by Ann Turnock
In the fall of 1980, my friend Fran and I toured the California Gold Rush country. Fran had multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair, but she was always up for adventure. She had heard of a group that would take people with disabilities rafting down the Stanislaus River, and she was determined to go. However, we found that the group had ceased operations because it was late in the season. Fran called several other rafting companies and finally found Friends of the River, a group attempting–ultimately unsuccessfully–to stop the damming of the river. A guide named Chris agreed to take the two of us down the river for the afternoon.
Chris was undaunted by Fran’s paralysis. Fran and I helped where we could, but Chris did all the heavy rowing and the packing and unpacking of the raft. He cheerfully strapped her wheelchair to the raft, and down the river we went. The trip was glorious. The weather was perfect, and since it was September, the water level was low and the rapids, though plenty thrilling for us, were not as dangerous as they were in the spring. Fran loved to swim, and Chris encouraged us to tumble off the raft for one little stretch. He even found a place where we could get out, and he and I maneuvered Fran’s wheelchair over the rocks so she could see walls Chinese workers had built more than a century before.
The Friends of the River van had been delivered to the takeout point, but it got stuck in the sand, and despite our digging and pushing, it wouldn’t budge. Fortunately, just as it was getting dark, a couple came to camp at that site and gave us a ride back to our car. Chris told us how to find the only restaurant serving dinner that late at night, then returned to the van to keep it and the equipment safe. Through it all, he was polite, cheerful, and focused on showing Fran a good time.
Just weeks later, Fran had an accident that left her with traumatic brain injury and near-total paralysis. She spent the last 18 months of her life in a nursing facility. She had difficulty talking and was dreadfully unhappy. But every now and then she would say, “I went rafting once.” I learned that this was my cue to tell the story of our rafting trip again, and for a little while she could relive the memories. She even asked, “Can I go rafting in heaven?”
The dam was completed and the rapids of the Stanislaus River disappeared under New Melones Lake. Friends of the River disbanded. I don’t know Chris’s last name and have no way of finding him. I wish I could shake his hand and tell him how much his kindness meant to Fran for the rest of her life.