Friday, August 20, 2010

Rats and the River

This is going to be at least a 2-parter where I explain my white water rafting experience. This entry is detailing the local species known as the “river rat” who guide helpless souls like me down the Ocoee River.

River Rat: [riv-er rat]

- noun –

Sub-species of the human being. Usually a male who subsists on or spends free time rafting the Ocoee river. Cousin to the “surfer” of the west coast.
Since a year has gone by since I was forced against my will to go white water rafting, I feel the time is finally right for me to detail this experience for posterity, as I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a dream. It was this experience that inspired me to write a blog. I knew I needed to write this “stuff” (I use a different word in my head) down, less I forget it. This entry will focus on “The River Rats.”

Here in east Tennessee there is what I’m sure is a sub-species of the human being known as the “river rat.” Sure these people appear to be an average person upon first glance. But look closely, and you’ll discover these rats are something other than completely human.

River rats spend every spare moment they have and some they don’t on the Ocoee River, rafting, kayaking, swimming or pursing any other available activity within close proximity to the river. I believe this group to be something other than or not quite human. They try to blend into the east Tennessee inhabitants, but don’t really do it. Their hair is a bit too long, their skin is too tanned, they have too many visible tattoos. Rats will wear summer clothing during a snowstorm. There is a twinkle in their eye and an exuberance for life not others do not posses.

My first meeting of a rat was not a meeting at all. The builder of our home told me a man called “Tadpole” or “Minnow” or “Fish Bait” or something would be calling me to paint some doors at the house. I asked what is given name was because I don’t call grown men by the names of levels of swimming lessons. The builder didn’t know. Anyway, “Guppy” or “Pollywog” or whoever has never made away from the River long enough to paint my doors.

My gutters were cleaned by a man who introduces himself as a river rat. I’ve found that rats are usually employed in some sort of service industry. Why? They have to subsist on some sort of income, but when river beckons and the call becomes more than he can bear, rats need to be able to leave at a near moment’s notice. Much like the Siren’s of Greek mythology whose beauty and hypnotic singing lead mariner’s ships into peril; the River serves as a Siren of sorts to the rat. He can only resist her call for a time, before he must return for spiritual and life giving nourishment. It’s as if the Ocoee River is the life force or “chi” of the River rat. It true mythological fashion, I believe that the rat is truly “of” the Ocoee River. His bones and muscles are constructed of the rock and clay that line the river and river water, not blood, courses through his veins. I assume that they are only half alive during the winter months – enduring a hibernation of sorts.

My River Rat
Although I will detail my journey down the river another time, I want to introduce you to “my” river rat. His name is Scotty Duke and he grew up in Polk County, Tennessee. I only met him on the day of our trip, but everyone on the raft that day really got to know one another. Scotty is tall, lean and lanky. He was approximately 29 years old. He has dark hair and light eyes. His skin, like most rats, is an amazing color. It’s the color of dark maple syrup mixed with a pinch of cayenne pepper. Most rats have muscles that are perfectly sculpted over their arms, shoulders and back that meet at a narrow waist and Scotty was no different. Muscle definition exists in places and in ways not seen in mere mortals. This is not something that can be achieved at a gym. No, such is achieved by years and years and years of passionate paddling up and down a river. Ladies, (and guys even) try not to stare at beautifully molded and shaped bodies over wonderfully tanned skin…

Now, I LOVE accents. Regional accents are part of what makes our country unique. Someone from Chicago will not sound the same as someone from Boston. Of course in the South we’d say they are both sound like Yankees and move on, but I digress. Scotty Duke has an accent that I wish I could replicate in writing. There’s a strain of a rural Southern accent that occurs in east Tennessee and north Georgia. I know it well. My dad is from north Georgia. Although now he has a “general American southern” accent, when he drinks too much it’s all North Georgia.

Upon first meeting Scotty Duke, I have to say I was taken aback by the dark Adonis-like creature standing near an inflatable raft (or my coffin) tying a rope. Like most of the other rats on our trip, he was one of the finest looking specimens of human-like male I have even seen. Then he opened his mouth and began to speak. His voice telling me that, “It don’t matter where on the raft you sit. You’re gonna get wet,” was a sharp slap back to reality. For some reason his accent was not instilling confidence about his ability in me. But this will be described when I talk of the trip itself.

I think it’s fair to say that I liked Scotty Duke from the moment I met him. I liked him a lot.

If river rats were dogs, mine would be a pure bred of the highest pedigree – I mean Westminster quality! As I referred earlier, he was born (probably physically) ,raised and worked on the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tennessee all his life. The Ocoee River was the location of the kayaking and other sports for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. The river was altered somewhat to make it ready for the games. Scotty paddled the river before it was changed, participated in the Jr. Olympics and still paddles today. Like I said, pedigree…

Now Scotty told us that he also has a twin brother who paddles as well. I didn’t get to meet him. I know you see it coming – they were/are affectionately referred to as the “Duke Boys” of Polk county. “Holy $#!&, I’M GOING DOWN A RIVER WITH SOMEONE FAMOUS OR ENFAMOUS ON THIS RIVER,” was all I could think.

Notice the rippling muscules
 - not too little, not too much
Throughout the trip, Scotty shared with us many stories of the misadventures or miscreant adventures of the Duke Boys of Polk county. Adrenaline junkies from birth, there wasn’t anything, and I mean ANYTHING, these guys had not tried on that river. For example, there is a rather large and foreboding spillway on the river. Lots of angry, white water rushing to the rocks below – very movie-like. Scotty told us how not too long ago he and his brother we over it in a kayak. When both brothers reached the bottom, life and kayak intact, someone from the county was there to write them a ticket. David spoke to the man who wrote the ticket about this incident, so this account comes from that conversation. Although completely stupid, watching those Duke boys paddle over that spillway was like watching perfection and skill all mixed together. So after swearing that they wouldn’t do it again the deputy, knowing he’d just witnessed something extraordinary wrote them a parking ticket. A parking ticket…

Rats in Groups
All the rats know one another. Most live together during the weekends in the summer. They are a raucous, unpolished and often foul-mouthed bunch. They even have their own language - “Dude, I had ‘em tacoed at Mickey’s tryin’ to surf it. But the hole was hungry and we ended up with swimmers.” I overheard this over the summer. I don’t know what it means. They don’t require much in the way of food. I have it on good authority that they survive a paddling season with little else other than Doritos and Budweiser in their bellies – well, there’s also the THC, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Remember the movie “A River Runs Through It?” It features two brothers fly fishing. Brad Pitt is the rather wayward one of the brothers. Pitt’s character is into debauchery and pleasure. He hasn’t met a party, drink or a woman he didn’t love. But then he fly fishes. Through the years he becomes a master with his rod. In what seems to be a beautifully choreographed dance, he works his rod and woos and coaxes the trout from the river into his bag.

There is a striking similarity between Pitt’s character in the movie and river rats. Although a decidedly wild bunch, I’ll not ask you to assume that all rats are consumed with pleasure and debauchery. To watch one steer a raft down a roiling river belching and spitting white water is a special experience. In the way Pitt’s character coaxes the fish onto his rod, so does the river rat with his raft. At moments he and his paddle are one, united against the forces of the river. With small movements of his paddle he can cause the raft to do just about anything but take wings a fly. Through masterful working of the paddle, brute strength and sheer will a raft can turn around, flip over or move sideways – all with a full complement of passengers. Again this is a boisterous and unruly bunch so the graceful dance with the paddle is often interrupted with shouts, singing or speaking in that language that is their own.

More to come....

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