This is RPG-ology #74: Senseless, for January 2024.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition for locating a copy of this and a number of other lost Game Ideas Unlimited articles. This was originally Game Ideas Unlimited: Senseless, and is reposted here with minor editing [bracketed].
The events recounted here were recalled in RPG-ology #14: Shock several years ago. This article is substantially the same, but having been written roughly two decades closer to the events may have a few more accurate details.
There are two stories I usually tell together; but I am going to separate them. The other story I’ll tell another time–not next week, because next week will be our ninth month retrospective, but sometime after that. I’m separating them because there is something I want to get from this story that I don’t usually consider when I tell it. I usually tell it because it is one of the more vivid moments in my memory, one of those experiences I remember quite clearly, although (if I may put on my old timer’s hat) it happened before many of my readers were born. When I tell the other story, I’ll talk about that aspect of it; this time I want to look at the emotion of the moment.
It was the summer of seventy-three. I had just turned 18 that June, and was in my final days as a Boy Scout. I’d been a Junior Assistant Scoutmaster for a couple of years, and so was in that nebulous space between being one of the boys and one of the men. I also had over five hundred miles of canoeing, all of it in trips of at least fifty miles and much of it white water, burned into the canoe paddle that bore a fifty-miler decal on the mantel at home. And I had our troop’s honorary swampy patrol patch–I had been in a canoe when it went down, and so knew from experience how that happens. I’d earned merit badges in canoeing, boating, swimming, and lifesaving (plus my Red Cross Advanced Swimmer and Lifesaving certifications), and twice earned the mile swim patch. There was no one on this trip who was more comfortable in a canoe than I–unless it was my father. He was the troop Committee Chairman, and although I had been on a few trips he had missed, he had taken a few without me.
Rick Trover was also a Junior Assistant Scoutmaster that year, and Bob Hamer was the Senior Patrol Leader. Along with the Scoutmaster, Mr. Winkler–also experienced, but he had not been with us as long–we were responsible for getting these boys through a canoe trip down the Delaware river of something over fifty miles during the week.
But in the early summer of nineteen seventy-three, the Delaware River flooded. I mean flooded–third highest recorded water levels in the twentieth century. Two days before we arrived at our starting point at Skinner’s Falls, Cochecton New York, four miles upstream, was under four feet of water. The rapids which were supposed to be our fun first push were a roaring raging rampage. We camped for two days, our canoes perched on a bank at the southern end of the falls, waiting for it to subside. There may have been a dozen other groups–there may have been thirty–similarly camped between the tracks and the river, waiting for things to calm a bit.
On the third day, the decision was made that we would have to go; and Trover and Hamer grabbed a canoe and walked it upstream through the brush to take a shot at the rapids before anyone else tried. Word slowly spread through the camp that they were going to run the rapids, so most of us were watching from the shore. The Delaware River uses its own system of classification of whitewater, by which the most dangerous rapids are rated six. Skinner’s Falls is one of only four places on the river to have such a rating, the other three being Foul Rift and the wing dams at Lumbersville and Lambertsville. If you run the wing dam at Lambertsville, the police and rescue teams will pick you up downstream. I spoke to someone who did it once, in a two-man kayak, and they weren’t sure they were going to survive. So Skinner’s Falls is not an easy piece of water on a good day.
At the head of the falls there was a large rock right in the center; water splashed over this in a dramatic fountain shooting every direction. To my mind, that was the one point at which you did not want to hit the rapids. It was also evident almost from the moment they came into view that that was where Trover and Hamer were headed. They ran right onto it, hung the canoe, and swamped it. Hanging on like drowned rats, they were drenched and battered by the surf, and so for reasons they never adequately explained they broke one of the basic rules: they abandoned the canoe and swam for shore.
They made it. But they lost the canoe. The rush picked up the damaged boat and carried it out of the rapids and out of sight. Later that day another group, who swamped when they hit a whirlpool under the Narrowsburg bridge downstream, found our canoe in the brush along the bank while looking to recover theirs. Identifying information was etched into the gunnel. It seems that whenever the river floods, it creates a whirlpool trying to go around the bend under the bridge in Narrowsburg–the river is one hundred twenty feet deep there, deeper than it is again until it reaches the Bay perhaps three hundred miles downstream. The water has drilled that hole; and when it’s calm, people take a rope swing off the bottom of the bridge into the river, knowing that there is no way they can hit the bottom.
