You can’t beat tubing a river on a hot summer day. It’s the only outdoor recreational activity that allows you to drift aimlessly for hours through gorgeous scenery with no more skill or exertion than it takes to sip a beer in a beanbag chair. When I first heard of it, tubing sounded like a mindless pastime, but I was quickly converted. As clichéd as it sounds, after 20 years of tubing, I’ve found it a great metaphor for life, with all its challenges, rewards, disappointments and occasional wetting of one’s pants.
So on a recent 90-plus-degree day, my friend Don and I make the two-hour drive from Burlington to Lake Luzerne, N.Y. This eastern Adirondack town, not far from Lake George, is home to the Tubby Tubes Co. Outdoor Fun Park. Tubby Tubes offers several lazy tubing trips down a stretch of the Hudson River — “lazy” being the operative word. We choose the three-hour tour.
Tubby Tubes was founded by Eric Hamell, a former drummer with the Burlington-based acoustic sextet Smokin’ Grass. Now 38, Hamell launched his biz in the summer of 2002 after spending seven years as a river guide on the Upper Hudson River Gorge and Sacandaga River. What began as a one-man rafting outfit has burgeoned into a year-round tube-tacular operation featuring waterslides in summer and hillside snow tubing in winter.
Business was booming, Hamell reports, until this stretch of the Hudson River, like all Adirondack tourist areas, got doubly pummeled in 2011 — first by the spring floods, then by Tropical Storm Irene. “I’m still recovering,” he admits.
Hamell’s crew outfits us with life vests and a floatable cooler. The latter is strongly recommended for any tubing trip that lasts more than an hour, especially if you want to stay hydrated, drunk or both. We board a rickety school bus with a cargo of yellow inner tubes tied to the roof, and take a 15-minute, nut-busting drive upriver.
Our guides for the afternoon are Matt Silburn, 21, and his wife, Beth, 20, local college kids who have worked summers at Tubby Tubes for about five years. Essentially, their job is to make sure Tubby’s clients, mostly tourists from New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, don’t get beached on the rocks or drown in 18 inches of water. On the International Scale of River Difficulty, which ranges from stagnant pond to Deliverance-level death chute, this stretch of river rates about a half tick above the slide at a community pool.
Still, Beth and Matt take their work seriously and obviously have fun doing it. Matt is blond, friendly and decidedly untubby. Beth is tan and equally athletic, with buxom good looks and a playful, big-sister demeanor that makes every 12-year-old boy on our trip — and a few of their dads — want to be her BFF.
The bus parks beside a shallow elbow in the river, and our group of 20 or so day tubers disembarks. While we slather ourselves in sunscreen, strip down to our bathing suits and stash our valuables on the bus or in dry bags, Matt and Beth scamper onto the bus roof and unleash an avalanche of inner tubes, as well as the inflatable kayaks they’ll use to “guide” us downriver.
As a seasoned tuber, I’m amused to learn that this trickle of water requires a guide. I was introduced to tubing on the Guadalupe River in central Texas. There, on any given afternoon when the temperature climbs above 90 degrees, you can find hundreds of beer-toting Texans making the aquatic artery look like the aorta of a triple-bypass patient. Even with its squirrelly stretches of rapids, the only “guides” on that river are the local teens who hawk bags of ice and point out the best barbecue joints.
Years later, when I lived in Missoula, Mont., my friends and I often tubed the Blackfoot River (of A River Runs Through It fame) with nothing more to guide us than a dusty Subaru parked on shore to indicate the spot where we’d pull our wrinkled asses out of the water.
As with life in general, many of the thrills of tubing are the discoveries that come from not knowing what’s around the next bend. It could be a choice spot for diving off the rocks, smoking a joint or eating a soggy sandwich. It could be a flock of newly hatched cormorants following their mother with Navy-like precision. Or it could be class III rapids that steal your pride and your $200 sunglasses.
Still, given that Tubby operates in New York, one of the most litigious states in the nation, I appreciate the company’s decision to take no chances. Without guides, Mr. and Mrs. Hackensack could easily sue Hamell out of 500 tubes should one of them bruise a tailbone on a submerged log that wasn’t specifically referenced in the insurance waiver.
