First off, I want to reassure my audience that my stupidity is still going strong. For our vacation this summer, we decided to go to Riviera Maya, south of Cancun, to check out Chichen Itza and some of the eco/water parks that feature underground kayaking through water caves, amphibious four-wheelers, zip lines, and other cool stuff. But then Pooneh discovered that my passport was due to expire just before our trip. Since I still had a little over a month before we left, I filed for the expedited renewal which can take up to four to six weeks, although some of my friends said they received theirs in just two weeks, so not to worry.
I began to get a sinking feeling in my guts when I still hadn’t received it with only a few days to go, and found it impossible to reach anyone by phone or email. Finally, the day before our flight, I went to the post office branch to see what can be done which was absolutely nothing. She said the renewal was still in process, and there were no appointments available in the federal offices.
Completely disgusted with myself, I had to break the news to my family that my passport wouldn’t arrive in time. I told them to go and have fun without me, but they said it wouldn’t be the same without their Paj (that’s what they’ve been calling me—short for padre). I spent the entire day scrambling to reschedule a last-minute vacation. Fortunately, I was able to get credit for the hotel, flights, and theme parks that I had booked, and actually found a good deal on last minute flights and hotel to Charleston, South Carolina. It wasn’t the exotic, adventure packed vacation they had in mind, but we had fun at the beach and exploring this beautiful, historic city. We had planned on kayaking through alligator infested tributaries but a tropical storm put a stop to that idea.
Some of our other big family vacations included trips to Disney World and Hawaii, but my kids really enjoy the resorts with water slides like Beaches in Jamaica and Atlantis the most. Besides sightseeing in Europe, I prefer the more adventurous trips like an excursion we took in Puerto Vallerta a few years ago. It began with a speed boat across the bay, followed by a four wheel drive up a mountain. Once it became too steep, we rode donkeys the rest of the way up. For the trek down, we took a series of zip lines and rope bridges over steep ravines, scaled down a cliff next to a waterfall, plunged straight down about fifty feet into a natural pool of water, and slid down a couple of jungle water slides for the grand finale. That’s my kind of day!
Now I’m not into extreme adventure like mountain or rock climbing or even marathon backpacking, but I love exploring the outdoors, enjoying everything nature has to offer. My dad used to take us to us hiking and canoeing at Turkey Run State Park in Indiana almost every year since I was a kid, so I learned to appreciate the outdoors early on.
When I got busy with medical school and then my internship in Michigan, I used to read magazines like Men’s Health and Outside and watch the Travel Channel, dreaming of the day when I could leave these cold winters behind and journey west to explore the mountains and maybe try some white-water rafting.
I made one of those critical decisions and applied for residency in Arizona for the following year—best decision of my life! I fell in love with the desert and the red, rocky mountains and the slate blue sky. Pooneh and I hiked all over the state those few years of residency; even if she was working or visiting her parents in California then I hiked on my own.
Chris gave me his mountain bike, figuring I’d get more use out of it in Arizona than he was. I tried it exactly two times: once I almost fell off a steep cliff to a spectacular death, and the next time I hit a big stray rock lying in the middle of the trail while cruising downhill pretty much out of control, vaulting me over the handlebars and into a cactus patch. When it got stolen from a bike rack shortly after that, I just said good riddance—God’s way of telling me that sport isn’t for me.
I still hadn’t tried rafting yet because nobody I knew was really into it, I guess. The itch never left me though. When Kaveh and Kian reached their teenage years, I wanted to try something different for vacation and figured it was a good time as any to finally test the rapids. From what I read, it looked pretty safe for beginners and families as long as you go with a guide. Pooneh and the kids seemed a bit nervous but also kind of excited and wanted to give it a try.
I booked one day at Hells Canyon on the Snake River and one day on the Salmon River in Idaho because I heard they offer some of the best rafting in the country. They looked fairly close to each other on the map but when I looked for lodging, I realized that they were actually four hours drive from each other on account of a large mountain in between them.
I booked a different hotel for the first night to cut down on driving which was in a tiny town with only one restaurant. We’re pretty sure the waitress was high on meth, which you would think might speed her up, but we had to wait fifteen minutes to take our order and another half hour for every lousy meal we ordered. Kaveh and Kian were used to going to resorts for vacation, so this really took them off guard and didn’t really know what to think, “Daddy, why did you bring us here?”
At least they did enjoy this humongous pancake!
We had to wake up at five in the morning to be sure we arrived on time, but after all the driving and trepidation, we had an absolute blast once we hit the rushing river. There were some slow parts when the guide had to manually row us to the next rapid, but I really enjoyed the scenery with its massive canyon walls and thought it was a perfect day in the outdoors.
The following day we planned a hike at one of the popular trails in the area. On arrival, we noticed we were the only car in the parking lot and a warning sign was posted about bees or bugs or something like that. I insisted we give it a try anyhow and within about five minutes into the hike, we found ourselves surrounded by an unusual number of weird insects all over the trail. Pooneh and Kian chickened out and turned back early, so Kaveh and I aborted shortly after and decided to find a different trail.
With the temperature heating up, I thought we should drive up the mountain and hike where it was cooler. After driving for over an hour and nearly at our destination, we suddenly found our road blocked by a bunch of wild horses. This just happened to be at a location with a fence on each side so we couldn’t go around them. These jackasses had an entire wilderness in which to stand and do nothing, but they all chose to gather together and block traffic right in this exact spot—probably for their own amusement, I assumed.
I honked at them a few times and shook my fist and yelled, “Go away, horsies,” but they wouldn’t budge. Most of them had their backs to us and didn’t even have the decency to turn around, while the alpha prick just kept shaking his head at us. I edged closer with my car but that only served to enrage him as he shook his head more furiously with those weird bulging horse eyes and stomped his foot repeatedly on the dirt road.
