BY T.L. Tomljanovic
Copyright is held by the author.
WINNING THE beer-chugging competition last night against a dude from Essex was such a heady experience that Dave hadn’t stopped to consider if he even wanted the prize — surfing the Kawarau River.
Inhaling a Big Mac and pounding a Gatorade to alleviate his headache, Dave took stock of his life’s choices.
One: he quit his job in Edmonton to follow his buddy Greg on his gap year to New Zealand. “You think I’d let you go without me?” He punched Greg in the shoulder.
Two: after two weeks in a car together, yelling and frequently swerving onto the wrong side of the road, Dave and Greg agreed they needed a new plan.
Three: rather than catch an early flight home, Greg suggested they join a hop-on hop-off bus tour of the country. The brochure promised that they would “stray off the beaten path” with a photo of attractive 20-somethings jumping in the air in front of an orange coach.
Dave agreed. And now, here he was, peeling on a questionably clean wetsuit over his Billabong trunks.
“Hey, man! You ready to do this or what?” Greg clipped on his helmet and waded into the water without waiting for an answer.
Greg was always up for anything. Last week it was bungee jumping.
One of the guides frantically waved Greg back to the shore. “Whoa, mate. Wait for the rest of us. We still need to go over the safety instructions.”
The guys’ testosterone ebbed as they stood shivering in damp wetsuits listening to a lengthy list of do-nots.
“Do not take off your helmet or the safety strap that attaches you to your boogie board.” The head guide held up his pointer finger. “Do not, under any circumstances, go out of sight of the group.” Greg nudged Dave in the ribs and winked.
“Do not blow your safety whistle unless you or your mate needs assistance. Do not dive under trees that have fallen over or into the water. And finally, this is a serious adventure activity. Strict safety procedures are observed, however, as the operator we cannot absolutely guarantee participant safety.”
“Wait, what was that about ‘participant safety’?” Dave muttered to Greg as the guide turned towards a middle-aged couple switching out ill-fitting fins. Greg was already wading into deeper water.
Dave swore under his breath and followed Greg. Their point of entry was a calm shallow bend in the river, and the group floated with the current. Greg perched upright on his board spinning slowly in the water.
Dave shivered as the water, dark and green, inched up his wetsuit. He clutched his board and kept his eyes cast downriver. “What were the rules again?”
“Jeez, would you chill? You’re stressing me out.” Greg flopped onto his front and kicked closer to Dave.
“What me? I’m chill. I’m so chill.” Dave continued scanning.
Greg rolled his eyes. “Let’s scout ahead a bit to see if we can hit some rapids before everyone else.”
Dave frowned and fingered the urethane cord attached to his board. “We’re not supposed to leave the group.”
“Jeez Louise Grandma. What happened to the dude from last night? The one who said he was a surf god and was going to fuck the river into submission?”
Did he actually say that? Probably. He’d had a lot of beer. He glanced at the river guides. They were still busy talking to the middle-aged couple.
“All right. Let’s go.”
Greg grinned and kicked forward. They swam hard for a few minutes, quickly losing the group when the river started to pick up speed.
“Fuck yeah, here we go!” Greg yelled.
Dave gripped his board white-knuckled. The river frothed and whipped at his face. He crested over the first few waves before an eddy jerked him backward and he lost his grip on the board. He opened his mouth to yell, choking on frigid water. He couldn’t hear or see Greg and started to hyperventilate. Just breathe. You’re not drowning. You’re wearing a life jacket. One, two, three… Dave spun around. He had a view upriver just before something hit his head and everything went dark.
Dave was sucked under. It was cold, quiet, and strangely serene. Dave stopped flailing and submitted to the water, taking stock of his life choices.
One: He might possibly die and although he wasn’t ready for life to be over, it was a bad-ass way to go out.
Two: At least he was with Greg. At least his mom wouldn’t get the horrific news from a stranger.
Three: Travelling the world and broadening his horizons was really a noble pursuit that… Wait, was that a whistle? Muffled, a series of high-pitched notes cut through the water.
His life jacket tugged uncomfortably up around his ears. The vest popped him up to the surface like a cork. He gasped for air.
Greg whistle and waved his arms like a madman. He was on Dave in seconds and grabbed hold of his life jacket. “Dude, you hit a tree, and then I couldn’t see you. I thought you were a goner, for sure. You, okay?”
Dave coughed, spitting out water. “Huh? What?” He gingerly felt his head, his fingers gliding over the intact helmet. “I’m okay.”
Upriver, the culprit, an uprooted tree overhung the river. To the far side, well away from the hazard, a dozen bright yellow helmets bobbed up and down. A red helmeted guide raced through the rapids paddling towards them and yelled. “Do you need assistance? Do you need to go ashore?”
Dave waved. “That was fucking great! What’s next?”
The guide laughed. “Just wait, mate. You haven’t seen anything yet.” He swam back to the main group.
“I’m glad we did this.” Dave straightened his shoulders.
“River surfing? Me too.”
“No just river surfing, man.”
Greg grinned and slapped him on the back, letting go of his life jacket. “Me too. So, what do you want to do next? Because I’m thinking spelunking.”
T.L. Tomljanovic is a freelance writer and communications consultant based in British Columbia, Canada. Her work has been published in the Globe and Mail, Carousel, and Blank Spaces Magazine. Find her at her blog or on Twitter @TLTomljanovic