Rapid Transit

Rapid Transit

July 31st, 2012 by Jennifer Bardoner in Getout Bestmonth

It took us five hours to drop nearly 600 feet. But there was nothing slow-paced about it.

The upper part of the Ocoee, where thousands of thrill-seekers each year whitewater raft and kayak, is what the experienced guides who take many of them downriver call "the serious river." They call the middle part, which is what most of us regular landlubbers opt to experience, "the playtime river."

I toppled into the tumultuous waters on both sections.

"Lean in!" came the yell from the back of the raft. Before I had time to process, I fell out - into the water rushing rapidly over the course built to test Olympians' mettle and prowess. And that wasn't even on one of the highest drops, which measure 6 to 7 feet.

As I frantically kicked my way toward the yellow rope, barely visible in the whitewater flooding my face and vision, I felt my knee hit bottom - jaggedly grooved concrete built by men for maximum water flow - and scrape along toward the shore and the outstretched arms waiting to rescue me.

I've almost drowned twice in my life. That day was not one of them. There will be times when you are scared. But that's the fun of it.

"The No. 1 priority is safety," says Outdoor Adventure Rafting's Chris Bandy, a 12-year veteran raft guide who took me downriver, noting that guides are required to at least be certified in CPR and first aid. Many are rescue trained, EMTs or nurses, he adds. "I've taken down people 12 years old to 95, blind people, quadriplegics, paraplegics; literally anybody can do it. And it's something everybody should do."

In all that time and all those people, no one's fallen out of his raft on the Olympic part ... until me, earning me the designation of "Olympic swimmer."

Bandy definitely gave us a day for the books - having one of us perch on the front of the raft as we headed into engulfing rapids and "surfing" our boat in rushing eddies that, had there not been a sturdy rope to grip onto, could've washed me in and away with ease - and that was on the "playtime river."

"Almost everybody before they go is really nervous," Bandy says. "Probably 95 percent of people when they're done are excited about going down again. Almost immediately they want to go again."

They say Burt Reynolds takes the trip every year. Maybe one day I'll run into him, because I will go back.

WHET YOUR ADVENTUROUS APPETITE

When they say "experience," they mean it. For a full-day trip down both sections, allow six hours, four of which will be spent on the river. The half-day, or middle river only, trip takes three hours, one and a half of which will be spent on the water.

All you need is a sense of adventure, sunscreen, clothing you don't mind getting wet - because you will - and shoes that attach to your feet. Participants, who must be at least 12 years old and have no outstanding medical conditions, will be outfitted with a life jacket, helmet and oar.

Tours run mid-March through October rain or shine: Saturday and Sunday only March-May and September -October, except the last week in September when the full week is offered; all week except Tuesday and Wednesday the rest of the season. Upper river tours are only offered Saturday-Sunday from just before Memorial Day until just after Labor Day.

There is a deluge of companies from which to choose, all of which share the same basic schedule. Many also offer complementary options such as zip lining and camping.