With our group still on shore, Matt demonstrates the best method for sitting down in Tubby’s inner tubes, which are designed for carrying humans downriver. All have handles, and a few, especially the ones for kids, have bottoms. These aren’t the abrasive, black-rubber kind used on 18-wheelers, whose metal stems will puncture a kidney if you climb into them the wrong way.
On Matt’s command, the group sits down in the river en masse, and the gentle current delivers us away from shore. Some drift ahead, while others lag behind. Matt and Beth quickly get to work — which entails three hours of herding our flock of human Cheerios around river hazards, in between dousing the kids with Super Soakers.
Now, a word on proper tubing position: With your butt in the donut hole, your head thrown back and your arms and legs flopped over the sides, you would be hard pressed to find a more passive posture. Sure, you can paddle vigorously for a minute or two to avoid a rock or reach your cooler. But eventually your body returns to the same slothful pose.
As I begin drifting downriver, I make a forehead-slapping realization: I’m going to be in this position for three hours. In direct midday sun. With no shade or toilet. This is when my priorities take on a survivalist simplicity: Maintain fluids, avoid a twisted ankle or traumatic head injury and, whenever necessary, relieve myself in place.
After Don and I move beyond the obligatory jokes about inbred banjo pickers and traveling upriver to assassinate Col. Kurtz, we deliberately lag behind the group and get reacquainted. It’s been a while since we last spoke, especially as I have a 9-week-old baby at home and Don is in the midst of dissolving a 14-year marriage.
With both our lives in transition, three hours of gazing at trees, mountains and clouds provide ample time and fodder for reflection. Or, to paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, you never tube the same river twice.
Writers have long looked to rivers, and river trips, as metaphors for life, and tubing poses all the big questions, too. Do I look forward to where I’m going, or backward to where I’ve been? Do I stay in the mainstream, or venture into the deeper, less-traveled eddies? Do I try to keep up with the pack, or just go with the flow?
After an hour of deep-dive conversation, Don and I fall silent and enjoy the occasional signs of nonhuman life: dragonflies alighting on our tubes. Trout breaching the surface. A blue heron taking flight and sailing overhead. Somewhere in the woods, a camper plays a Native American-sounding melody on a wood flute.
As we drift along, we see scars from last year’s devastating floods all around us, particularly uprooted trees and deeply eroded riverbanks. According to Beth, sections of the river now flow differently from their course in years past, requiring Tubby to alter aspects of its trips. On this day, it’s hard to envision such a languid waterway getting angry enough to move boulders.
I begin to ponder my recent good fortunes. I have a healthy baby boy at home. My Colchester home escaped last year’s floods. I’m not enduring domestic upheavals as my friend is.
In this blissful, carpe diem moment, a noise slowly bubbles to the surface of my consciousness: the incessant, rapid-fire clicking of a camera shutter. Expecting with annoyance to see a photographer on shore, I’m horrified to discover that the sound is coming from inside my two “dry bags,” which have catastrophically failed to lived up to their name.
“Put it in a bag of rice overnight.”
Wallowing in self-pity, I don’t hear Tony or his wife, Tammy, float up behind me until he offers this unsolicited advice for saving my soaked Canon. Of course, the noisiest part of inner tube travel is the people who ride them.
Tony and Tammy are among the quietest members of our group, savoring the silence sans children. The couple, from Chatham, Mass., just dropped their younger daughter off at band camp and the older one, who’s 13, at the airport for a two-week trip to Shanghai, China. They’re enjoying a few well-deserved days of R&R in the Adirondacks. I ask them what they think of the float.
“Love it,” says Tammy.
“Yeah,” echoes Tony. “What’s not to like?”
As we round a bend and spot our bus near shore, it dawns on me: On these trips, we bring our own baggage, literal and otherwise, and invariably leave with something different, be it fond memories or a waterlogged memory card. Sure, there were no whitewater rapids or heart-pounding waterfalls to spike my adrenaline. But even the most uneventful day of tubing trumps a stressful day at the office.
And the next morning, when I remove my camera from the Ziploc bag of rice and it springs to life, I feel a deliverance of my own. My journey has been a success.