Wednesday, December 10, 2014

new favorite thing: river tubing.

I am so excited for summer.

Yes, everyone is excited for summer. Even though it hasn’t been a particularly brutal winter (…yet…), we still have the grey days and the brownness of everything and the static electricity and the getting dark at 5 o’clock, and it’s all getting to me.

But I’m excited for this summer for different reasons than usual. Normally, I can’t wait for the bike rides, the summer shandy, the lake days, and the summer arts festival. I am still beyond thrilled for that stuff, but I have two more big reasons to be excited: river tubing and water skiing.

Indeed, my two new reasons are water-related. Last summer was the first time I’d done either of those things. Summer 2014 was full of new experiences: I went river tubing for the first time in my life, I went tent camping for the first time in my life, and I successfully waterskied for the first time in my life. I felt very accomplished.

(You’ll notice that I didn’t add “camping” to the list of things that I’m looking forward to this summer. If you remember that story, you’ll recall that it was a huge disaster. Even so, I’m tired enough of winter that tent camping in the rain almost sounds pleasant.)

I will regale you with my tales of waterskiing another time, but today, we’re talking about river tubing. River tubing is exactly what you think it is: floating down a river in a rubber inner tube.

And it is the best thing ever.

I admit, it’s a bit on the white-trashy side: you float around in black inner tubes with a cooler of beer suspended between you, and it is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING to not let that cooler get away. But honestly, I’m from South Dakota: I’m going to have to embrace my white trash roots at one time or another.

Unfortunately for me, it took me 27 years to try out river tubing. It was something that always sounded like great fun, but I never found myself with the opportunity.

The opportunity did present itself when Mom, my brother Mitch, and I went to visit our sister Darrah in Phoenix. We were going in May: when the weather is still a bit brisk for Arizonans, but hot as blazes for winter-skinned Midwesterners. I had been looking up recommended activities, and Salt River tubing was at the very top of my list. My husband James, who lived in the Phoenix area until he was six, confirmed that it was just as awesome as it sounded. I presented the idea to my fellow travelers, and happily, everyone was on board.

Before we embarked on our Arizona river adventure, we made sure that we were well-acquainted with the rules. We could rent a special tube to hold a cooler, but none of the cooler contents could be glass. No problem. We had also heard that aqua socks were very highly recommended, so we all picked up a pair at the local Walmart.

We arrived at the river in the afternoon, and it was the absolute perfect day for river tubing. It was around 90 degrees, and there was not a cloud in the sky. We rented our tubes, rigged up our cooler, and boarded a rickety old school bus that took us to our starting point.

There, you carefully launched yourself and your tube into the water, trying not to lose your friends and your cooler. As we tubed down the river, my family and I rigged up a complicated system of hands and feet to ensure that we were not separated from each other… or the cooler. You were attached to someone (or the cooler) at all times, and sure enough, we didn’t lose anybody while navigating the river. (Take that, Oregon Trail.)

Our trip down the Salt River took a little more than two hours, and it was alternately relaxing and thrilling. Since it was only May, much of the snow in the mountains had yet to melt. Therefore, the river was not as full and fast as it could be. We had our fair share of rapids, but we also got a lot of lazy river riding in, too. The rapids were awfully fun, but since the river wasn’t that full, you had to make sure you lifted your butt way up lest you be scraped by large pointy rocks. We all found this out the hard way.

Butt-scraping aside, river tubing was just fantastic. We floated along, cold beers in hand, enjoying the Arizona sun and the Arizona scenery. (I lamented the absence of my camera, as the river valley really was lovely. However, dropping my camera in the river was not high on my priority list.) The water temperature could not have been more perfect, and the company was a riot. Life was so good.
River champions.
The only downside was the other river folk. Like I said, it’s a white-trash pastime, so you’ll have to expect that in your fellow tubers. And sure enough, the Salt River was full of them that day. They were so loud and so drunk, and they came in groups of upwards of twenty. Our little non-loud, non-drunk group did our best to steer clear of these, but the groups of tubes could be as wide as the river itself. Whenever we managed to maneuver around one group, another group would be right behind. We found the silver lining, though, by turning our experience into an ugly tattoo game. (For where there are shirtless drunk bros and their drunk girlfriends in bikinis, there WILL be ugly tattoos.)

At the end of the ride, you hauled your tube and your drowned-rat self out of the river and boarded a bus back to your car. We piled on the bus, feeling rather dirty and sunburned, but very pleased about our latest adventure. But it wasn’t over yet: on the bus ride, there was a bikini-clad girl and a shirtless bro (it was a breeding ground for shirtless bros) sitting across from each other. They had never met, but the shirtless bro cracked a beer and asked the bikini girl if she wanted to do a waterfall. To our surprise, Bikini Girl said yes. I had no idea what a waterfall was, but I had a feeling that I was about to be thoroughly grossed out. I watched with great curiosity (and a healthy dose of apprehension) as Shirtless Bro stood up and poured the beer down his stomach while Bikini Girl held her mouth by his belly button and licked it up. It was quite possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.

