Leon Row the Boat Ashore

It took me a while to write this down, but it’s feeling seasonal again, now that the forecast is for seven days of 986-degree heat.

Last summer, Leon and I were facing the prospect of a rare weekend off. While the kids visited their grandparents, Leon and I got two full days to do whatever we wanted.

Of course my first response to receiving unlooked-for free time is usually panic. How will I clean the entire house, sleep in and rest, work on my relationship, see all of my friends, go to all of the stores, and finally get to those 347 organizational projects in my house in just two days? This usually means putting half of three messes away, resulting in things looking worse than before, and then sinking into the couch to get lost in Facebook use.

But this time, Leon had an idea. I had bought him a raft for his birthday. He likes to fish, and that’s all the boat I can afford to give. It could fit him and some fishing stuff, or him and me and some snacks, or him and me and the kids without an iota of extra space, but with the benefit of not giving the kids room to punch each other.

Leon suggested that we could have a nice, romantic day to ourselves. We’d put some wine and cheese into the boat, and float down the river together. Perfect! No interruptions, pleasant sunshine, and a relaxing day outdoors.

We started packing. In my mind, this usually¬†takes ten minutes. But we had to pack the boat and all its gear, which meant I had to search out the inflating device that plugs into a car. I had not used this device for at least ten years. But we finally located it, packed some food, packed a bottle of chilled white wine, packed water, packed sunscreen, packed the kids’¬†water gun, packed cups, packed, packed, packed. How are other people able to be spontaneous? How does that work? It took us long enough to gather the things and pack the car that we actually had to pack more food than we’d initially planned on, since we were starting to run over a mealtime. We had to leave a car at a destination downstream, and then drive up to our put-in point. We finally hit the water three to four hours after we had originally anticipated.

It didn’t help that I misunderstood the directions and drove us to the wrong park. It was hot, and we argued while trying to blow up the raft. This put Leon into a bad mood, and as we walked across the ugly gravel toward the river, I was already grieving the¬†romantic, kind of European excursion I had been envisioning.

We managed to get into the raft with the usual bottom-scraping and getting discombobulated for a bit, and then I swiftly dropped one of the oar locks into the water. Like, immediately. This did not help Leon’s mood, since it meant that we could not let go of one of the oars¬†for the entire journey. I peered around desperately, but being more of a water-sports person than me, Leon¬†knew that¬†once it¬†slipped beneath the surface of the water, it was gone forever. I laughed nervously. I’m not actually trying to ruin your new boat, really. I know it looks that way.

At first there was no current, so we had to row. Which meant either Leon had to row or we had to somehow sort out rowing as a couple, which should probably be some kind of activity for marriage-therapy weekends. It didn’t go that well, though we eventually sorted it out. It was pretty tiring, since it was so hot.

We hit a spot with a small current, and our boat actually moved itself for the first time. I pointed out a bend down the river. “Effie Yeaw Nature Center is right around that bend,” I commented. We were already making progress! The current disappeared. We rowed.

I sadly eyeballed our cooler, unable to figure out how we could possibly have our romantic wine while rowing one regular oar and one unlocked one. We rowed. “Are we getting closer together?” I asked Leon. He looked at me, at the cooler. “Hm. Yeah, maybe.”¬†The raft appeared to be softening a bit. But it was hard to tell. We scraped on the bottom of the river, and Leon grimaced.

After a few years, we rounded the corner. Effie Yeaw Nature Center was NOT around the bend, but another raft was. An abandoned raft. An abandoned raft that was literally exactly like ours. Same brand. Same color. Same model. This was not reassuring. We laughed, a bit hysterically. As we floated and rowed by, a much better raft full of shouting drunk people ran into us. Their well-inflated raft bounced off our slightly sagging one, and I cringed. Leon wiped the splash off his face and gave me a fake grin.

This apparently was the start of our drifting through party central. Once the river straightened out a bit, the shores of Rancho Cordova flattened and started to resemble the desert rocks one might see at Lake Powell in Arizona. And as is the case at¬†Lake Powell, the shores were teeming with drunken people in bathing suits. We looked at each other over our unusable wine and sinking cooler, feeling less than warm and fuzzy as graphic rap lyrics wafted over us. I eyeballed the children running around the surprisingly large stereo that was producing songs of violence against women. I eyeballed Leon. He rowed a little faster. Or at least tried to. It didn’t produce much fruit, considering that our boat had actually begun drifting back upstream. How is this possible? I fought against the despair that had started to creep into my heart.

Someone leaped off a cliff, startling me, and I hoped he hadn’t hit the bottom of the shallow river. Once we appeared to be heading downstream again, Leon pulled the lockless oar into the raft and set down the other one. Since the river was deeper and the going was smoother here, he opened the cooler and took out some cheese, which we hastily stuffed into our mouths as we slowly crept past the drunken rivergoers. I looked again¬†at the sweating wine bottle, thinking it would go nicely with the…well, kind of sweating cheese. After we’d “enjoyed”¬†the cheese, we each picked up an oar again.

