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Wet, Wild and Whipped 

And you thought Clinton had problems with whitewater

As we made our way ever higher into the vast wilds of the Great Smokies, I sensed her drawing near, and knew the moment was close at hand. For I had come to do battle -- nay, to tame -- the frothy white beast they call Nantahala. And if that didn't work, I at least wanted to stay in the raft and make it home alive. I guess one out of two ain't bad.

As more and more (and more and more) people trek to the mountains of North Carolina during the summer, it's practically become routine for them to stop at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a sprawling commercial rafting operation tucked away in the mountains, and catch a raft ride down the river. No matter how much the NOC folks warn you, caution you, and warn you again, rafting the Nantahala, to many people, is (at least in their minds) a piece of cake. Well, if you don't watch out, it'll be an awfully soggy piece of cake. I'm here to tell you to be careful. I know.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning when we arrived at NOC; I had come with my girlfriend, Kathi, and buddy John to do some whitewater rafting along an eight-mile stretch of the Nantahala River that draws about 250,000 adventure seekers annually.

Nearly all 250,000 had shown up the day we were there; the place was teeming with people waiting to get on the river. The NOC offers a variety of rafting options, from guide-assisted rafting trips for families and first-timers, to the more challenging personal craft rentals. Kathi and I rented a two-person "duck," which is essentially an inflatable kayak, while John was going to be navigating a single-person duck. These are smaller and more agile than the larger rafts, and allow for a more aggressive exploration of the river -- and are also more likely to overturn. John had been rafting several times before, so he was pretty comfortable with the game plan. And while Kathi and I were relative novices, we figured we could handle whatever the Nantahala had in store.

Once we got our gear, we watched a video about rafting basics, including what to do in case you fall out, not that I'd ever need it. For those losers who can't manage to stay in their duck, here's the info: you're supposed to assume the "swimmer's position," which is on your back, facing downstream, with your feet visible on the surface. Above all else, the number one rule is Don't Stand Up. Even in relatively shallow water, you run the risk of getting your foot lodged under a rock, and the force of the river can then drive you underwater. (A 15-year-old boy from Pennsylvania drowned just a few weeks before we were there after his raft overturned and he got his foot stuck in a rock crevice. He was the sixth person to have died on the Nantahala since 1983, and all because of foot entrapment.)

With a newfound respect for the river, we filed onto a bus and headed to the put-in area. With dozens of recreation outfitters along the river, there was a bit of a traffic jam as we launched our ducks. In fact for much of the trip, we spent less time trying to avoid rocks and trees as we did dodging the giant rafts that barreled down the river like overstuffed, paddle-swinging behemoths.

The Nantahala has rapids ranging from Class I to Class III, meaning there are stretches of fast moving water and small waves along with fairly substantial rapids with large waves and fast currents. The entire eight-mile trip takes about three hours, and culminates at the Class III Nantahala Falls.

Once we cleared the traffic jam at the put-in, the swift currents carried us away, and we were able to really take in our surroundings: the crisp mountain air, the refreshing water, the unspoiled forests -- the rock! Although we were becoming pretty adept at maneuvering our duck, we didn't even have time to react before we rammed and then got stuck on one of the many rocks hidden just below the surface of the river. Water was rushing into our raft, and it looked like we were going to tip over. As other rafts cruised by, some of the guides shouted instructions on how to get loose, while others looked at us with a kind of muted amusement, an expression that said, I feel bad for you, but thank God it's not me. Just when it looked like we were about to capsize, we managed to wiggle free, and we were off once again.

As we neared the end of the trip, we pulled over to a docking area to scout the final pass -- the Nantahala Falls. This is by far the roughest section of the river, and you're advised to plan the best course before taking the plunge. Feeling confident, we launched our duck again, and carved out a perfect line, aggressively driving toward the Class III falls. Everything felt right as we neared the precipice, then -- whoosh, over the falls and into the churning white water. . .and overboard we went. As we were pitched into the river, a shrill, girlish scream sliced the air. Kathi let out a yelp, too.

From there, things went from bad to worse. I immediately lost sight of Kathi as the current swept me down river, rocks tattooing my backside. Suddenly, my friend John appeared in front of me. As I scrambled to jump inside his duck, I heard some pretty unsettling words coming from behind me: "Look out! I can't stop! There's nothing I can do!" It was the last thing I heard before being sandwiched between a giant eight-man raft and John's duck. A little dazed and feeling like a Looney Tunes character, I finally crawled into John's duck, doing a quick check to see if there were any bones protruding from my legs or arms. You know, like Burt Reynolds in Deliverance. Thankfully I was intact.

I looked back and saw that Kathi had managed to climb back into our duck; unfortunately, she was waving her hands in the air, and they were empty. She was, literally, up the river without a paddle. We all got a good laugh at that one later on -- at least John and I did.

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