I do not know how to swim. But when I was invited to enlist in a river rafting adventure, I did not hesitate. I was actually looking forward to it from the day I was invited.
We left Sagada at around 8am. There were 11 SEGA members (Sagada Environmental Guides Association), Steve Rogers and his wife, Sigrid (my niece), Tessie and me. The Sagada tourist guides are reviewing their training on water rafting with Steve as their trainer. They have been through it several times but need to constantly do it to be familiar with water current situations, and to take advantage of the high water level and strong current this rainy season. While in the jeep, Steve and Sigrid were briefing the newbies on what to expect, what may happen and what may not. At that point, I felt like I was going to be fed to crocodiles and should know how to escape or enjoy a dance with the creatures.
We stopped at Dantay, 8 km away from the capital town of Bontoc, to check the water level. It was too low, so we proceeded to Tucocan, another 15 km downstream. It was a bumpy, rugged, one-way-traffic filled with hairpin curves. I went to ride “top load” on the jeep, joining the guides. “Wow!”, I told myself, “I’ve never experienced riding “top load.” But it is a beautiful view up there. No wonder tourists love to ride “top load” on their way to and from Sagada – Bontoc, never mind going against safety guidelines.==
After passing through landslides being cleared by stand-by bulldozers and graders, we reached Tocucan. We passed the place until we detoured from the highway to a dirt road going down a rocky steep slope. We stopped when the jeep could no longer go any further. The guides brought out the boats and inflated them. Life vests were distributed, helmets were put on. All the other stuff that we needed were readied.=
The vests had to be put on real tight. At first I found it hard to breath with the straps tightly binding my chest but I was told it was best that way. Also the helmet has to be snug on your head. I realize the importance of the precautions later on when we were on the water.
I could hear the roaring of the water as we carried our gear and made our way down. Finally, the river came into view and I could only say “Beautiful! Look at that!” over and over again because we were right where a tributary joined the main river and I could see the current swiftly swirling and slapping both sides of the river.
We got our “how to” lessons on maneuvering the boat and other emergency precautions. Steve said, “Just listen to the instructions from the command guide and focus”. But the terms were still Latin to me, like “forward”, “back”, “All back”, “throw bag”, “bump”. And there are counts you need to follow, and all of you in the boat should do this in a synchronized order. I got hold of a paddle and tried the power of the water on a shallow spot. Even at that level, without current, it was an effort. Later, I realized while we were actually paddling together at clock work, that once you’re all synchronized, it’s no big deal.
We settled down on the boat. Feet clipped on the sides, there were 7 of us in one boat, and another 7 on the other boat. The command guide stayed at the backmost seat. I was on the second line. The other group went a few meters ahead of us. With my thumb locked on the end pole of the paddle, as instructed, we followed them. The command guide shouted loudly, (he had to be loud enough for us to hear because of the sound of the water), “three forward!”, and we all paddled 3 strokes at the same time. After that first duty performed, I couldn’t help but kept saying “wooooh!”, “that was great! This is exciting!” because it is heaven to flow with the water after all, actually paddling your way through! When we came upon a strong current, the boat teetered a bit but we kept paddling according to instructions. We came upon a whirlpool where we all got our first real body splash and it was a great feeling when we bobbed up and down, riding with the flow, and came afloat all in one piece! Actually, I found myself sitting at the floor board and laughing! The current was so strong it threw me down.
We kept going downstream, with the other boat way ahead and I can see that they were enjoying the ride, as well. Our boat was moving towards a rock, and Cyril, our command guide shouted, “Bump!” I really felt the impact of the boat as it hit the rock. It could knock you down if you’re not alert. The guides on the other boat slowed down before we reached more rapids. Steve told us this spot has the strongest rapids in the river. The guides got down and signaled for us to slow down, too. They were saying they will take a picture of us as we traversed through that current. I was more excited than ever! This is going to feature me in action! It is impossible to take pictures while you’re rafting, it will cause accidents with you falling down on the water with your camera, so any pictures will have to be taken by someone on still ground or calm water.
And so we tackled the inevitable rapids. It seemed like we went 3 or 4 times up and down the surface, bobbing, while paddling diligently on our way at the same time. Waves splashed on my face like slap sticks, if I didn’t have the helmet I’m sure I would be black and blue and would have grown stumps on my head. We did it in just a few seconds! That is the part of the adventure that I loved most.