“OK, it’s definitely getting harder to row,” Leon announced, wiping sweat from his brow. “Did we inflate it enough?” I asked. “I don’t know.” We discussed the matter, and Leon speculated that the temperature difference between the air and the river had caused the raft to deflate a bit. I tried to remember if cold air should shrink or expand, but came up with nothing. His explanation sounded convincing. But man, did I wish we had inflated the raft more before putting it in the water. The cooler was rattling against our knees. I pointed at the bend we were very gradually approaching. “Hey, I think Effie Yeaw is around that bend.” Leon laughed. I laughed. I really did think I was right this time. Traveling at a pace of about one mile per hour, we rounded the bend. The shores were unfamiliar. No Effie Yeaw.

To our joy, the river sped up. Ahead, I could see that there was some kind of drop. It looked like the river split over two boulders, creating three waterfalls. “Which one do we go down?” shouted Leon. I laughed. We passed a man standing in the river. “Which one do we go down?” Leon screamed at him. He pointed to the middle one, and good thing, because it was looking like we weren’t going to have the option to head for the other two at this point. We sailed our sinking ship over the edge and into a terrifying but mercifully brief rapid. Looking back, we could see that the other two waterfalls were much less intense. “That [bleep]” I said. Had he purposely led us astray, or had he actually thought he was helping? The pace of the river slowed as it widened again. We rounded another bend. No Effie Yeaw. Our boat scraped a bit, and Leon pushed us off the ground with his oar.

“Where is Effie Yeaw?” I asked, perplexed. I had figured we would reach it in maybe thirty minutes, and there was still no sign of it. I pulled out my phone to look at Google maps. I tried not to panic when I could see that¬†the nature center was probably only about halfway to our car. I put my phone back into its ziplock bag.

As we rowed miserably and tediously along, I¬†tried to ignore our shrinking boat and look at the nice scenery. We spotted a surprisingly large number of what seemed to be herons, but then we scraped painfully on the bottom again. We decided to get out on one of the rocky islands created by the gold rush miners, since walking and pulling the boat would undoubtedly be faster than our ridiculous drifting pace on the water. “This boat is definitely popped,” Leon announced, as we struggled over the rocks. So apparently walking on the slippery, sharp pebbles was not faster. We couldn’t reach the end of the island. “We’re gonna die out here,” I announced. We got back into the shrinking boat, which scraped against the gravel. We couldn’t do much but shriek with maniacal laughter.

We had been on the water for hours. The sun was clearly sinking in the sky. We hadn’t even reached Effie Yeaw. We were never going to reach Effie Yeaw. We were going to die out there, on the river, in a sinking plastic raft. I leaned back to try to straighten out the middle of the raft.

Leon fired the water gun at some herons, and we hooted with laughter. “To heck with it,” I said, and uncorked the warm wine bottle. I took a swig straight from the bottle. The raft continued to sink. “Save the wine!” I hollered, holding the wine over my head. Water washed over my feet.

I stuck the wine bottle between my knees, which grated against the cooler. I pulled out my phone again and opened Facebook. “SOS!” I posted. “We’re sinking!” My friend Kelly responded, and we posted back and forth a bit.¬†I gradually got her to understand that we were, in fact, sinking in a boat on the river. My friend Ivan, who also happens to be a pastor at our church, joined into the conversation. “Do you actually need help?” he asked, amid all the joking. “Um, yes, could someone come get us?” I posted.

“Look! It’s Effie Yeaw! It’s Effie Yeaw!” Leon shouted. Amid all of my Facebooking, I had nearly missed it.¬†The boat was speeding up and carrying us past the shores of the nature center. The single spot on the river I could have named for someone else trying to locate us. We leaped out of the now-racing boat, and tried to pulled it through the swift waters. “Seriously?” Leon yelled. We laughed and pulled and struggled until we managed to climb over a gravelly island and onto the beach with the stupid boat. I took a swig of warm white wine while we waited. Leon and I started dragging the surprisingly heavy, nearly empty raft along the beach.

Eventually Ivan appeared through the trees. Mortified, exhausted, overjoyed, and amused beyond belief, I waved wildly. He had on his pastor face, which does a nearly perfect job of disguising his actual feelings about your predicament. He kind of pushed me aside, and picked up part of the boat. Leon and he carried the raft, and I followed after them like a puppy, carrying the cooler, the wine, and the miscellany from the boat. “We’ve been saved by a pastor!” I said. “There were two pairs of footprints in the sand, but now there’s only one,” Leon quipped. “Or there were three pairs of footprints, and now there’s only one…?”

The three of us made it through the nature center and back to Ivan’s minivan. We saw a coyote on the way, and we mentioned the fact that we may or may not have shot at some beautiful birds with a water gun on our trip. The real mortification set in once Ivan started driving us back to the car. I wondered if we would ever quite live this down. We got home, and I posted on Facebook, “I was lost, but I’ve been saved! By a Presbyterian minister! Alleluia!” Friends commented things like, “But now you are found!” and my friend Rachel owned that he had also changed her tire once. Thank God for friends of the cloth! And to hell with romantic boat rides.


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