It had been my mother’s idea to take Sophia to the Land of Make Believe, a hybrid fantasyland that was half amusement park, half waterpark, a potent mix of danger and pleasure, in the Western-most part of North Jersey. As we approached and spied a Ferris Wheel rising up out of the forested hills I asked my mother, “How come we never came here when I was little?”
“We probably couldn’t afford it when you kids were the right age.”
Probably not, I thought as we shelled out $75 bucks for the three of us. Cash only. A handsome, fair haired, blue-eyed boy with an Eastern Bloc accent slipped it into a cash register. He was just the sort of boy I would have instantly fallen in love with 20-years ago.
“Where are you from?” I asked, which sounded more maternal than Mrs. Robinson.
“Croatia.” How does a teenager from Croatia find himself in this corner of the world? I wanted to ask, but we were propelled forward by the sheer volume of pleasure-seekers behind us. I wrestled our cooler inside the pack and asked a young girl from a similarly-distant land where I could store it.
“Right by the picnic tables. Wherever you’re going to eat.”
“Really? It will be safe there?” I asked
“We’ve never had a theft,” she reassured me. By the time we dropped off the cooler, I was dripping sweat. It was already in the 90s and heat index was due to hit 106.
“Let’s hit the waterpark first,” I suggested.
After storing our things in a locker, Sophie headed straight for what the park claimed to be “America’s Biggest Wading Pool.” I don’t think they were lying. It covered about an acre and was filled with a variety of slides and climbable ships. Mom and I ran after Sophie through the shallow water, trying to keep stride. As Sophie scaled the side of a pirate ship, I paused to survey the scene. Parents and children alike were lolling about in the water, like sea creatures trapped in the shallows, trying to keep their hides wet for fear of dehydrating in the hot sun.
After sliding out of a ship several times, Sophie grabbed us, “Let’s see what else there is,” and again, we were chasing after her as she took off, shoeless, towards the lazy river ride. On the way over, we scorched our feet on the burning concrete, and in our hurry to hit the water, we accidentally got in the single tube line. When we reached the front, the Croatian lifeguard surveyed us and said, “you want single tube?” It was only then that I noticed the good parents of the world were taking their small children in double inner tubes, which had a space for both of them.
“I think we need a double,” I said.
“NO!” Sophie exploded. “I want to go by myself!”
The ride looked tame enough, people calming floating on inner tubes down a concrete, chlorinated river that circled the other water rides. But the tubes themselves were just round donuts, with a hole in the center that a skinny five-year-old could easily slip through.
“No, Soph. You don’t know how to swim. If you fell out of the tube, you could drown.”
“I DO TO KNOW HOW TO SWIM!” Sophie stamped her feet for emphasis. Swim lessons had given her a false sense of bravado. She could doggie paddle a couple of strokes and hold her breath underwater, but she most definitely could not swim.
“Not well enough to ride down a river yourself. You have to go with me.”
“Maybe you step to side?” the Croatian lifeguard suggested. Behind us was a line of hot, irritated customers, who had already definitively decided if they wanted a single or double tube.
I flashed to a day trip Kevin and I had taken years ago, when we lived in Asheville. We had driven out to the Nantahala River to go kayaking. The lower run of the river is eight miles long and has class two and three rapids. Class two rapids are considered moderate difficulty with clear passages, and generally require experience. Class three rapids have high, irregular rocks, eddies, and a clear but narrow passage that requires expertise in maneuvering. Scouting, that is getting out of your boat to figure out the best way to make it through the rapid ahead of time, is usually needed. But I didn’t know any of this at the time. At the outfitter, we were offered a single kayak or a double.
“I want my own boat,” I told Kevin.
He was wary. “We haven’t done this before. We should probably go together.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ve kayaked before.” I told him, “I’ll be fine.”
Though he was skeptical, he relented. We safely made it through the first five rapids. The “Upper Nantahala Falls” were the final set before the main take out point. They were the class three ones. We got out of our boat and scouted the rapids, just as we had been instructed.
Kevin pointed out what looked like a clear passage down. He led the way, safely traversing the falls. I followed, hit a rock, immediately upset my boat and was sucked under by the power of the water. My body was battered against the rocks as I went over the falls without my kayak. When I finally surfaced, I gasped for air and tried to swim, but the current was too strong and pulled me onwards, down the river. I had the presence of mind to point my legs down river. Kevin, ahead of me had pulled up onto a rock and was extending his paddle out to me. But I was in shock.
“Here, grab hold,” he called to me.
“I can’t,” I replied, emotionless, as I floated by. I didn’t even try to reach for his paddle.
What I didn’t know is that just beyond the main take-out point, was a class six rapid. The falls drop off at about a 45-degree angle and are replete with sharp rocks. Class six rapids are defined as “unraftable,” the chances of being able to navigate it with a boat are very slim and without a boat—nil.
One has to wonder why they would let tourists do this in the first place.
I was headed towards certain death, when a boat full of Japanese visitors pulled close to me and yanked me out of the water. Others retrieved my kayak and paddle as Kevin scrambled down the rocks to catch up to me.
Back at the water park, I should have simply laid down the line. I should have said something like, “Either you get in the double tube, or we’re going somewhere else.”
I don’t know what came over me. “Fine! Go!” I told her.
“Really?” she asked, as if she had never in a million years expected me to acquiesce.
“Yes. I’ll be right behind you.” I told her.
But I wasn’t, because as soon as she was in her boat, she went floating off down the river, leaving me in her wake. I quickly jumped in my single tube and tried to paddle to catch up to her, but to no avail. I paniced and was completely unable to enjoy the lazy river Styx. All along the way, I was assaulted by cannons, waterfalls and other squirting objects. Sophie, I could see, was having a grand time.
But I know how quickly a grand time can turn deadly.
When we reach the end of the river, Sophie was standing on the steps waiting for us. As we exited our tubes, I realized that we’ve been in two and a half feet of water the entire time. At any point she could have stood up or we could have. There was never any real danger.
“Can we do it again?” Sophie begged.
The next time around, we all enjoyed the lazy river. On the seventh tour, Sophie asked, “Hey mom, you want to go in a double this time?”
“Sure.” I told her.
As we floated away together, we told knock knock jokes and steered the boat towards every squirting attraction. “Mom, this is the best time yet!” She told me.