In water rafting, you always come to cool calm water after a strong rapid. We guided our boat to an eddy line and waited for the other boat. It’s different when you’re in it, and when you’re watching others battling against the current. I could hear the “ whoooosh” of the current as their boat went against a wave in the whirlpool. Like us, they were shouting and obviously enjoying themselves. Then they were beside us by the eddy. We rested awhile, looking back at the feat we just overcame. All of a sudden, I saw the guides on the other boat paddling their way back right into the eye of the whirlpool, paddling their way back against the current! I could see the determination in their faces. But the next thing I saw was that the six of them, except Alfred, their command guide, were thrown into the water as their boat reached the raging whirlpool. They were actually being swirled around like they were in a huge washing machine. I saw only their helmets bobbing up and down and as their paddles were washed away, some were swirling with them in that whirlpool. Steve shouted, “throw bag!”. Kit and Cyril who were in our boat threw the emergency throw bags in the direction of the guides. Meanwhile, Alfred was maneuvering the other boat away from the whirlpool. It seemed like a long time, but I realized it was just under a minute, before they were all out from danger. It’s how fast the emergency drills were given and how focused the guides were in their situation that got everybody out from there quick! They told us that they intentionally surfed back into the whirlpool to try it. That’s how trainings go but it is always important to carefully read the water current situation before you plunge yourself in danger.
When everybody has settled down, we checked the gears. A paddle and a throw bag were missing. We skirted the water as we rowed forward to see if they might have been washed ashore at an eddy line.
We came upon other rapids that were as exciting to raft through. I was continuously awed at the buoyant feeling I experienced and was actually immersed in euphoria. For a first timer and for one who has an irrational fear of water, I found myself falling in love with this water sport, and the Chico River.
We continued on until we came upon a spot in the river where the current was smashing into a big rock in the middle of the river. The other boat skirted around it until they went through. The current was not as strong as the other rapids but when we reached the spot where our boat had to skirt around the rock, I noticed that we were being pushed by the current directly towards the rock so the command guide was shouting instructions for us to paddle away from it. I heard the guide shout, “Bump!” but it was too late, I felt my side of the boat run smack upon the rock, hitting it with an impact that caused our boat to flip over. We were all thrown overboard right in the middle of the rapids.
It was the longest time of my life to be in the water alone after that. When I came up, I saw the others going to safe ground while I was battling my way out from the current. I put my mind to first gear. “Focus” I told myself. I was pushed underwater and I felt myself come upon a rock, I guess it was the same big rock we bumped into, I pushed hard with my hand and that directed me to swim downward. I heard somebody shout “throw bag!” but when I looked back, they were miles behind me and it was impossible to reach out for the rope. I was swept on to another swirling current. I guess that was the time I told myself that I was in a bad situation and had to keep focused and not panic. I was bobbing up and down, coughing out the water that kept getting into my mouth. When I was able to look around and check my situation, I was swept into another current. I heard my mind shout, “Life is but a dream!” and then really prayed to God that after this I will be directed to an eddy. I don’t know how long I was swimming by myself but eventually I came upon calm waters. I did not realize it at first, (I was deeply conversing with God), until I felt my feet touch the bottom of the river. I slowly walked my way to the bank, and looked around me. When I looked down, I realized that if I was unlucky, I was about to be subjected to another swirl because much stronger rapids were just below where I sat. I couldn’t stop thanking God for answering my prayers. Much later, two guides found me on safe ground and instructed me to wait right there.
While I was on the riverbank, and have recovered from what I went through, I studied the surroundings. The slopes were so lush with overgrown and sprouting vegetation. I noticed that shoots are starting to come out of trees burned in the last dry season.I also saw big fat monitor lizard (“baniyas”) sunning themselves on a rock opposite where I was standing. A tribe of butterflies were flitting here and there. It was a glorious day for plants and animals alike.
I went up the bank and walked past the strong rapids and waited for the boats to pick me up on calmer waters. It took a while and that’s when I realized how far I was swept down. They told me another paddle is missing, and we have to move to catch it, hoping it was washed ashore on an eddy. I rode the boat, paddle-less this time.
We found the lost rope wound around a rock but we couldn’t find the missing paddles. We paddled to shore. While having snacks, two policemen stationed on the highway up above came down to ask and see if everything is okay and to tell us that they saw a paddle somewhere down by the river. We thanked them for their concern.
We later had lunch at the end point of our trip in Gawa, near Anabel, Sadanga, about 8 km from our starting point. Our driver and cook told us it took us three hours when usually it would just take an hour and a half. We had a lot of adventure on the way.
The guides went for a second round of rafting while Sigrid, Tessie and I rode a tricycle back to Bontoc from Tocucan, for home.
When I got home, I congratulated myself for going extreme. It was an adventure I will never forget. If I asked what lesson I learned from that experience, it is “to challenge your fear, do what you fear”.
I will go again to raft the Chico River on the Dantay-Bontoc route when the water level goes higher. It is so addicting you get to like singing the old nursery rhyme: “Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily….. Life is but a dream.