DAVID, GOLIATH AND LEXI THE CAT

Everyone knows the story, right? Shepherd David, the underdog, takes on the well-armored Goliath to settle an endless war, and fells the Philistine giant with a stone from the sling he uses to protect his flock. A story to hearten any young startup company that wants to tackle Microsoft or Apple. But now it seems Goliath may have been the near-sighted underdog suffering from pituitary malfunction, and David was using state-of-the-art artillery which could fire as accurately and with as much power as a modern 45.  For the new take on this ancient story, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s recently-released book.

I bring this up because here’s a David and Goliath story of my own. Or at least of one of our cats. You must know by now that I’m fascinated by animal behavior, domestic and wild. So it will be no surprise to learn my wife and I care for a number of cats, mostly abandoned felines. Some have sweet dispositions but also health issues making re-homing difficult, others are full of affection but too old for adoption or can’t be separated from long-time companions, that sort of thing. And then there’s Lexi, whose distinctive personality either wins you over or leaves you wondering why you didn’t get a dog instead.

Here she is:

Lexi and mirror

Note how she grooms herself before the mirror. Cat vanity. And the truth is, she’s a diva in her mind, and a bully when it comes to the other cats, but you can always count on Lexi to entertain. Lately, she’s started hiding in the bushes above the koi pond. She’s actually pretty poor at hiding, since her stark white ruff emerges from the greenery like a ball of snowy fluff, and any creature approaching head-on can spot her in a flash and keep its distance. Nevertheless, she takes advantage of her rocky perch above the pond to observe the fish below and soak up the sun.

Early this morning a tall white crane dropped down clumsily from the sky, intent on finishing off the few goldfish not yet devoured over the course of last year. Once we had a dozen large and healthy butterfly koi inhabiting the pond, but one by one they disappeared down the gullets of these big birds. I finally decided that “fish gotta swim and birds gotta eat,” so let nature take its course. I no longer run out of the house yelling wildly and waving my arms at the first approach of a great blue heron or sparkling white crane.

But no sooner had the crane settled to the rocks then Lexi  became a flash of fur, flying over the rocks and springing high in the air toward the startled  crane. Keep in mind that the crane is about four times larger than Lexi. Here’s the David vs. Goliath moment. The bird flapped up to settle fifteen feet above  on a curving birch trunk, then sat in the sun and looked around in total disdain of the little cat down below.

Now Lexi wasn’t about to let this fly (pun intended), so she did her best to climb the rose trellis and approach the crane. The bird, confident of its perch, spread its wings to the sun, straightened  a few feathers, preened and plucked, basically doing anything to aggravate Lexi, who remained out of pounce-range, tail flicking in frustration.  Meanwhile, Tara the black cat watched to see how this all played out. Since Lexi often picks on her, Tara was ready to let Lexi take the fall.

Here’s Tara:

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Once Lexi realized she would never reach the crane, she backed off, feigned disinterest and wandered down the hill, tail hoisted high as she left the pond area. For twenty minutes the crane continued its preening, then flew to our rooftop and waited.

When all appeared safe, the bird flapped down toward the edge of the pond, ready for that postponed breakfast. But just as it hit the ground, out from behind thick foliage flew the determined Lexi in one last desperate lunge for the bird. She had snuck around the pond and lurked under the plantings, biding her time. We were very surprised to see her spring from the surrounding greenery. The crane was equally surprised.

And had had enough. The big bird flapped away through the trees to seek  a more hospitable pond, one ideally lacking a white devil cat. Lexi watched it flee, than parked herself between the  basins and began to groom her coat, fluffing up to her fullest. Vain, yes, the diva, yes, but obviously proud of having done her duty protecting the goldfish.

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To experience living with a Lexi, visit http://www.simonscat.com and check it out.  And if you wish to contribute to the rescue of cats without a home, please support http://www.fatkittycity.org. That great organization can use all the help you can offer, and your donations are tax-deductible.

Lexi at mirror

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ANOTHER BIRD-BRAINED THOUGHT, just in time for Thanksgiving

Image from i61.serving.com

Image from i61.serving.com

Ever since I sat in a movie theater years ago and watched Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, I’ve had a strange fascination with our winged co-habitants here on Earth. Not some “birder” fascination, where I might spend hours out in the field recording every song and sighting. Rather, simply the acknowledgement that birds live in such close proximity every day, but we rarely devote much thought to them. They are background clutter most of the time, that fleeting glimpse of  a pair of bluebirds swooping from tree to tree, a mess on the sole of your shoe if you tread where a Canadian goose has waddled by, the  hummingbird with his beak stuck in the porch screen. You gently set him free to the disgust of the watching cats, that sort of thing.

