It was about twelve years ago, I guess. Some buddies and I had rented a bunkhouse on the Niobrara River near the Nebraska / South Dakota border. Portions of the Niobrara are part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Program. Floating the river on giant inner tubes is a wonderful way to spend a summer’s day. You can soak up the sun, enjoy the scenery, look for wildlife, and banter with other folks floating the river.
For the most part, the Niobrara is a gentle river. We put in at a point above our bunkhouse at a spot that would allow us about four hours on the river and take us right back down to our bunkhouse. Although I love floating the Niobrara, four hours is about my limit because the summer sun will change the color of your skin to predominantly orange if you stay on the river too long.
The government has banned alcohol on the federally protected portions of the river, but the river cops left us alone, instead preferring to focus on the younger floaters. We enjoyed everything about that day. We even stopped at Smith Falls and stood beneath the cold water, and that felt great after several hours in the hot sun.
After four hours, we pulled our tubes out of the water just above the Rocky Ford rapids. Although the Niobrara is not as challenging as the rivers in Colorado, there are rapids here and there. One set of rapids is at Rocky Ford — rapids created where the river drops over some large rocks. The owners of the bunkhouse told us these were Class IV rapids. The International Scale of River Difficulty defines Class IV rapids as, “Intense, powerful but predictable rapids requiring precise boat handling in turbulent water.” For purposes of this article, the key word there is “boat.”
After cleaning up, we brought our lawn chairs (and beer) back down to the river, right by the rapids. It was sometime after this that my brother, Roy, noticed some older teens playing in a pool of water just below the rapids. They did not have any inner tubes, a kayak, a canoe, or any other type of watercraft.
It was sometime after this that my brother musts have thought to himself, “Hey, if those kids can swim through those rapids, I can do that.” So, with a look of determination on his sun-burned face, Roy walked into the river to a spot about fifty feet above the rapids and began swimming toward them. We watched with anticipation as he entered the rapids.
A few seconds later Roy emerged from the rapids in obvious pain. The young looked at us and shouted, “Help.” We all ran toward him, helped him get out of the river, and walked my shaken brother back to his lawn chair. There were cuts and bruises on his body, and in general he was not looking too good. The nearest hospital was thirty miles away, so we medicated Roy with alcohol and Motrin, just like we had been taught in Boy Scouts.
I saw those young people playing in the same spot the next day, and they asked how Roy was. I told them. They asked why he had done something so stupid, and I told them he wanted to be able to say he had swum through the rapids just like them. They looked puzzled. “We didn’t swim through the rapids,” one of them said. “We just walked out from the bank to that pool.”
And that is the story of how my brother became the first to navigate Class IV rapids without the benefit of any kind of boat.