By Ken Bradbury
I am not built for a raft. My body shape is well suited to things like sofas, limousines, and John Deere tractors. There’s just something about the confines of a rubber raft that doesn’t jive well with the silhouette God gave me.
I went perhaps 40 years of my life without realizing this, and it was only until my group of Alaskan travelers decided to raft our way down the Mendenhall River near Juneau that I realized I perhaps had chosen the wrong optional excursion. I should have known better. When you board the cruise ship you’re handed an absolute dictionary of side trips to purchase on your journey toward Anchorage. These shore expeditions range from peaceful little salmon bakes to helicopter rides landing on glaciers to lumberjack shows, all of which require little effort, and if I had been smarter I would have noticed the little row of asterisks after each option denoting the degree of physical difficulty. I figured, heck, I can handle anything as long as it doesn’t involve wrestling a brown bear or scuba diving into an ice floe. I’m not sure how many asterisks followed the Mendenhall Glacier Float Trip, but there should have been about 20.
The scheme: You get off your cruise ship and look for your assigned bus of the thirty or so parked in the dock lot at Juneau. I knew when I showed the young lady my ticket and she looked at me somewhat in wonder and admiration that perhaps I’d chosen the wrong tour. Our rickety bus took us to the far side of Mendenhall Lake. The Mendenhall glacier is a slab of ice about 12 miles outside of Juneau and the thing stretches a bit over 13 miles. That’s a 13-mile ice cube, Bubba. Because of global warming (I know. Fake news! It’s not really melting!), it is receding at an alarming rate, causing the formation of a lake at the glacier’s base. The rafting tours dump you on one side of the lake, you row across its width, and then head down the river and the rapids. The whole thing takes perhaps three hours if indeed you come out on the other side.
Step one is to squeeze yourself into a head-to-toe rubber suit. This is not an option since you’re headed for three hours in ice water. Even the slightest crack between your suit and exposed neck can cause extreme pain as the cold sets in and you begin to feel the freeze all the way to your toes. The suits are bright orange and bright yellow, thus making it easier to find your body the next morning. I chose yellow since it seemed to reflect my mood as I climbed into our raft. Each raft was made to hold about four people, but the great gods of Alaska have deemed that the workers should cram seven tourists into each floating vehicle of death. I had never had such a close relationship with my knees. In fact, I’d forgotten what my knees looked like until they popped up in front of my nose as I plopped into my seat.
Our guide asked those who were the most physically fit to sit on the outside edge of the raft and handed them paddles. Not wanting to hog the experience, I passed my paddle to a young man named Travis from Arenzville. He looked like a paddler. The guide himself was a highly testosteroned gorilla who sat in the rear of the raft with rudder paddles in each hand, and before I was ready, we took off.
The cruise across Mendenhall Lake was quite pleasant. Of the 12 rafts full of gullible tourists we were the first to take off, so our view was of nothing but glimmering blue ice and gray water the natives call glacial milk, full of sediments from the melting glacier. Heck, this was easy. What was I worried about? Then we hit the river.
The Mendenhall River is six miles long, one mile of which is pure white water. “White water” is blue water that’s been made very angry. As soon as we entered the headwater of the river our guide, Godzilla, shouted, “Hang on! This could be rough!” The kid was a master of understatement.
When shooting rapids you have a choice of holding onto two things: the bottom of your seat or the person next to you. On my left was a very small girl from New Jersey and on my right her very frightened mother. The girl wasn’t large enough for me to use as a flotation device and the mother was shaking so badly that I was afraid I’d lose my grip, so I dug my frozen hands into the thin strip of pine that they jokingly called my seat.
I survived, swearing I’d never do such a thing again … so, I’ve only done it again twice. I’m a good rafter but a slow learner.