But once in a while, just once in a long while, the birds intrude into our lives. Who hasn’t been dive-bombed by a jay protecting a nest? Who hasn’t spotted powder blue robin’s egg lying broken on a sidewalk? Who doesn’t love California’s Bodega Bay…oh, wait, that’s just another allusion to the movie. Sorry, got distracted.

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The other morning I stood on our terrace , espresso cup in hand as I looked out over our small fish pond. I noticed a sudden movement on one large, sloping boulder. A bright-red berry had popped out from beneath the overhanging Pyracantha bush and was rolling down  to  finally rest on a stone shelf near the water. It traveled a good four feet.

Meanwhile, a bird emerged from deep in the bush, cocking its head to the side as it watched the berry find its way to the bottom. Now I have no idea what kind of a bird we’re dealing with here, just one of that brown sort of average size and—one would guess—average bird intelligence. But this one hopped down to the now stationary berry, picked it up in its beak, hopped back up to the top of the boulder and released it again. This time the bird raced alongside the ball, keeping a close eye on its descent. It was playing, doing what any kid would do, finding fun in seeing how the thing bounced down the uneven surface.

During one descent the red ball lodged in a crack in the rock, and the bird lifted it out and sent it back on its way. It played this game with the same berry a half-dozen more times before abruptly stopping, looking over at me, then picking up the berry and flying off into the trees. I assume to find a rock elsewhere where no watched to spoil its private fun.

Science tells us that birds are the last of the dinosaurs, so it only makes sense that, having survived many millions of years, their brains must have a pretty good development for survival. But for play? Can you imagine watching adult velociraptors chase a primordial melon down a boulder, just for fun?

Image thanks to australianmuseum.net.au

Image thanks to australianmuseum.net.au

Which brings me to this: as I returned home this morning from a walk, I took a moment to stare up into a beautiful sky. You know the moment, when the fall air feels crisp, and the trunks of the birch trees, having lost most of their leaves to the latest storm, contrast so sharply with the bright blue sky. And there, sixty feet above me, sat two huge vultures staring down with their yellow-rimmed red eyes. They were all fluffed up to catch the first rays of the sun, and watched me with curiosity. And I wondered what might be going through their minds. Their kind has certainly been around for a lot longer than mine,  gathering around a feast provided by nature.

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So as you’re gorging yourself on turkey this Thanksgiving, be thankful that the birds have grown smaller over time. But, just to be on the safe side, you may want to glance out your window to be certain the nearest tree doesn’t teem with Raptors, cocking their heads to the side and wondering just how you might bounce, rolling down a boulder toward some pond below.

Copyright 2014 Patrick W. O’Bryon

 

Posted in Animal stories, Outdoor Adventures, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CORRIDOR OF DARKNESS, A Novel of Nazi Germany, NOW IN AUDIO BOOK FORMAT!

audiobook cover

For those of you who prefer audio books, Corridor of Darkness is now available in that popular format on Amazon, Audible.com, and iTunes! Tim Campbell, a professional narrator with a rich baritone voice and over 60 titles to his name, does a superb job of bringing my first novel of Nazi Germany to life for the listening public.

And–in case you missed the announcement–Beacon of Vengeance, Volume 2 of the Corridor of Darkness trilogy, is now available as both eBook and trade paperback, with the audio version coming later this fall.

My sincere thanks to all of you who have given the series such a warm reception and posted your reviews on Amazon.com!

Beacon front cover jpeg

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The stuff of dreams, yet real.

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Eze by night

Three a.m., and the rigors of international air travel have put your internal clock at odds with sleep. You arise in the dark and step to the broad, open window. Only a horizontal rod of iron separates you from the vast skies above and the distant Mediterranean Sea some thousand feet below.

The French Riviera. The Cote d’Azur. That point where Ancient Rome drew a line between Italia and Gallia, Italy and Gaul. At your feet, where the waters meet the land, Caesar and Pompey once passed with their legions, setting out to conquer the world or returning from brutal conquest.

