Planning for an adventurous river trip for the past six months, Pete joins his long-time friends Randy, Bill, and Fred. The men have been looking forward to floating the Little Gulch River, and their expectations run quite high to enjoy a fantastic time. All of them have floated this river before except for Fred, who will travel this river (or any river) for his first time.
For this time of the year, the river is running extremely high with an unusually swift current. The local people have never seen the Little Gulch so full at this time of the annual spring run-off.
Twenty years ago, the sometimes treacherous river took the life of a careless fisherman. The novice angler stood up in his small boat, and his poor balance sent him into the rapid-moving water. With no help nearby and lacking a life vest, the old man was no match for the Little Gulch. He perished quickly!
The excited river floaters plan to use Randy’s large eight-man rubber raft. It will offer plenty of room for all of the fella’s supplies . . . extra life vests, paddles, a cooler filled with a delicious lunch, a few bags of salty and sweet snacks, and beer. Randy’s water-worthy craft is large enough to handle any of the challenges that the Little Gulch brings their way.
As the “captain” of their vessel, Randy is an experienced river man. He has floated the Little Gulch numerous times, and he is intimately familiar with most of its twists and turns. The rest of the crew will depend on Randy’s expertise, more than they can ever imagine on this fateful day.
This day’s journey begins early in the morning at Sleeping Bear fishing access. Few river travelers begin at this point along the river. This section of the Little Gulch is only floated by the most experienced and skilled boaters and their sleek and stable river crafts. Confident in his skills and vast experience, Randy looks forward to a routine, uneventful, and safe trip.
Bill looks forward to today’s trip as he enjoys floating the river with Randy and Pete. The men have known each other since high school, and they have managed to stay in touch throughout the past several years. These days find them separated by hundreds of miles, but the Little Gulch will provide a scenic backdrop for an exhilarating reunion. Yes, exciting may not be a strong enough word to describe what awaits the men on their journey down the tricky and sometimes devious river.
The entire day looks to be sunny and warm. The river’s temperature will be chilly, but it will keep the guys’ six-packs of beer cold in order to quench their thirsts later at lunchtime. At the bow of the raft, Randy has cleverly secured ropes to safely transport and chill the cans of brew while they remain slightly below the water line.
Pete, having been on the Little Gulch just a few times, is not as experienced as Randy or Bill. His experience may come in handy at a critical moment today, especially his skills as a competitive swimmer from his high school days. Somewhere at his home, buried and nearly lost in an overflowing hallway closet, lies a small box with a cache of swimming medals. Almost forgotten are these achievements!
The guys set out on their adventure. They expect to have a marvelous time as the raft moves swiftly downstream with the river’s strong moving current. Randy’s itinerary provides for a mid-day lunch (remember the chilling beer) at an island on the river. In checking his map, skipper Randy expects the stop to be perfect for food, beer, and a bit of rest. Over 30 miles downstream awaits the small town of Clifton and the arrival of the fun-loving foursome on board.
The last member of the boat’s crew, Fred, is floating the Little Gulch for his very first time. With some reluctance, Randy has offered Fred an opportunity to make the trip. He will replace a much more experienced river man, Mark, who is laid up at his home with a broken arm. A recent tumble from a ladder puts Mark on the bench for this trip, and Fred is thrilled to be taking his place.
The river cruising quartet enjoys the bright sun and a gentle breeze. The large rubber raft will likely make a speedy trip down to Clifton. The men plan to eat dinner at a tasty steakhouse before driving Bill’s old, beat-up pick-up truck back to Randy’s brand new beast of a truck, which has been left at Sleeping Bear. After loading the raft and supplies into Randy’s truck, Randy and Fred plan to stay overnight in Clifton while Bill and Pete will drive all night to catch an early morning flight back to their separate homes.
As the oversized boat journeys downstream, majestic cottonwood trees line the river bank. The guys relive past stories and throw out a few new jokes. The sun is heating up the raft’s surface, and Fred feels thirsty. Sitting at the bow, he slyly pulls a cold beer from the chilly river water. Nature provides a perfect way to keep these barley pops cold, and Fred intends to enjoy a few.
Bill and Pete, sitting in the middle of the boat, pay close attention to the river as they paddle and assist with the steering of the craft. Randy, the mighty river navigator, hardly notices Fred pulling a beer out of the water. Steering the raft from the stern, he notices that the Little Gulch is running much higher than he expected.
With the river cresting at such a high level, the boat continues to pick up speed in the churning waters. Randy glances at his watch, and he figures that they will reach Clifton about an hour earlier than expected. “No worries,” he ponders. Thinking to himself, perhaps the gang can enjoy a longer lunch break several miles away.
