I didn’t set out for a research trip. We were simply looking to have a family adventure whitewater rafting. We’re lucky, because my nephew, Dan Rice, works as a guide for the Adirondack Rafting Company. That’s Dan in a steel-gray helmet in the photos, steering us through the waters.
As I said, I didn’t intend to write a fictionalized account of that experience. But, absolutely, experience is a great foundation for any future writing. Once I had it in back pocket, it was something I knew I could use at a later date.
The opportunity presented itself when I began writing The Courage Test, which came out in paperback a few months ago ($7.99, cheap). I decided to have Will and his father go rafting on the Lochsa River. It made sense, since the Lewis & Clark Expedition navigated those same dangerous waters, and the book was conceived as a parallel journey. When it came time for me to describe the river guide, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
Finally, we gather around our boisterous river guide, who introduces himself as “Dan the River Man.” He’s a muscular, shaggy-haired, bearding outdoorsman, probably in his early thirties. He assures us that this is not his first rodeo. Our group includes six other adults in addition to my father and me, and we’re assigned a big orange inflatable raft. It looks bouncy and safe. We’re all dressed in rented wet suits and wear life vests and plastic helmets.
Before we even get into the water, Dan makes a few jokes to show us he’s a cool guy, and then shifts into a no-nonsense talk about river safety. We go over a list of dos and don’t — mostly don’t. Dan steps up and with a firm yank tightens each individual life vest. Next Dan drills us on paddle techniques. Some of it I already know, thanks to Ollie. We’re going to have to work hard and listen to his instructions, when to “dig in” and put our backs into it, when to shift our weight, and when to lie back. “We can’t possibly avoid every obstacle on the river. Let’s say, oh, we’re going to roll over a rock. I’ll shout out, ‘Bump!’ When that happens, you’ve all got to lean into the center of the boat. It’s critically important. We don’t want anybody falling over the side.” Dan scans the group, and his gaze lingers longest on me, maybe because I’m the youngest. “Mistakes can cost lives,” Dan reminds us. And he says to my father, “Make sure you two sit near me.”
Dan gives us a final inspection, and we put in at a quiet bend of the river. Soon the water carries us away. It doesn’t stay quiet for long.
The first hour is probably the most exciting sixty minutes I’ve had in my entire life. And then with a lurch the boat suddenly tips down, and there’s a bounce and a jostle, and Dan cries out, “Big bump! Lean in!” Before I can react, I’m popped backward into the air like a rag doll. My feet kick at the clouds. The paddle flies from my hands.
I cry out something like, “Aaargggh!” or “Whaaaaazit!” But mostly it all unreels like a movie, a rapid-fire succession of flickering images across a screen. The only sound is the river’s unremitting roar.
I hit the water, and I’m instantly thrown into a frenzied, swirling liquid mass of pure force. I have no control over my body; I’m just tumbling and rolling in the helter-skelter of rapids. It’s like getting hit by a locomotive, then another one, then another one. I’m buried under for a horrifying ten seconds, gulping water in a panic, and then I’m thrown up into the light, lungs screaming for air. From the corner of my eye I see the raft ahead of me, shocked faces staring back, my father shouting wordlessly, arms waving, pointing. There’s Dan in his silver Ray-Bans, ever cool, standing at the back of the boat. He looks back at me over his shoulder, assessing the situation, while still navigating the course ahead.
I am a bullet, shooting the rapids.
I don’t want to spoil anything for future readers, so I’ll cut the scene here. I’m grateful to my nephew, the real Dan the River Man, who expertly took care of us on our happy, laugh-filled journey with the Adirondack Rafting Company. Good times, good times.
The lesson here? Hang out with writers at your peril. You just may find yourself in a book one day.
SOME REVIEWS . . .
“Preller stirs doses of American history into a first-rate road trip.” — Booklist, starred review.
“There is plenty of action . . . A middle grade winner to hand to fans of history, adventure, and family drama.” — School Library Journal.
“Whatever young explorers look for on their literary road trips, they’ll find it here.” — Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books.