Nothing goes together quite like alcohol and open water.
Maybe it has something to do with the sense of weightlessness. When I was a kid, I used to go underwater in my pool and flip myself over, just beneath the surface, facing the sky, and I would pretend that I’d just fallen through a portal to another dimension. A foot in each reality, as it were. Yeah, that sounds like booze to me.
No one needs to be instructed on the ins and outs of poolside beer pounding. Cracking open a frosty Miller High Life and being baked beneath the noontime sun with your toes in the water and your soul at peace is not so much an activity to be tried as it is a consequence of being alive and living right. Getting wasted at the oasis is downright biological. I bet it was invented by dinosaurs.
Of course, how you go about making water meet your wine is largely a consequence of your environment. You could be arid or glacial, with swampy air or a dry heat, your oceans, streams, and rivers with levels of pollution in them ranging from roughly fifty to dodeca-thousand percent. So there’s finesse to this! As with all things in life, you need to do what works for you. Selah.
“Steer this bitch to port, mate—it’s time to fucking party.”
Surfing seems fun, for instance; never had the chance. In Canada, they just walk out on the frozen ice with wooden sticks and beat the shit out of each other. You think they don’t bring alcohol? That’s how hockey was invented. Gimme a Molson’s, eh? You frickin’ Yankee Yooper. Or a Blue, eh?—Labatt’s Blue. Hoser. Scivey b’y. I’ll knock yer frickin’ teeth in o’er this kerfluffle. Goal, eh? Goal!
I hail from the land of no coast—the blue prairie, and the heartland. My environment had creeks and rivers, ponds, and precious lakes. These were our destinations for our springtime, summer bacchanals. But instead of taking you through the totality of the environment—the great breadth of drunken watersports that get me giddy simply to think about—I will take you to a special place, my particular spot, and a special activity, which to you readers I will shortly, strongly recommend. Join with me, as we float and frolic, so hammered together, in the serene and cooling waters…of the mighty Illinois.
But before that, let me be clear—I’m not much of an aquatic person. If there aren’t some tallboys involved (or some tall boys involved, nahmsayin, wink-wank), then I’m probably not crazy thrilled to be out and about on the ocean blue. It just seems so easy to die out there, in the untamed waters of the 8ft pool at the Ft. Lauderdale Holiday Inn. So put it in the proper context when I say that I’m not the biggest fan of water, but my God do I love a good float trip. For my money, a float trip is the greatest way on this grim earth to combine booze with the blue element, and party.
To me and mine, the river was some 90 miles of driving away from home, so you tend to make a day of it. And I should disclose that I’ve only been out on a float trip, oh, six or seven times. But it was always in different contexts, with very different people—very different goals attached to the whole endeavor. There was one time in college, for freshman year orientation (some dorks took the option of going spelunking instead, can you believe that?), a couple times on some corporate shit, and three or four times just for fun, with frat houses and my redneck friends. So these weren’t always people who liked and knew each other intimately—from favorite drinks to middle names. The float trip is a journey, and there are many strangers on the way.
I will now describe to you, in three parts, what makes a float trip so superb, equal in fun—if not more so—to the typical day at any given beach.
THE GOAL—The secret weapon of the float trip is that it’s an activity with a definite endpoint. I must emphasize the journey. If you do it right, by the time you reach the end, you should almost be sick of it. It should feel like it’s time to go. Think of it as nature’s last call—the river may be shutting down, but we can take the party elsewhere if we need to.
The mechanics of this are pretty simple—you go to the companies that organize these trips, pay a fee, and you rent your rafts. (Which reminds me—never get the canoes! Never! Get! Canoes! This is not an article about canoes. Only one person fits in a canoe. Like, 40,000 people can fit on a raft if you try hard enough.)
Depending on the size of your party, get a couple rafts. Part of the fun is in switching around, swimming over, waving at friends across the river as they get flipped over, get caught up, or suffer some crazy disaster for you to laugh and laugh at. Alternatively, the other raft might bust out an old jam jar full of some sweet white lightning—making it time, then, for a hasty switch.
Once you get paid up, the people handling the rentals will typically throw you in a bus, drive you a few miles upriver to where all the rafts are waiting, and leave you to shove off. The goal, then, is to get back, and the distance of your journey can vary wildly. Six miles, 12 miles—you understand. You choose your distance when you pay the fee. And then you’re off! You’re on a journey! You’re legitimately a decent hike away from an easy way home—the only way out is to bear down and beer me, bro.