High above, stars fill the sky. Below and halfway to the sea, a  necklace of  amber beads and diamond jewels marks the hilltop village of Èze. Far off to your right a spit of land hides the town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, and the city of Nice casts a steady nocturnal glow beyond the rise.

Now a random cloud of fog drifts landward from the sea, enveloping the stones of Èze in a suffused glow before moving steadily onward. Soon the necklace of lights shimmers clearly again.

And so close that you are tempted to reach out to touch them, numerous small bats flit against the dark sky stilling their nocturnal hunger. They swoop so close that the flutter of their wings stirs the air on your bare chest. This unending dance proves as fascinating as the distant view beyond.

And then you imagine joining their flight, free to explore unhindered the nighttime world spread out below.

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Eze by day

The stuff of dreams, the stuff of travel. It stays alive once  you are home again and the jet lag long past.

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To experience your own dreamscape in this region, consider a stay at Domaine Pins Paul (www.domainepinspaul.fr). Philippe and Marie-Jose’ Ponnelle are gracious hosts.

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Domaine Pins Paul

View from Eze

View from Eze

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The Promenade des Anglais at Nice

 

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Book Review: Beacon of Vengeance by Patrick O’Bryon

I’m thrilled to have S.K. Nicholls, outstanding writer and prolific blogger, post this review of my new release in the Corridor of Darkness trilogy, Beacon of Vengeance, A Novel of Nazi Germany!

S.K. Nicholls

I have been catching up on some sequels and series. There are some new authors I have been introduced to this past year that have really managed to keep me engaged and Patrick O’Bryon is one of the best.

You can read my review of his first book: “Corridor of Darkness” here.

“Beacon of Vengeance”, the new thriller inspired by his late father’s undercover life in Nazi Europe, is Volume Two in the “Corridor of Darkness” trilogy.

http://www.amazon.com/Beacon-Vengeance-Germany-Corridor-Darkness-ebook/dp/B00MU7PSXA/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1409171860&sr=1-1&keywords=Beacon+of+Vengeance

Book Review:

Patrick O’Bryon, a self-proclaimed Europhile who has traveled extensively, has a writer’s voice, language, and eloquent writing style perfect for Historical Fiction of this time period and location. O’Bryon’s ability to create realistic imagery and evoke human emotion with his words is incredible. “Corridor of Darkness”, his debut novel, sent chills up my spine as he described pre-war Germany in all of its splendor and chaos, and a thrilling and perilous…

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BEACON OF VENGEANCE, A Novel of Nazi Germany, CORRIDOR OF DARKNESS Volume 2, NOW AVAILABLE!

Beacon front cover jpeg

In the summer of 1941 America edges closer to joining battle against Hitler’s victorious armies in Europe…but a dangerous spy game is already underway.

Reluctant former operative Ryan Lemmon disappears in Nazi-occupied France, a country riddled with corruption and deceit. Ostensibly assigned to the State Department’s Special War Problems Division, Ryan now works for America’s newly centralized intelligence office under William “Wild Bill” Donovan. His official assignment– undermine German intelligence operations across Occupied Europe.

But the first task of independent-minded Ryan Lemmon remains deeply personal–release his friends from a fascist internment camp while there is still hope for their survival.

And what ever goes exactly as planned?

Beacon of Vengeance, the new thriller inspired by my late father’s undercover life in Nazi Europe, is the second volume in the Corridor of Darkness trilogy. It is now available as a trade paperback at online retail outlets, and as an eBook for Kindle and Apple readers on Amazon.com.

For ease of ordering, just click on one of the book covers pictured in the blog footer at the bottom of the page.

And, as always, I deeply appreciate your comments, and your reviews!

Watch for the audiobook edition of Corridor of Darkness coming this fall, and Fulcrum of Malice, the final novel in the series, coming in May 2015.

Posted in European Travel, Historical Thriller, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

STORMY NIGHT, ABANDONED HOSPITAL, DANGEROUS INTRUDERS? — MEMOIR, PART TWO

(Should you not yet have read Part One of this little hospital memoir, you may want to check it out first.)

Photo courtesy of www.nsf.gov

Photo courtesy of http://www.nsf.gov

“Let’s get out of here!” The teen-aged son of Dr. B appeared every bit as worried as the rest of us, seeing as the empty hospital’s front entrance had been locked again by the intruders, the drug room door was wide open and a light was burning inside. And someone had called for the elevator but failed to ascend to the fourth floor where we had been about to call for the lift.

