By Chris Gonzalez
Summer is here, which means Mother Nature has cooked up a host of exciting new ways to kill us. To be fair, Old Man Winter gives summer a run for its money in the ultimate demise department, when you stop to consider skiing and snowboarding. But these are not so much recreational activities as neurological disorders, causing grown people, many of them college educated, to pay exorbitant sums of money to go to the top of very slippery mountains (which, as everyone knows, contain enormous amounts of gravity) and attempt to get down by attaching even slipperier objects to their feet. Clearly these are people with a very flimsy grasp on reality. This is why we need psychiatrists at the top of every ski hill. What are they doing ensconced in dowdy offices, complete with plush couches and inoffensive artwork, when they are so desperately needed elsewhere? This is a question of far greater importance to me than, say, Darfur, Obama’s stimulus package, or how a fat, married man named Dr. Phil has sold millions of books offering dating advice and weight loss tips. Dating advice from Dr. Phil? I’d rather take elocution lessons from Porky Pig—or weight loss tips for that matter.
But that’s not the subject of this story. Today we are discussing the myriad ways of dying through participation in what are ostensibly fun, recreational summertime activities. Or, more specifically, going “tubing”. For the uninitiated, tubing is the act of voluntarily allowing oneself to be towed at great speeds behind a very fast motorboat whilst sitting on an inner tube, facing the omnipresent threat of death, dismemberment, and the possibility of losing one’s swim trunks. For my money, tubing falls into the “extreme sport” category—no different than cliff diving, base jumping, or dating one of the Kardashian sisters. What attracts people to such a ridiculously dangerous pursuit? Motivated by the Pulitzer I would surely win for penning this tale of lusty adventure, and the fact that I had already consumed several beers, I decided to try it. And so it came to be that your humble narrator found himself, on a bright, sunny June afternoon, strapped to the back of a roaring speed boat suddenly wondering if there was enough money in his meager RRSP for a decent funeral.
I know what you’re thinking: lakes are full of teenagers out tubing every summer. It can’t be that dangerous. You’re forgetting that teenagers possess the same average intelligence as lawn furniture. They are also responsible for popularizing such cultural atrocities as text messaging, beer pong, and Zac Efron’s movie career. On a more personal level, I don’t do particularly well in water. I was born in Arizona, a landlocked desert state with rivers that do not contain even a single water molecule. I also had exceptionally cheap parents. Their child-rearing philosophy was simple: if it cost money, required batteries, or occurred more than four blocks away then, brother, you are on your own. I’m also a total pussy. So it should go without saying that I am not exactly a rugged outdoorsperson (my spell checker has just informed me that “outdoorsperson” is not a word, but irregardless—also not a word—I will plunge ahead anyway). My idea of risk-taking involves putting the “bronze” variety of unleaded fuel into my BMW. Also, as a professional writer, the most strenuous physical activities in my day involve brewing coffee and typing in italics. So let’s just say that tubing at high speeds isn’t exactly in my wheelhouse.
Naturally, my date with death came at the hands of my wife. She insisted that we visit her godfather Larry while staying with her parents on Vancouver Island. Larry owns a big waterfront home on Shawnigan Lake with a rolling backyard that backs out onto a private dock. A former commercial fisherman, Larry is a big, ruddy-cheeked man with a thick moustache, serious gin blossom, and an irrepressible lust for life. Quickly sizing me up, Larry took it upon himself to “test this city boy’s mettle” by strapping me to the back of his 22-foot Boston Whaler at full speed. Larry’s favourite summertime pastimes involve taking his boat out on the lake at tremendous speeds and drinking heavily. Let’s just say these two activities are not mutually exclusive.
The next afternoon was one of those perfect summer days that are so often spoiled by forced activity. The sun shone brightly over sparkling Shawnigan Lake, illuminating deep blue hues the exact same colour and temperature as a wild-berry Slurpee. With a quick shiver (brought on only by the light breeze coming off of the water and not, I repeat NOT, from fear) I hopped into my tube, determined to prove to my godfather-in-law that I had the right stuff. I felt ready, having already received expert instruction from Larry earlier that day. He had placed a tattooed arm around me and, with tenderness uncharacteristic of a man of his size, thoughtfully dispensed some helpful advice while simultaneously blowing a boozy mélange of navy rum and O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock in my direction. This advice consisted of merely two syllables: “Hang on.” Larry was a man of few words.