The buoyant raft slides into a long stretch of challenging whitewater. Everyone begins to feel an adrenaline rush, excitement builds, and the men prepare to float the most exciting segment of the river.
Meanwhile at the bow, Fred pays little attention to what lies ahead. Another icy, cold beer is sliding right down, and the deceptive Little Gulch will soon bring on more excitement than anyone can imagine.
The eight-man raft picks up speed again, and Randy steers the boat on a straight and steady course. The large craft is handling the whitewater and rapids without much difficulty.
Out of nowhere, a swarm of mosquitoes attack the crew. The fellas do their best to fend off the biting invaders. Suddenly, the overwhelmed craft becomes airborne as it maneuvers more like a large rubber tube instead of a hardy and manageable river craft. Jumping up and down violently in the quick-moving water, the overmatched boat swirls along as the river attempts to swallow it whole.
Bill and Pete, feeling perspiration running nearly as rapid as the Little Gulch, continue to perform yeoman’s work to keep the boat on a somewhat straight course through the ever-increasing rapids. Randy, feeling a bit of panic, realizes that he must stay extra alert and as steady as those ancient cottonwood trees lining the river’s edge.
The buzzing mosquitoes are beginning to fly away when Fred excitedly stands up.
Rule #1: Never ever stand up in a moving boat!
A final attack of the airborne, vampire bugs proves too much for a beleaguered Fred. In the middle of his thoughts, he remembers his father, Fred Sr. The elder Fred died a few years ago when he fell off the roof of his home and struck his head. Perhaps he should sit back down before he falls out of the boat, but fate decides to intervene at its most opportune moment.
Fred continues to stand and swat wildly at the raging mob of mosquitoes.
Randy yells at him, “You need to sit down. Now!”
Rule #2: Always listen to the boat’s captain!
Well . . . sometimes worthy advice shows up a bit too late!
Fred tumbles into the powerful waters of the Little Gulch. The guys hear his screams of terror before the river surrounds him and pulls him under the violent surface. Randy strains to keep the raft steady as the river seems intent on possibly dumping the large boat upside down. The Little Gulch’s pace quickens—as if on cue!
Bill and Pete glance at each other, wondering what to do next. Bill, who cannot swim, tightens the straps on his life vest and looks forward to where Fred was just sitting.
Fred’s life vest is nestled at the front of the boat. In their haste to get the trip started, everyone missed Fred sliding his life vest under the bow area. Fred is now fighting for his life—just the river and him!
Pete screams, “How could Fred be so incredibly stupid!”
He hurriedly scans the river, and finally spots Fred’s head and shoulders popping up above the foaming whitewater. Fred, in a semi-drunken state, is splashing around helplessly. Everyone hears his muffled cries of panic and despair. How will these three men prepare a plan to save foolish Fred?
As their boat hurries down the wild river, the guys realize that Fred is likely doomed. But . . . fate always finds a way to tantalize and tease at the most extreme of moments.
Amazingly, the Little Gulch’s ravaging current pushes Fred towards the shore where the ageless cottonwood trees conveniently dangle their branches just above the river’s boiling surface. As a waterlogged Fred reaches and grabs one of the branches as a lifeline, the fellas watch as he tightly grips a lone branch for his very life.
“Help! Help me!” echo screams of help from Fred.
The raft dashes to catch up to Fred, who is looming closer and closer. With a few more yards yet to go, Fred may soon be saved from the clutches of the river.
Out of nowhere, a large tree limb cuts between the raft and Fred. Like a large water snake gathering speed, the enormous splinter of wood rushes through the water towards Fred.
Fred’s grip loosens as he is knocked back into the main waters of the Little Gulch.
Randy and Bill groan in utter disbelief at Fred’s terrible misfortune. Pete senses that it is now or never for saving Fred. He alerts his boat mates with a shout that he will try to save poor Fred.
Before Randy and Bill have a chance to persuade Pete to remain safely in the boat, he jumps into the high tide of the Little Gulch. Unlike Fred, Pete’s life vest assists him as he manages to keep his head above the surface of the river’s furious charge.
Calling upon his swimming prowess (remember those high school medals), he furiously sets a pace to reach Fred as quickly as possible. Fred, who is about to breathe his last gasp of air, begins to feel the final power of the river upon his tired, weary soul.
Stroke after stroke, Pete’s “state championship” swimming form propels him forward as he cuts the distance quickly. Ignoring the aching pain in his long-dormant swimming muscles, Pete doggedly pushes himself to reach a nearly unconscious Fred in time.
Meanwhile, Randy and Bill struggle to keep the bulky rubber tube plowing a straight line towards their pair of friends in the water. Randy hopes that both of his friends survive the death grip being applied by a nasty and angry river.