With a recent break-in and theft at the recently-abandoned facility in Carrollton Missouri, the 19-year-old’s suggestion appeared to have great merit. My little sister Laura and I thought the idea sound. Thunder rumbled outside, the nighttime storm continuing unabated.

Everyone spoke in whispers. “What about the watermelons?” It was his girlfriend doing the asking.

Laura and I exchanged glances of disbelief before heading down the ramp toward the basement, figuring we could grab the melons and exit out the service door that opened to the parking lot of the abandoned hospital. I took the lead, Laura at my heels, and we moved as quietly as possible, no one speaking, rounding the bend at a landing and descending toward the dim light we’d left burning upon our arrival.

Just as I cautiously approached the final turn toward the kitchen, every nerve on edge…a sudden shock sent me jumping back right into poor little Laura.

Older sister Colleen had jumped out of the shadows and sent all our hearts through the roof.

“What are you guys up to?” she asked, all innocent eyes, of course.

As lightning continued to flash through the narrow basement windows and thunder shook the concrete walls, we learned the whole story. Dr. B. and my father had wondered what was taking so long fetching  watermelons for dessert, so they had driven over to the hospital. Colleen had opted to join them. They came in the front door, locking it behind them. Then they rang for the elevator, assuming (rightly) that we were upstairs picking out beds for the family’s overnight stay. But before the elevator car arrived, Dr. B opened up the drug room, leaving the light on, intending to make up a first-aid kit for my parents as a gift to carry on our travels. Then they had decided to go down and get the melons before checking on us upstairs.

No break-in. No fevered drug addicts out to get us. Nothing scary at all.

Just one older sister taking some smiling pleasure in having scared the bejeesus out of me. Of us.

Time for revenge.

A couple of hours later the family had gathered on the fourth floor and our mother assigned bedrooms. Mine was closest to the elevator end of the hall. Then came Colleen’s. And the our mother’s, and so on. Each with a single bed, each along the same side of the hall.

Lights out.

I gave it about ten or fifteen minutes, to make sure everyone had settled down and ideally drifted off. The storm continued unabated, with sheets of rain pouring down the tall windows and flashes of lightning momentarily lighting up the room as thunder rattled the panes.

Perfect.

I inched out of the tall hospital bed and eased myself low, close to the floor. Step-by-step, inch-by-inch, I made my silent way by lightning light into the neighboring room until I reached my goal, ready to rise up at the foot of the bed, ready to return the favor to my dear sister Colleen.

At the moment of a particularly loud clap of thunder, I assumed my full fifteen-year-old height and let out what I hoped to be my spookiest howl.

Dead silence.

Further dead silence.

And then…from the head of the bed came a stern voice, uh-oh, my mother’s voice: “Pat, no nonsense, just go back to bed and let people sleep.”

I slunk back into my room, bested once again by Colleen, who, I am sure, heard it all in the next room and fell asleep gloating and giggling at having, once again, gotten the best of me. She had switched rooms at the last minute with our mother, knowing what I was sure to try in the darkness of that abandoned hospital.

Look out, Colleen. I still owe you for that one, dear sister.

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A DARK & STORMY NIGHT & AN ABANDONED HOSPITAL: a Memoir of my Youth

Photo courtesy of www.nsf.gov

Photo courtesy of http://www.nsf.gov

Back in my youth our family did a lot of traveling. Most of our relatives lived in the Midwest—Kansas, Missouri, Illinois. And every summer we piled into the family sedan (no air conditioning, of course) and headed east to spend at least a month visiting cousins, aunts, uncles, and old friends of our parents.

Now, it helps to know that my folks had an eclectic mix of friends. There was the undertaker and his wife in Illinois, who dummied up a bed in one of the upstairs rooms of their Victorian mansion  to appear he had brought work home from the office. It scared the bejesus out of any kids who dared to go exploring. There was the scandalous newspaperman who lived in an unmarried state with a woman who smoked cigarettes!…very Bohemian for the time. And there was the owner of Joe’s Mexico City Café, who conversed with our father in Spanish with great enthusiasm, all the while serving up authentic Mexican cuisine we loved, until we learned he cut a few corners by specializing in illegal horse meat.

One of my favorite childhood travel memories however was the visit to my father’s old  Kansas University friend in Missouri. Dr. B. had prospered as a proctologist in Carrollton,  and he also owned a beautiful peach and berry farm outside the town.  There in the hills he also grew huge melons and other experimental crops using composting methods. .

