Outdoors Information

Tom Sawyer Day - Floating Down The River

There were four of us on that first Tom Sawyer Day. I promised my friends an adventure-disaster, sure to get them wet and cold. Three of them took the bait. In a small daypack, we took snacks, water, a hatchet, a small saw, and whatever scraps of rope we could find.

We parked and hiked up the Manistee river a few miles. The plan was to build a raft, using dead trees and scraps of rope. Then we'd get on it and go river rafting back to the car.

It later became a much anticipated event among an ever-changing group of participants. Since it was equally fun AND dangerous, we didn't bring beer. Even sober it was a challenge to keep a thousand-pound pile of logs, with four people on it, from going where it wanted to go. Where it wanted to go usually involved pain and cold water, but with each trip we learned a little, and sometimes even stayed dry.

River Rafting Geometry

Roland and I were cutting and hauling logs to the river for the first raft, while Cathy and Leslie cooked hotdogs over a fire. We did geometry on a piece of birchbark, trying to figure how many logs were needed, allowing for the dishonesty of the women's stated weights.

"Dry cedar weighs 37 pounds per cubic foot," I told Roland, "which leaves a lifting capacity of 27 pounds, since water is 64 pounds per cubic foot." The girls were laughing for some reason. "The volume of a cylindrical object is pi times the radius squared, times the length," Roland added. We measured and counted logs and began to build a raft. Soon we had a floating pile of old rotten logs carrying two adventurers and two frightened women.

Getting Wet

Cathy and Leslie sat in the middle of the raft. Roland and I stood ready to fend off the river banks and overhanging trees with our poles. We were successful for ten minutes. Then, when a horizontal tree refused to move, Roland's true colors came out. He pushed the other three of us off, to regain his balance. When we couldn't find the bottom of the river, we swam after the raft. Splashing and cursing at Roland, we climbed back on.

This first trip was in April, when the water was like ice. Sunshine warmed us, but our feet were almost always in the water. The raft didn't float very high off the water, and even worse, it began to change shape before our eyes and under our feet.

"It's a square. No wait! It's a parallelagram. Now it's a square again." The girls decided there's too much geometry in river rafting. We let the raft drift close to shore, where they stepped into the shallow water.

The water, unfortunately, wasn't shallow. When the girls reappeared from the depths and climbed up the sandy bank, we waved goodbye. The trail went to and from the river as they headed for the car. Leslie was hiking in her wet bra and panties on our next sighting. This part of the story was crucial to recruiting young men for future Tom Sawyer Days.


Thirty minutes later, Cathy and Leslie saw the raft floating empty down the river. Then they saw Roland and I running along the opposite side, trying to catch up. There had been a tree that stuck out from the bank, low to the water. Despite our excellent rafting skills, we were unable to avoid it. We thought we'd jump over it as the raft passed underneath. It seemed reasonable at the time. It didn't seem so when Roland was pushing my face into the tree while climbing over me to get to shore.

The raft traveled on as we ran through swamp and woods, pretending this was part of the plan when the girls saw us. It floated near the riverbank just as we caught up to it. We leapt on it, and were back in control. Well, more or less.

"How do we get off?" Roland asked me, as we neared the car. We decided to just get close to shore and jump. As I started up the big hill to the car, I turned to see Roland still hanging over the river from a tree. Tom Sawyer Day went a little smoother the next time.

Steve Gillman is a long-time backpacker, and advocate of lightweight backpacking. His advice and stories can be found at http://www.TheUltralightBackpackingSite.com

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