When I looked out over Portland at Council Crest, the craggy, snowcapped Mt. Hood beckoned. That mountain felt to me like my ticket to an adventure—and I was right but in a most unexpected way.
I booked a 24-hour car rental with my friend so we could drive to the Mt. Hood Adventure Park at SkiBowl in Government Camp, Oregon. Just an hour and a half outside of Portland, the park offers a series of activities: zip-lining, hiking tours, bungee jumping, horseback riding, and more. I figured it'd be a good place to find some fun.
Once we arrived, we decided to do a water-related activity. I had my sights on stand-up paddle boarding but it was the day after July 4th. "Sorry, SUPs have been booked for weeks," the apologetic SkiBowl employee told us. She handed us their book of activities to flip through to find something else. White water rafting caught our attention. By that time, most of the full and half-day rafting tours had already departed. Luckily there was one trip left. The "Frenzy Five" for $45 per person is a one-hour rafting trip that hits the 5 most extreme rapids along the Deschutes River. It was leaving later that afternoon.
Without doing any background research on the location, we booked the tour and began the 45-minute drive out to meet our rafting tour guide. As we drove, the views of Mt. Hood from the other side of the mountain were spectacular. I pulled off-road several times so my friend could jump out to snap photos for us.
Soon, the tall evergreens that shadowed the highway cutting around Mt. Hood dwindled. We realized we were going completely off-mountain! I was excited to see where we would end up. We found ourselves on a long stretch of road in a huge expanse of brown desert land. The mountain was a backdrop to our left and a field of rolling brown hills stretched to the horizon on our right.
My GPS read that our destination was close as we started to see signs of civilization again—well, if you'd call it that. Hearing a rumble in our tummies, we pulled over and peered into the doorway of the first cafe we spotted, the Deschutes Pizza Company. We were served wings, beer, salad, and pizza, and learned that the town we were in, Maupin, has a population of just over 400 people. That's smaller than the number of students who attended my small town high school!
We decided to kill some time by driving along the river before we had to get to meet our tour guide. We proceeded through the town to the bridge crossing and saw the river for the first time. The winding Deschutes River carves out a valley between the hills. It glistened in the midday sun. I appreciated finally getting to see the river named after my new favorite beer. Our adrenaline got pumping as we watched the rafters paddling down the river. We were about to do the same and we were ready.
The Imperial River Company's rafting guide, Tophur, met us near the bridge in the company's small office. Luck was on our side—we were getting a personal tour because nobody else had signed up for the one-hour trip that day. We were driven upriver and taught some basic techniques and rules of the water before hopping on board our blue raft and pushing off the shore.
Bounding down each rapid, we were instructed to paddle as fast as we could in sync with each other or else we would surely go overboard. For one of the rapids, Tophur was certain we would fall out—but he was wrong! Apparently, my experience as a jet-skier and boater and my friend's experience on boats over the years made us more difficult to dunk than the average tourist. He suggested we try "riding the bull" to heighten the experience. I sat on the bow of the raft with my legs hanging over the front and held onto a short rope as we went over the next rapid. Hysterically laughing from the thrill, I was quickly knocked backwards by a wave onto my back. A smile never left my face.
Tophur was enjoying himself as much as we were which made the experience extra special. He extended our trip well beyond the scheduled hour of time and took us to the executive board room. Wait, what? We got to the board room by paddling the raft into an eddy in the Boxcar rapid where we could float there peacefully, evading the river's current. Tophur knew the river so well that he coached us into this meeting room with ease. As we sat there swapping stories, we learned that Tophur embodies the true spirit of enjoying life to its fullest. Although he does several rafting tours a day, sometimes without a day off for several weeks during the season, he expressed love for his job at every moment. It's great getting paid to play and bring passengers so much joy, he said. In my opinion, if your job doesn't feel this way then you're doing something wrong in life (you'll have to determine on your own whether it's the job itself or just your attitude).
When the tour ended, we had the option to get in the river and swim to shore. I jumped in and my skin quickly numbed to the ice cold water. The river partially consists of runoff from the melting snowcap of Mt. Hood. It was crisp and sweet to taste. In that moment, I was possibly the most connected I could be to the mountain without having to scale it. I felt alive.
Once on land, my friend and I wanted to show our appreciation for the amazing job Tophur did on our tour. We offered to buy him a drink at the bar on the property. The Imperial River Company is situated next door to a lodge where there are several rooms available adjacent a bar and a restaurant. In the center of these buildings is an area with seating arranged in circles. We ordered drinks and plopped down.
The drink Tophur ordered caught me by surprise. "I'll have a Squirtsky," he said in his southern accent. "What? Are you messing with me?" I replied. Come to find out a Squritsky is an (il)legitimate drink, invented by a local named Andy whom we met later on (pictured holding his invention below on the right). It's basically a whiskey sour made with the lemon lime soda called Squirt (which I had also never heard of before). I had one, too!
A couple joined our circle at one point. They had Tophur as a guide earlier that day and were staying in the lodge. Several others, mainly other rafters, also joined us and we all laughed and shared stories. Eventually they encouraged my friend and I to hang out for longer so that we could go with them that night to a bar in town called The Rainbow, or "The Bow" for short. There was going to be live music and they promised nearly 100 people would be there. Remembering that 100 people is about 25% of the town, I couldn't help but imagine what an awesome cultural experience this would be. I knew I had to get the car back to the rental place by 9AM in the morning, but I was game to let the adventure continue to unfold. With minimal convincing, my friend agreed. We were staying in Maupin for the night.
My friend and I got dinner at the restaurant next door. We sat outside munching on our sandwiches, listening to the rafters singing nearby. "Raftin' in Maupin!" they cheered. After dinner, we met up with Tophur, Andy, and the couple who had joined us earlier. By then, the dark sky was packed with twinkling stars. Saturn gleamed down on us as we all walked together across the bridge and up into town to the Bow.
The bar reminded me of a small-town establishment that you might find in the southern U.S. somewhere: brightly lit, booth-style seating, antlers on the walls for decoration, and the multi-piece band set up in a tiny space in the corner. The difference was that the clientele generally did not have southern accents. They were mostly rafters who come into town seasonally and young farmers who venture in from the surrounding area. These were people who knew each other well. Better than well; they were like a big family (the usual small-town gossip included!). We danced and sang along to the classic rock tunes covered by the band, and laughed and socialized with many different people that night.
The bar closed around 1:30am. The first-quarter moon shined down upon the winding Deschutes on the walk back across the bridge. I stopped on the bridge for a moment, halting our group to gaze out at the silver-glow of the river. I remembered my vow to myself during my hike in Mt. Tabor park; to be in the present and to take in moments like this fully. In an attempt to preserve the moment even longer, I snapped a grainy night photo of the beautiful scene.
That night, we learned that many of the rafting guides sleep in tents all along the Deschutes during the rafting season. We were invited to stay over instead of trying to jostle ourselves into an uncomfortable position in the rental car overnight. I woke up the next morning to the sound of the flowing Deschutes. This was my lodging for the night:
The experience we had rafting was one I will never forget. But money could not buy the experience we created thereafter just from offering to buy one person a drink to show our appreciation, and then being open to the next adventure that presented itself. This is this kind of moment-by-moment living that makes life exciting and wonderful—even if atypical. This generosity and pure connection with people is what I cannot wait to find during my upcoming trip—especially when going off-the-beaten-path. With less than three weeks away from my departure date, I cannot wait to experience more deviations like this as I travel for a year. Raftin' in Maupin was an omen for adventures to come.