On this particular trip our family pulled into town just before dusk, and after a long day’s ride we all slumped out of the car and entered the widely-respected doctor’s fine home.

The skies were turning dark and roiling, as one of those typical Midwest summer storms reared its head—always of great excitement for kids who lived with boring California  summers and never experienced a warm weather storm or lightning flash..

After a nice dinner, Dr.  and Mrs. B. suggested we take in one of the proctologist’s home movies. My sister Colleen and I exchanged wary looks. We knew what a proctologist did, and didn’t think viewing his home movies would sit well on a full stomach. Luckily, the movie he wanted to show was of his setting a fracture of his son’s arm, injured in some accident.  Bloody, but surprisingly pleasant after the change in our expectations.

After the entertainment, Mrs. B. suggested that four of us—their son, his girlfriend, my little sister Laura and I—drive over to the county hospital. Not because the home movie had made us sick, but because the doctor had just purchased the entire structure lock, stock and barrel, and was storing produce from the farm in the basement refrigerators.

Carroll County had just opened a brand-new health facility at the edge of town, and the old brick hospital was to become Dr. B.’s personal clinic. Our task was to fetch the home-grown watermelons from the hospital basement cooler and bring them back for dessert. And, because the B.’s would hear nothing of our spending the night at a motel when such a nice facility was available, we were told to make up sufficient hospital beds for our family’s overnight stay.

Now, keep in mind that the doctor’s son was about 19, as was his girlfriend, I was perhaps 15, and Laura barely 9.

We arrived at the imposing, multi-story structure just as the first jagged bolts danced across the rumbling skies, and raindrops the size of dimes splattered the windshield. Far in the distance howled the whistle of a passing Santa Fe freight.

Racing up to the entrance, the son unlocked the front door and carefully relocked it behind us. He told of a  break-in just days before by dangerous drug addicts seeking the pharmaceuticals still stored on-site.

Nothing about this hospital even suggested it was no longer an operating medical facility, aside from the fact that it was eerily empty of human life. All the furnishings were still in place. The Coke machine in the lobby still offered bottles for a dime. The offices still had files open on the desks and pencils laid across them. All appeared as if someone had raised an alarm and everyone had calmly filed outside, never to return.  Very Stephen King. As we went about turning on lights, the effect was  disconcerting, especially when the son headed straight down the hall to check the door of the pharmacy room, just to make sure nothing was amiss.

Our first step was to descend the long ramp into the basement kitchen. We quickly found the huge watermelons and put two on the counter top to grab when we were leaving. Then we took the elevator up to choose rooms where the family would spend the night. On the fourth floor we exited into a long hallway. The operating rooms were still equipped with mechanical tables and surgical tools and glass-fronted cabinets. Incubators lined other walls. The individual rooms were lacking only curtains of any kind, already removed for cleaning.  The tall, paned windows displayed the lightning raking the sky as thunder rattled the glass and rain pelted down the glass in sheets. At the very end of the hall we chose for the family a long line of rooms and put on fresh bed linens from a storage closet.

Then, shutting down the floor lights as we came to the elevator, I reached to press the call button. Lightning crashed outside, sending slivers of bluish light down the now darkened hallway from the window at the end of the corridor. My finger barely touched the button when someone elsewhere in the empty hospital rang for the elevator!

My God, another break-in! Dangerous, hopped-up druggies had entered the hospital and were now coming up for us!  Laura and I exchanged looks of disbelief before the four of us huddled to discuss our options.

“Yes,” it was agreed with certainty, “we definitely relocked the front door!”

“Take the stairwell?” No, we all agreed with less certainty, “–potentially too dangerous.”

The buzzer down below rang again. We heard the descending car land on the ground floor, heard the doors open and shut, and then the car rose again, coming our direction. We backed to the opposite side of the hallway. I pulled my penknife from my pocket, all two inches of fierce blade ready for action. The stairs were looking more inviting with every change on the elevator floor wall monitor showing the approach of the car. And then the car settled in place, and the doors slid open with a “ding.”

Empty!

Now what? The stairwell? A quick vote decided we would still ride down to the lobby, come what might. With great trepidation we stepped in, and every floor of the descent became more nerve-wracking than the last. The longest elevator ride of my life, despite being only four floors.

