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River rats on the `terrible Tennessee'

IT was a bright, unthreatening summer day. Blackberries hung ripe and juicy in bramble thickets. A fine berry year it was, but nothing else of consequence was happening. Time hung heavy on the hands of three young boys, out of school and ripe for adventure. Thus the rafting trip was born, an idea first, then a pleading, anxious necessity (``Please, Mom!''). Three sets of parents reflected on the days of their own youthful summers, relented, and said yes.

The Little Tennessee, in its beginnings below Franklin, is a gentle stream. Into its shallow, slow-moving waters, about six miles from town, the boys launched their three rubber rafts. It was 11 o'clock. They were still well fortified from breakfast and had packed their own provisions, three peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and six soft drinks. They had also equipped themselves with three fishing poles, three lures, and three quarters, all they would need for an afternoon of total happiness on the river. The plan called for them to reach the bridge in Franklin four hours later, and use the quarters to call home.

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In this stretch, the river is no remote terror of pounding cataracts and crocodiles, but a friendly, pastoral presence that winds through terrain of farms and lawns. So it seemed to the parents, who left their boys in the ``Little T's'' hands and returned home feeling benevolent. On the river it is another story. Down here, low on the water, riding a rubber raft and screened from the world by brambles and brush and willows and white-skinned sycamores, civilization seems not just miles, but ages away. And the river rolls slowly, more slowly than any 15-year-old could imagine.

By 8, three anxious sets of parents are still pacing their respective floors, waiting for the phone to ring. The sun is sinking into the hills. The parents reflect on those three sandwiches and the nine-hour period that has lapsed, and their hearts grow heavy. They tell each other that nothing can be wrong, that there are three of them, all sensible boys, good swimmers, well equipped, and it is a gentle river.

The call comes at last, at 8:15. The explorers are safe, though they reached their destination dirty and hungry, having lost two fishing poles and broken one, lost three lures, a paddle, and a shoe. Their clothes and equipment tell a story of adventure, of dangers faced and overcome. The sandwiches lasted until 11:30.

``We thought you were trying to get rid of us,'' is the only explanation the three can find for being so late. The wilderness engulfed them, they say. They tell how the river twists and turns through an unfamiliar land, probably still inhabited by savages and almost certainly by bears and giant cats, though all they saw, the boys admit, were two water snakes and a muskrat. In no hurry at all to flee such imminent danger, they lazed their way downstream at turtle-like rates.

``We knew we had to be on the wrong river. We figured we'd end up in Asheville. We thought you put us on the wrong river on purpose.'' The parents take comfort in learning that the boys had worried about this, for all that they might fancy themselves Huck Finn.

Blackberries provided their only sustenance during the final 8 hours of the trip, preventing collapses from starvation, the boys say. This explains the scratches, the dirt, the torn shirts. Berrying from a rubber raft is a perilous undertaking.

``All we could think about was food we had wasted in our lives. I mean, I couldn't believe I could get so hungry,'' said one of the boys later, while swallowing a hamburger. ``All I could think about was candy bars I didn't finish.''

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He takes a light tone, but it's changed him, this day on the river. His eyes shine. He can't wait to go again.

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