historical tidbits along the way. We heard about the Native American Indians living along the American River and life in the gold rush days. She pointed out unique flora, serpentine rocks and the “digger pine” trees leaning along the river.
We were exploring parts of El Dorado County only accessible by water. At times it seemed almost therapeutic, especially when the river’s current slowed while meandering through the canyon.
Working together is the key if you want to stay in the boat and keep from slamming headlong into boulders or the granite walls lining parts of the riverbed. This isn’t a controlled amusement park ride so caution and safety apply at all times.
“Satan’s Cesspool is just ahead,” Dee informed us. “And then we’ll enter into ‘Son of Satan’s Cesspool.’”
This announcement elevated the tension in our raft. “Our goal is to keep the raft straight and steer directly into the 6-foot-high wall of water. Listen for my rowing commands,” she reminded us.
Is she kidding? My goal was to stay in the raft and keep my name off the obituary page.
And besides, wasn’t Hospital Bar coming up soon? With the temperature nearing 100 degrees this rafter was ready for a cocktail.
“So where’s the Hospital Bar you mentioned earlier?” I asked. “I’m ready for a cold one.”
We would soon learn Hospital Bar is just one more unique natural feature of this most unique river system. And I would quickly understand how Lewis and Clark may have felt when they conquered the wild rivers of the American Northwest — right here in our own back yard.
Richard Esposito is the publisher of Village Life. You can reach him at [email protected].