After about ten minutes of arguing with these idiots, I suggested we just climb up the beautiful hill right next to us that was loaded with wildflowers.
While we were up there taking some awesome pictures, a pickup truck cruised by and barely even slowed down for the stubborn jackasses. They just grudgingly parted to let him through and then bunched back together blocking the road again.
“Oh, well that looks easy!” I shouted. We clambered back down the hill about to follow suit, but Pooneh didn’t want to take the chance with our rental car getting bashed in by an angry horse. We turned around like a bunch of losers with the jackasses laughing at us and headed back down to find another trail a little further down.
The next day got really crazy. From what I read before the trip, the Lower Salmon River doesn’t have the monstrous rapids like Hells Canyon, but it moves you along better with more frequent rapids and less stagnation in between; nonetheless, it does have a few big ones that can get quite technical.
The guides were getting us all excited by talking about their recent trips, using jargon like “spicy” and “dicey” and how one of them almost got sucked into a big “munchy hole.” They explained that a hole is the area behind a large rock, partially obstructing the flow of water. When the current passes over and around the boulder, it shoots deep toward the bottom and then reverses back onto itself, creating what looks like a hole that churns and chews anything unfortunate enough to get stuck there (hence the term “munchy”) until it eventually decides to spit it (or you) out. Big holes are like legendary beasts, even to experienced rafters, and are probably the most feared hazard of water rafting, obviously requiring a lot of training to avoid or skim by them. They said they saw a pretty big one yesterday on this river but didn’t look too threatening and everyone got past it just fine.
Our own guide was really friendly, reassuring us that we would have a lot of fun and not to worry. He said he had a lot of experience since he’s been rafting as a little kid and looked to be in his early twenties. The morning went smoothly, and we were all having a great time. After stopping for a really nice, packed lunch that he personally provided, we started off again for the afternoon. He said we have a “spicy” one coming up, so I decided to ride “Bull” (sitting on the front of raft with legs dangling toward the water and holding onto a rope) with my Go Pro camera recording.
As we approached, the river was completely smooth and mellow, but then I began to hear something roaring at me. I looked ahead to see this water monster jutting up from the surface, creating a huge “hole” just behind it. The sound grew exponentially louder as we approached, our raft picking up speed as it drew us in closer and closer. I had complete faith in our guide, but I could not believe how violent and loud this thing was. I felt exhilarated and terrified at the same time, pointing and roaring back at it as we passed it by. Except we didn’t pass it by. It sucked us into its clutches, whipping our raft around 180 degrees until I was face to face with this furious monster! I saw the actual boulder that created this juggernaut directly in front of me, and all I could do was stare at it for about four full seconds, wondering how in the hell we would get out of its “munchy hole.”
Now I didn’t know this at the time, but our trusty guide behind me got ejected as it spun our raft around. Pooneh asked in alarm, “What happened to our guide?” At that very instant, our raft flipped and launched all of us into the cold rushing rapids. I could feel the water churning aggressively around me and didn’t even know which direction the surface was. Fortunately, I had a lifejacket on that popped me right back up. I saw Kian freaking out right next to me so quickly grabbed onto him, along with one of our paddles that was riding the current beside us. Kian kept asking where to go and where Mama was. I tried reassuring him but couldn’t talk because I kept swallowing water and retching with every breath I took.
I saw our guide who told us to head to the right bank, before swimming off, frantically trying to chase down our runaway raft. Kaveh drifted on by and said he was fine, actually enjoying himself.
I finally heard Pooneh calling out for us, and Kian spotted her a good distance behind. I couldn’t understand how Pooneh was so far behind until she explained later that she was trapped under the roiling water and couldn’t swim to the surface. Time tends to dilate when under life-threatening conditions, and she felt like she was under for a good two minutes. Thinking she was about to drown, she said farewell to her children and crossed her arms over her chest, letting her body go limp—and that is when she surfaced. She still remembers that as the most frightening moment of her life and swore never to put her life at risk like this again.
Of course, we still had about three more hours of rafting to go! Our guide caught up to our raft and deftly regained control. He pulled Pooneh into the raft, and then she in turn helped the rest of us back aboard. He apologized profusely, saying that the hole had grown much bigger since just the day before and should have stayed much further away from it.
We had a little time to compose ourselves and retrieve some of our stuff before the next rapid struck. We found another oar stuck in an eddy against the canyon wall. As we reached for it, his own oar got jammed against the wall which ejected our already dejected guide out of our raft again!
Pooneh offered her hand out to help him in and he climbed back aboard, trying to hide his embarrassment with a look of grim determination. But then another raft passed by, whose guide couldn’t resist teasing the poor fella about getting ejected and dumping his crew, as his passengers laughed along with him.
We continued to find and pluck our belongings like sunglasses and sandals and hats out of the water as we went along, even finding one of our sandals three hours later, just as we were about to dock. All of our phones were safe in a waterproof bag; the only item we couldn’t find were my new prescription sunglasses. As we disembarked, about two or three other grinning guides welcomed us back and dished out some more trash talk to our own guide for good measure.
Unbelievably, just last week (shortly after I started writing this story) I was watching a video on an exercise bike about two guys kayaking in Colombia and realized that one of them was our guide! I even pulled up one of the pictures we had to confirm it was really him. Watching this dude skillfully handle rapids that appeared much more treacherous than what he took us through, made me understand and appreciate how even the most talented kayakers can still get into trouble if not careful.
Here is the video of our crash. The camera got pushed down over my helmet so you can’t really see much after I hit the water but the first 30 seconds is pretty cool.