As the doors parted…no one stood before us. We stuck out heads into the hallway only to find no one in sight. As one, we raced for the front entry, only to find the door still locked. Then we turned nervously to look down the hall toward the pharmacy. That door was now wide open…

Gulp!

(TO BE CONTINUED BEFORE YOU KNOW IT…)

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Book Facts that Explain Stupidity

This says it all…

S.K. Nicholls

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Reading is vital to education on any topic.

 

Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.

~ Malcolm S. Forbes

 

These are sad statistics. Fiction, non-fiction, read something. Open your mind.

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HOW NOT TO RAFT A RIVER: Another Misguided Adventure

whitewater - Copy Readers of this blog know that water and I have had a difficult relationship over the years…you know, near-drowning, that sort of thing. So in honor of the season, here’s another look at what NOT to do when it comes to enjoying water in the Great Outdoors…

Ah, summertime, and the weather is sweltering.  At least in the central California foothills, gateway to the Sierra Nevada.  And now Californians sit in the middle of a drought, our reservoirs puddles, our rivers meager streams and our streams dry ditches.

All this reminds me of summer days of years past when the waters ran in great abundance, river rafting was thrilling, and we were much more naive than we should have been about challenging the raging waters.

So here’s the story…

The Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River, as seen from the bridge up near the country outpost of Outingdale, appears to be a mild, meandering stream, with nice pockets where trout can hide, big boulders fit for sunbathers lounging away the afternoon, and a gentle current designed to bring the lazy vacationer gently downstream. It’s a good place to leave one car at the start of a rafting adventure.

Now some distance away, where highway once again meets waterway at the bridge along Highway 49, the Middle Fork also appears to be very calm and inviting, even in a year when snowmelt is high and drought is far from anyone’s mind. A nice spot to leave the first car, so that after a few hours of casual floating one has a means to get back up to Outingdale.

In principle, a great plan for a relaxing afternoon, floating the foothills, right?

After all, what could possibly go wrong?

Let me tell you.

First, the four of us bought two of the cheapest rafts made at the time…thirty-buck Sears specials made of plastic. Yeah, plastic.  You know, the inflatable kind just one step above a kiddie-pool. Adding two paddles, an ice chest, a 35mm camera or two (before digital, of course), some other picnic supplies, and wearing swim suits and tennies and nothing else, we clambered aboard, ready to spend a few lazy summer hours enjoying the great outdoors and our picnic lunch.  

And that first hour or so was fun, drifting with the current, watching the turkey vultures soar overhead, observing an errant butterfly checking out our raft. My wife and I took the lead position in our boat, my brother and his wife followed behind. Yes, a good first hour.

But then we came to the weir. For those who’ve never encountered the word, a weir is a dam stretching across a flowing body of water, creating a small lake above and a beautiful cascade of water the breadth of the obstruction. And it was enjoyable running over the edge and zipping down below.

But then the gentle Cosumnes pulled a surprise, and the water rushed rapidly into a narrower passageway and suddenly we found our boats were upended, our provisions lost to the waters, and some helpful picknickers wading into the rushing water to give a hand to pull us—drenched through and through—onto shore with rafts in tow.

“I sure wouldn’t go any further,” advised one of our helpers. “Things get pretty rough up ahead.”

“No problem,” said I, “We’ve a car downstream a ways, and it can’t be that far.”

So with little hesitation, we boarded our rafts with only our oars to guide us and prepared for another anticipated hour or so of gentle drifting before we would spy the bridge over highway 49 and our waiting car.

Things progressed rapidly from bad to worse. Soon we were shooting wild rapids, skating past huge boulders, twirling about with little control of the watercraft. And then came Devil’s Slide, a long granite trough in a narrow rock-walled canyon, so steep in its decline that any control of the boats became an impossibility. Struggling, we managed to beach the rafts on a gravel bar and tried to catch our collective breath. At that moment it appeared we couldn’t go on, and I left my brother with our wives and hiked up the steep mountain on our side of the river. At the top I could see over the forested hills in three directions, but  no sign of buildings or homesteads. In the distance I heard a dog barking. That was it, and I knew we would have a tough go of it trying to hike out. I returned to the beached boats and gave the word: onward and downward.

