Headlamps. Bugspray. Tubes. Drinks. The coldest river known to mankind. Six adventurous souls ready to claim glory and fame. Late last night, these components combined to create an unforgettable midnight expedition.
The boys' guffawing laughter wrapped itself around Isaac and I, pulling us quickly down to the dock. Their heckling smack talk was bursting up from beyond the veil of mist that separated us from the river, echoing throughout the campground. We stepped down onto the landing and I got my first glimpse of the starlit water. I could barely make out the faintest shadow of the treeline just beyond the opposite bank, and although the river seemed invisible, the babbling sounds of water against rock let me know it was there. My cousins stood alongside my two teenage sons and their friend; the five of them engaged in an odd dance through the ink-black waters, hopping back and forth as they beckoned us to hurry and join them in the river.
Pushing all misgivings aside, I grabbed my tube, slipped off my flip-flops, and braced myself for the shock I knew would come next. With a stifled yelp, I hopped down into the knee-deep water. During the day the sun offers welcome relief from the breath-stealing sting of the spring-fed Boardman river. But under the curtain of night, I couldn't cling to my happy sun-baked security blanket. My yelp strangled and was reborn as a startled squeal when I jumped into my tube a little too forcefully and sank to my neck into the unforgiving water.
"Shit!" I gasped, correcting myself onto my tube as I sped blindly down the river to the first bend, leaving Isaac standing bewildered at the dock.
"Mom!" My oldest son hollered through the darkness, laughing at my failure to filter my language, his tube spinning past me.
In front of me, the other boys headlamps blinked in and out, seemingly in time with their hoots, hollers, and cheers.
I rounded the next corner, spinning with little control as I passed my son again. The lights from Isaac's headlamp zoomed in from behind us; two tiny glowing orbs in the darkness.
My tube spun forward and I found myself staring down the first in a series of spiked planks left over from a long forgotten fence. On instinct, I flung my hand forward, hoping to grab the edge of the board and slingshot safely to the other side of the river. As my fingers neared the splintered board, a wave of freezing water came cresting over my tube from behind me. My oldest son's tube collided against mine, sending me sailing right into the graveyard of lumber I had hoped to avoid. A chorus of laughter sailed up into the night air, like birds taking flight, and the rest of our tubing party cruised by. I watched the bouncing red and white lights of their headlamps wave across the sky as their laughter floated away.
My son bounced merrily off of me as if this were a simple game of bumper cars, leaving me to work my way out of the brambles on my own. The Great River Gods smiled upon me though. Isaac floated by at exactly the right moment and I was able to latch on to him and let the current carry me down the river.
Our raucous party of six continued on our journey, cutting through the darkness like a drunken band of pirates, bouncing off every rock and tree we passed, our spirits stronger than the shivers that laced our water-logged bodies.
Each twist and turn held a new surprise -- warnings were called out as often as discoveries. It was just as likely to hear, "Watch out! Heh...sorry, too late!!" as it was, "Look! A satellite! The Big Dipper! Orion's Belt!" We tested out theories on the best way to use our headlamps. We predicted the reality behind shadows lurking in the dark. We almost missed our docking site.
In what felt like minutes, our midnight mayhem came to an end. We stumbled from the water, laughing with ice-fogged breath as we rolled our tubes back up to camp and the promise of a blazing campfire, new stories to share, and memories that will never fade.
This was written as a part of the Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Challenge.