When I got home from my Arizona vacation, I raved to James about how tubing on the Salt River was my favorite thing and we had to spend our entire summer tubing on the Minnesota rivers. James was on board, so the first step was finding a time and a place to river tube.

James claimed that camping in Lanesboro, Minnesota was the best thing ever: no bugs, beautiful scenery, bike trails… and river tubing on the Root River. I was in as soon as I heard river tubing, but I questioned my decision when James informed me that camping in a tent was a requirement. I was so excited about river tubing that I was willing to overcome that (significant) obstacle.

The weekend of our camping trip arrived – however, it had been preceded by weeks of heavy rain. Concerned about our ability to tube, James called the campsite and inquired. “Oh yeah,” they said. “No problem.” So we loaded up the car and made the three-plus hour drive to Lanesboro.

We had driven through some rain, but it tapered off by the time we reached our destination. Our first stop was the campground: to get checked in and get on the river ASAP. But when we asked where we could rent the tubes, we were told that there hadn’t been tubing on the river for weeks. WEEKS. It had been raining too much, and the river was too high and dangerous.

To say I was crushed might be an understatement. I know I should be more resilient, but I had been looking forward to river tubing ever since I’d gotten back from Arizona. And now my hopes were dashed.

The rest of our camping weekend went on to be an unmitigated disaster (read about it!). I had a tough time finding the silver lining in this black cloud of a weekend, but as it was happening, I just told myself that it would make a great story later on. And it did.
Camping is the worst.
I was bound and determined that I would go river tubing in Minnesota before the summer was out. July flew by, and our next opportunity arose in August. James and I were going to St Cloud to visit his brother Jesse, and wouldn’t you know it, you could tube on the Platte River – a little offshoot from the Mighty Mississippi. I was delighted to find this out and immediately informed James and Jesse that we were doing this. It was not optional.

James, Jesse, Jesse’s roommate Trevor, and I piled in the car and headed for the river. However, our first stop was – of course – the liquor store. I had looked up the Platte River rules beforehand, and like the Salt River, the Platte River doesn’t want you to have any glass bottles. No problem. We filled up our cooler with a twelve-pack of Grain Belt. (For our trip down the Salt River, my beverage of choice had been Coors Shandy – a delicious radler in a can. When searching for it in Minnesota, we were informed that you can’t buy it in Minnesota. Who knew?)

The Platte River setup was very similar to the Salt River: you came, you rented your tubes, and you boarded a bus that dropped you off at the river. We started out at a campground, and we did rent a special tube for our cooler. Unlike the Salt River, the Platte River’s cooler tubes were just smaller inner tubes: the Salt River had specially designed compartments that your cooler fit into. That meant we had to be especially careful that our cooler didn’t get away.

When my family and I had gone tubing on the Salt River, we saw that many of our fellow tubers had the foresight to pack snacks. Sadly, we hadn’t, so that left us drinking our Coors Shandys and eyeing their Cheetos jealously. This time, I brought my own Cheetos. I’m no dummy.

After we’d rented our tubes, the four of us hauled them (along with the cooler) to a waiting bus. The bus driver was a 90-pound leathery toothless man with the smokiest smoker’s voice you’ve ever heard, and he stopped us before we got on the bus. “Open up your cooler,” he said. We did as we were told, and he peered at the beers nestled in the ice. “What have you got in here?” he growled. “Just some beer,” we said politely. “How many beers? There’s a two-beer-per-person limit,” the bus driver rasped. We were not aware of the two-beer limit, but we answered that there were twelve beers in our cooler. “Twelve beers… four people…” our driver mumbled. “Ok, you’re good.” We looked at each other, shrugged, and hauled our cooler on the bus.

River math.

The four of us splashed down into the river, hanging onto each other and our cooler. Now, the Platte River was a lot less lazy than the Salt River… but it was also not nearly as deep. We went over several sets of shallow rapids in which we actually had to stand up and walk our tubes through lest we slice open our posteriors on the rocks. James and I were wearing aqua socks, which Jesse and Trevor totally made fun of, but both of us were 100% glad to have them.

Speaking of things we were 100% glad to have, let’s talk about the Cheetos. I had brought two bags, which we totally demolished. We offered our Cheetos to river passers-by: everyone worked up an appetite trying not to impale themselves on gigantic rocks and tree branches.

Our ride down the Platte River was a blast, and it ended by us floating back to the campground. We de-tubed in a picturesque little grove and hauled our tubes back to the tube shed. Just like the Salt River, we were all wet, dirty, and gross – but thoroughly satisfied with our day on the river.

As it tends to do, summer came to an end sooner than I wanted it to. My river tubing for the season came to a close that August… though I did manage to sneak in waterskiing on Lake Poinsett in 50 degree weather. (More on that another time.)

That, my friends, is one of the (many) reasons I’m looking forward to next summer. I had not known of the glory of river tubing until just this past May, and I need to make up for lost time. If you have never been river tubing, allow me to highly recommend it. Just don’t forget your aqua socks and your cooler.

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