We were a few hours reorganizing and reconsidering after that fiasco. Trover and Hamer were scolded, and thought was given to abandoning the trip. But downstream from the falls the water was smooth, and it had dropped a bit since we’d arrived, so we decided to continue. The only question which remained was whether the boys should be allowed to shoot the rapids before we went, or just put in from here. To make that decision, Mr. Winkler decided that the two most experienced canoeists in camp should run it, and determine whether Trover and Hamer had just been unlucky or the whole thing was too difficult for an average canoeist.
Thus it was that my father and I were trudging through the brush with a canoe somewhere on the east bank of the Delaware River a hundred yards north of Skinner’s Falls. I suggested that we might be far enough above it, and my father said we should double the distance to be safe. I suggested that we might put the canoe in the shallows and paddle upstream the remaining distance, and my father thought there was a risk we might get caught in the current. So it was that we were trudging through the brush somewhere on the east bank of the Delaware River two hundred yards north of Skinner’s Falls, when finally we decided to put in the water. I would take the bow, the power position, my father steering from the stern. We agreed that the channel was on the far side of that aforementioned rock, and we would have to get across the river as quickly as we could to catch it.
The current picked us up almost immediately. We put every bit of effort into crossing that short width of river, and in mere seconds had been carried to the head of the rapids, just barely clearing the hot spot where our predecessors had crashed. We had made it to the channel, the course through the rapids through which the bulk of the river flowed, the path that would be easiest.
And I froze. I was staring at four-foot swells of water coming at the bow. I had pushed canoes across lakes with the wind in my face and the surf as choppy as water in a washing machine, but it looked like we were just going to go straight through these. My mouth hung open, my paddle stuck uselessly above the gunnel, the roar of surf blotting out all other sound.
To this day I have only heard my father swear twice in my life. This was the first. With a mild expletive given tremendous force as coming from the mouth that never spoke them, his voice cut through the white noise of whitewater demanding that I paddle. Coming to my senses, I swung the blade forcefully at the river. Sometimes the swell was right in front of me, and I reached forward into it; other times there was nothing below me at all, and the paddle passed fruitlessly through air. But I paddled and pointed and paddled and pointed, and fought for all I was worth as my father behind me steered around and between the rocks and brought us out the other end.
Turning portside, we came back upstream the short distance to pull our canoe onto the bank at camp. Mr. Winkler was waiting to find out how it was. Could the boys do it? Did we want to do it again? No, on both counts.
It is that moment of sheer fear which I cannot quite convey to you. I was not afraid of that river until then. I rapidly grew nervous as the current dragged us toward the head of the falls, but at the moment we hit that surf, I was afraid. It wasn’t run fear, or hide fear, or fight fear–it was a stunning disbelief, an inability for a moment to accept that I was looking at reality. No river had ever done that to me, before or since (and I am sure that there are worse rapids, even given the swollen conditions in which we were operating, but few that are regularly canoed). For a moment, I lost it. Whatever it is, at that moment, it was gone.
It should happen to your characters, at least once in a while. If you’re playing them, you should consider whether the thing you face at this moment is so overwhelmingly terrifying that your mind cannot even grasp what is happening for a moment, and you cannot respond at all because you just can’t believe it’s real. If you’re running the game, there should be, at least once in a great while, a moment when you require all the characters to make a saving throw or an ability check or whatever is appropriate to that system to decide whether they have just lost it. It happens, really; and if it happens to people, it should happen to characters, too.
I made several more trips down the Delaware with scouts. In nineteen seventy-six, in celebration of the national Bicentennial, I (now an assistant scoutmaster) helped take thirteen boys just over two hundred miles in eight days, from somewhere twenty miles upstream of those falls through Foul Rift and the Lumbersville Wing Dam, bringing my paddle’s total to nine hundred ninety-five miles. I never did experience anything like that again. But in nineteen seventy-four, when we returned to our campsite for our second trip on this river, I noticed a few things. The shore on which we had beached our canoes was the top of a twelve-foot cliff above another shore below. The water was a lot calmer, and we had no trouble getting six canoes through it uneventfully. And that huge rock, the fountain display in the center of the river on which Trover and Hamer lost their canoe, was the edge of the near shore.
Next week, something different.]