The Little Gulch prepares to take Fred with her, and possibly Pete, too. The river’s “Grim Reaper” stands poised to claim another drowning victim or two.
Feeling his last bit of strength giving way, Fred succumbs to the river’s never-ending power. He is totally out of energy; out of any more willpower . . . the river stands ready to claim final victory!
Pete is reaching his physical limits. He feels his arms and legs beginning to cramp, but he tries to push on. If he quits now, Fred’s final doom is sealed.
Death, the river wins!
Looking ahead, his water-filled eyes can no longer locate Fred. Yet, Pete finds a hidden reserve of energy to continue his sprint to where he last saw Fred.
Where is Fred?
Has the Little Gulch pulled his lifeless body to her rocky bottom?
Where will she spit out his body for others to find so that his passing can be treated with dignity?
So many questions to answer as time seems to stand still momentarily. Randy and Bill trail behind in the cumbersome boat. Pete is pushing himself beyond his physical capabilities. Fred seems to have perished from an “accidental drowning” (as the weekly Clifton newspaper prints in its next edition).
Fred and Pete may well have met their match with the Little Gulch, which stands poised to render both of them as new victims on the river’s scorecard.
Randy and Bill strain to see what lies ahead. Unbelievably, their eyes locate something or someone rising out of the water just ahead.
Hooray! Fred is back!
The unforgiving Little Gulch has made a tactical error. Her death grip has maneuvered Fred to a gravel bar, hidden just below the river’s violent surface. The guys cannot believe it!
Slowly Fred gains more consciousness. He realizes that his nightmare has finally ended, and he will live to see another sunrise. He ungracefully stands on his feet—a bit wobbly, but slowly regaining more strength and balance.
By the same miracle, Pete is also deposited upon the same narrow gravel strip. He is exhausted, his lungs appear to breathe no more, and he lies there silently and very still. Fred looks down at his would-be rescuer, and he begins to weep. His own stupidity and panic have allowed the river to take away his dear friend.
The raft approaches a standing, remorseful Fred and a motionless Pete. Randy and Bill fear the worst for their stricken comrade while thinking that Fred’s transgressions started this terrible sequence of events in the first place.
Without warning! Another spectacular outcome is witnessed by all.
Pete’s lungs begin to take in fresh, life-supporting air. He sluggishly feels his exhausted body trying to recover some of its misplaced energy and strength. He has no idea of what has happened to Fred.
Glancing up, he notices a shadow above him. “Is that really you Fred?”
Fred kneels down and gives Pete a big hug! He feels overjoyed to see his good pal, who risked his life to rescue him.
Rushing in, Randy and Bill beach the raft a moment later. The disheveled boat is partly filled with water from their ordeal. Everyone helps to bail out the remnants of the Little Gulch’s fury and to examine their possessions.
Bill finds the empty rope at the bow, which used to be securely fastened to the cold beer. Now like an empty fish hook, the beer has been swallowed up by the thirsty river. Much of the lunch is water-logged and will have to be thrown away. Actually, food doesn’t sound too tasty as this particular moment. Perhaps the steakhouse at Clifton will offer a better tasting menu.
But at least, the men are safe and together once again. They are feeling an urge to celebrate just a little bit, but their mood will need to stay calm until they reach Clifton. The three look at Fred with more than a morsel of disappointment and frustration. His brazen insanity has ruined a “memorable” float trip on the Little Gulch and nearly taken two men to their graves.
From his pocket, Fred retrieves an unopened can of beer. He hurriedly pops its top, and begins his own private celebration. Afterall, he has survived the river’s best shot, and his heart is still ticking! Amazing!
Pete gingerly walks towards Fred, and rips the can from his grasp. Pouring the liquid out slowly cannot conceal Pete’s hidden anger and annoyance with Fred. While Fred protests, Pete pays little attention. With the empty beer can gripped in his right hand, he crushes the aluminum cylinder into Fred’s forehead.
Fred crumbles to the bottom of the raft, and Bill quickly dresses him in a life vest. The men make haste to finish their journey without any more adventure from Fred or the Little Gulch.
Eventually, the quartet of river adventurers reaches their final destination at Clifton. While trying to enjoy a delicious four-course dinner at the well-known steakhouse, the men feel exhausted and rather subdued. There will be no celebration tonight! Even Fred looks tired and rather apologetic for his actions.
As the evening’s full moon shines brightly in a cloudless sky, everyone (with the possible exception of Fred) feels that this will certainly be the only time that Fred will ever float the Little Gulch. The worn out trio of river rats still desires to return again in the future to enjoy their friendship along with safe, adventurous fun.
Without crazy Fred . . . stirring up another day of panic on the river!
For anyone who missed my first short story, take a look at “The Flying Trash Can.”