Whitewater 2 - Copy

At one point we determined that we would have to get out and portage, carrying the rafts above our heads and making our way past a particularly treacherous stretch of the river. My brother was in the lead, and suddenly disappeared from my sight along with his raft. I ran forward, only to spot him lying some twelve feet below. He had fallen from the rocks , and his right leg twisted at the knee at a forty-five degree angle, sticking shockingly sideways out from his thigh. It was a position that spelled certain harm and pain, likely a broken bone or two. I raced down below, he stood, and the leg popped back into normal position. “Still works,” he said. And we continued on our way.

By late afternoon exhaustion and lack of food and water had drained our energy reserves. I remember drifting listlessly through a meadow of grazing cows at dusk as the first stars appeared. And then my wife, whose hearing has always far surpassed mine in acuity, drew attention to the sound of a waterfall ahead. We were in the lead. Our raft sped up and aimed for a narrowing between two large boulders, it twisted around, putting me out over the ledge first as we went over and dropped down a ten-foot waterfall. Somehow we stayed afloat in the boat, and could watch helplessly as the prow of my brother’s boat followed our course, emerging out into space above our heads, then dropping straight down, submerging briefly, then popping up again. The boats were filled with water and nearly foundering, so we bailed like crazy with our hands to stay afloat as we continued downstream.

Night fell, the stars now dazzled in splendid abundance, and we were totally exhausted. The thought of drinking from the river was dampened by the cows we had passed upstream wading riverside, so our mouths were dry as sandpaper and our tongues felt overly large and cumbersome.

Some hour or two of aimless drifting later, our boat still in the lead, my wife shook me out of my lethargy. “I hear another waterfall ahead,” she warned, “we can’t handle another waterfall.”

And sure enough, the current picked up its pace and the boats began a forward surge, and my wife became more insistent that, whatever lay ahead, we couldn’t chance taking it on in the dark. A snag approached, a dead tree partially submerged in the river, and I grabbed for it and hauled us in, and shouted to my brother to follow suit.

Once ashore, we beached the boats. My sister-in-law was shaking violently with low blood sugar and exposure, so we buried the two of them under dried grass and piled their boat on top to conserve heat and energy. Then my wife and I trekked out along a dirt path, looking for help. Any help.

About half an hour later we hear dogs barking and saw a light in a farmhouse. Standing back in the hope that the inhabitant wasn’t one to shoot first, ask questions later, we shouted for help. A porch light came on and a man came out to see what we were doing, standing in swimsuits on his country drive at nine o’clock at night. Once we had explained our dilemma, we piled into his pickup truck and trundled down to the river, where we left the boats and accepted his offer of a ride down to 49 and our vehicle.

Amusing anecdote: my sister-in-law, practically incoherent as the helpful man carried her to his truck, complained that our rescuer smelled of fish.  Apparently he hadn’t yet showered after a day of fishing the Cosumnes.

The next morning we made our way back to retrieve the rafts. We checked out the waterfall my wife had warned was coming. At that point the river converges into a narrow slot, them plummets ten or twelve feet straight down into a cauldron of swirling water. The only outlet is through narrow passages at the base of the surrounding rocks. No way for a human to make it through, with or without a raft. On all four sides are slick rock walls, with no crevices for hand grabs or footholds to allow someone (other than perhaps an expert rock climber) to clamber up and out of the pit.

We might be going round in circles there to this day, were it not for pulling from the river when we did.

So…lessons learned:

  1. Study your river in advance. We didn’t. The rafting guidebooks rate the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes in a good-flow year as being a Class IV+ and having a number of Class V+ rapids, including “Devil’s Slide.” And over a dozen recommended portages for the section we rafted. And that’s for experts. We did three. And the stretch is 11 miles long.
  2. Get good rafts or kayaks. Enough said.
  3. Tie down your food and water. You may want it later.
  4. Tell others where you’re going to be, and when to expect you back. We didn’t do either.
  5. Wear lifejackets and helmets.
  6. Listen to the advice of others who already know what lies ahead.
  7. DON’T TRY THIS STRETCH UNLESS YOU ARE ALREADY AN EXPERT!!!

The following weekend we decided to take on an easy stretch of the American River below Coloma. We figured we needed to rid ourselves of any latent fear of the water. Rounding the stretch at the Highway 49 bridge at Lotus(this year a miserable stretch of rippling water, that year a roaring rush of excitement), our boat snagged on an underwater branch, deflated, and we had to swim desperately to shore. Lowering the river level by a great deal with all the water we swallowed in the process.

Oh well…we survived! We don’t guide our own rafting adventures any more, by the way.

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