Life Vests?!?

Who said anything about life vests? There we were at the Expeditioneers’ planning gathering last week up in Bend. Jeff, Bill, Rick and me sitting around the table with Sigrid on the monitor via Skype from Santa Barbara and Fran patched in via speaker phone from Fairbanks. We’d spent an hour going over trip logistics, food planning, kitchen equipment, gear lists. Things were winding down, and I could feel a little flutter of confidence that with patience and stick-to-it-iveness, I could outfit myself pretty well. Then I asked one final question:

“OK, just to confirm. The items that we should wait to purchase once we arrive in Fairbanks are bear spray, knee-high rubber boots and elbow-length rubber gloves.”

After a polite pause, Fran, in his slightly laconic, Alaskan way, says “Well, yes, and just in case anyone needs one, I have a couple extra life vests up here.”

Shit. A life vest! I resisted slapping my forehead with the palm of my hand. Of course we need to bring life vests – it’s a RAFTING trip.

I was sitting directly across from Jeff. Clearly, this came as no surprise to him. I had just met Rick that afternoon, so I couldn’t read his expression at the end of the table, but he seemed calm enough. I glanced at Bill immediately on my right and he looked like a card sharp holding an ace-high straight flush. It seemed I was the only one who had missed the memo.

It’s not that getting a life vest is any big deal, really. I could borrow one of Fran’s, or I have one packed away somewhere among my kayaking gear. It’s more the principle of the thing. The principle being: if I was oblivious to the need for a life vest – the single most important safety item on the water, where we’ll be spending most of two weeks – what the hell else had I forgotten to ask about? My newly fledged confidence fell back into the nest before it ever had a chance to take flight.

To give myself a bit of a break, Fran has been organizing the rafts, the nets, the rowing frame, the oars etc. up in Fairbanks. I have been focused on the land-based planning: tent, clothing, food, camera, binoculars. I haven’t spent much time thinking about the actual time on the river. I had just assumed, if you can call the idea never having crossed my sweet little mind an assumption, that all raft-related items would be waiting for us.

The Expeditioneers are going to meet in Fairbanks at 9 am on July 27th and spend the day coordinating gear, shopping for last minute items, packing, weighing, generally getting ready. The next morning we drive to Coldfoot, where we’ll camp on the gravel bar next to the airstrip. Then we’ll fly via bush plane to our put-in point on the Marsh Fork of the Canning River. River being the operative word here.

From there we will spend 15 days rafting and camping until the bush plane picks us up on August 13. We will start in the foothills of the Brooks Range and our pull out spot is at sea level a few miles from the Canning’s mouth at the Beaufort Sea. Most of the river itself is a Class II, and we expect very little white water. The bigger concern is the possibility of having to portage the rafts across shallow water and gravel bars. But the water is glacier-melt and rapid-flowing. A detour overboard will require a flotation device and a quick exit for survival.

With courage borne of the gathering sense of my truly being the weakest link, I admitted to the group that I hadn’t thought of needing to bring a life vest. No one else owned up to not having considered it. Risking additional exposure of my ignorance, I asked Jeff if he would be willing to share his packing list in case there were other things I had missed. He readily agreed, and I breathed a breath of life back into my confidence and sent a silent blessing Jeff’s way.

It was only later that night when I was joking about forgetting the life vest that Bill admitted he hadn’t thought of it either. Remind me to never play poker with Bill. I definitely would have lost that bet.

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