Larry sat at the helm of his idling craft and watched from over his shoulder as I got myself situated. I found that, by grasping the handles and slightly arching my back, I was able to capsize immediately. With a little practice, however, I found I could achieve the same result at slightly higher speeds. Eventually, I was able to stay afloat for longer than it takes to sneeze. Now, with the wind in my hair, I felt like I had finally conquered this tube. I had won. Man: 1, inanimate rubber object: no score! “Now maybe you should try attaching it to the boat,” my wife offered helpfully.
As Larry pulled slowly away from the dock, with me now securely tethered 30 feet behind, he shouted some hand signals out to me over the roaring drone of the motor. They may have been helpful had I been able to hear him, which I couldn’t, but from what I could understand “thumbs down” meant go slower, “thumbs up” meant go faster and patting the top of my head meant he should steal third base. “And if you run into some real trouble,” Larry shouted, “do this!” He drew his thumb across his neck in a throat-slitting gesture. “And I’ll kill the motor. Got it?” I squeaked back in the affirmative, my chest already constricting with terror. There was now no turning back.
Tubing is a spectacular way to enjoy Lake Shawnigan’s sweeping natural vistas—assuming you’re brave enough to keep your eyes open, which, gentle reader, I was not. As soon as Larry gunned the throttle my head snapped back, eyes clamped shut, and all the breath in my body evacuated via the nearest exits. I held on to those handles for all I was worth, the veins in my forearms standing out at full attention under an onslaught of wind and spray. While I cannot be sure, I’m confident we broke the lake equivalent of the existing land speed record.
Through tightly squinted eyes (to protect myself from the spray and not, I repeat not, from fear) I watched Larry race towards the centre of the lake where he had more room to maneuver. Once there he cut sharply to the right, sending me careening in a wide arc to the left that lifted me up so that the tube was barely skimming over the water. He then spun the wheel (or whatever the correct nautical term for a steering wheel is—mizzenmast? keelhaul? sheepshank?) to the left, dragging me mercilessly across the rocky wake we’d just created. My ass, hanging out the bottom of the tube, took a beating as I bounced over waters choppier than the dialogue in a George Lucas film. The hand signals I was given proved utterly useless, as they required relinquishing my death grip on the tube. Each jarring bump soaked me with frigid water and played my spinal column like an accordion at an all-night polka party. Then suddenly, for a harrowing three count, I couldn’t feel the water at all anymore. Until I came crashing down hard, that is, losing my tube and cartwheeling through the water to an awkward stop.
I surfaced gasping, thankful for the life jacket I wasn’t too proud to wear, bobbing limply in the lake as Larry swung the boat round to get me. I prayed briefly to be plucked from the water, perhaps by the hand of God like in those Monty Python movies, and deposited in a comfy chair with a good book faraway before Larry’s inevitable return. God thwarted my plans (serves me right for being an atheist) by allowing Larry to pull up almost immediately. Still sputtering, having ingested a large amount of water, mostly through my nose, I flopped like a spawning salmon back into my tube to catch my breath. Larry raised an inquisitive eyebrow over his shoulder to determine my status, at which point I flashed a wan smile and a feeble “thumbs up” to indicate I was okay. At that, he gunned the throttle again (damn those confusing hand signals) throwing my legs over my head as the g-forces pinned me to the back of my tube for another round.
And so it went. Eventually, I got the hang of it. I learned to anticipate the violent jerks that snapped my neck back upon take off, to lean into the choppy wake while turning, and, most importantly, to keep my mouth closed when underwater. Towards the end of the day, I displayed the grace and prowess of a professional “tuber”, had he been suddenly afflicted by a debilitating attack of the central nervous system.
Yes, I stared Death right in the eye in a battle of wills to see who would blink first and emerged victorious. To be fair, Death had attempted to reschedule due to some trouble he was having with a soft contact lens (he has astigmatism), but it was a victory nonetheless. Even as I type these words, I know the experience has made me a better man. I mean, as I dictate these words. It’s hard to type with both hands still clutching an inner tube.
Chris Gonzalez is a Vancouver-based writer who dreams of dark coffee, perfect sentences, and one day becoming so ridiculously successful that he routinely leaves summer homes as restaurant tips.