If the end of the trip is nature’s last call, then the start of it is nature’s pub crawl, with a BYOB twist—and instead of a row of sterile, overpriced, over-decorated public houses that all seem to be owned and operated by, like, the same guy, your venues for this crawl are the natural wonders of the world. The next stop is a giant tree with a thick branch that overhangs the river to the middle, perfect for climbing up and leaping off, four, five, six hundred times. You may find a half-forgotten rope swing and spend an hour with it; or pass by isolated shacks with glassy-eyed geezers on the porch, tipping one back to you, youth, and the summer sun.
Like any bar crawl, a float trip is a journey of stops and starts, the going bumpy and irregular. But out on the river, your pub stops are the beaches—and your taverns are—
THE SHOALS—“Hark! Up ahead! The rafts in port! Other sailors! I spot rum, my captain, rum! And beautiful ladies! Down-home countrymen! Raucous rednecks—and college girls!”
“Steer this bitch to port, mate—it’s time to fucking party.”
Though it depends on your river—recall, my experiences in this realm took place exclusively on the mighty Illinois—there will overwhelmingly likely be some nice big shoals to roll up to, drag your raft upon, and get down on some terra firma. If the day is good enough for a float trip, odds are you and yours aren’t the only ones that thought of it. And this is good! Making quick friends and trading brews between boats is insanely fulfilling to one’s constitution and the common mood. The river is a joyful place! And the shoals give you a chance to share that joy more intimately. Someone might kick up a campfire, get some kebabs going. There’s probably some beer bongs, and hell, you might be able to rig up a real rustic game of beer pong, too. Or Ring of Fire. Hell, I dunno—use what’s available. Enjoy the other people. Shotgun, wrestle—hell, you know how to do this. Just be drunk on the little beach and enjoy it, man! Relax, recharge, and get back on the boat, perhaps not even your boat, or perhaps your boat with a whole new crew. Whatever. Float on.
Stop at all of them if you want. Sometimes they’ll be bumpin’. Sometimes they’ll be empty, if such is the river’s will. This is a journey where you have a choice—where in the confines of the river, you can do whatever you want. One long, long trip, I just fell asleep for, like, two hours. It wasn’t an awesome thing to do, but it was necessary. Those Bud Light Limes go down so easy. I had the choice, and I indulged—consequence-free and the better for it.
On a float trip, like a pub crawl, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it, and out in nature, that feels freeing. How many times have you bent your spine over a bartop, brooding with Jameson and a Guinness, trying to be contemplative, but someone won’t stop blasting John Cougar Fucking Mellencamp? Imagine just…the birds, the trickling water, laughter, the spills and thrills, the song and smells of summer. It makes me shiver. There’s your place for contemplation. Renewal via alcohol, in the sun and soft, warm breeze. The water of life abundant.
Which brings me to my third, last, and most resonant point in the case for float trips.
THE SOUL—Yes, the soul.
Bleeeuuugh, ahhhggh, play Enya and some pan flute, why don’t you, Sarah Shithead, pretentious poetical putzface. I know. Roll with me. I’m talking about camaraderie, I’m talking about nature, I’m talking about how there’s no such thing as Summertime Seasonal Affective Disorder. These are simple joys, and simple joys are what keep us, in life, from tossing a parking meter through the window of a bar at 4am, because to hell with waiting, to hell with it all.
It is, I’m starting to find, not particularly easy as an adult to get a whole bunch of friends together for a fun, boozy, outdoor activity, especially those more physically taxing and intense in their equipment requirements like camping, hiking, or just walking in nature. It’s even hard to get a decent group together to play baseball, which I find tragic, and bafflingly un-American. Everyone should always want to do that.
These are all great beer-pounding activities—no one contests that. But in this workaday world where death is inevitable, no one has money, and there’s always something wrong with my goddamn truck, it can be hard to work yourself up for physical, tiring, day-in-the-sun sort of fun—much less a dozen-odd other people. Likewise, trips to the lake or the biggest nearby pool can grow inert more quickly than you’d think, despite the fact that people are much more likely to turn out for that kind of low-impact, undemanding, definitely boozy time.
The float trip strikes a happy balance, and that’s what makes it perfect. It asks just enough of you to feel exciting but is simple enough to complete while in total blackout. It’s not difficult to row—the river does a lot of that for you. It’s not expensive. It’s communal, and boozy, different every time, and truly, very fun. The goal unifies everyone—no one can leave until it’s over, and if you want to continue, continue elsewhere, back on land, with a midday afterparty! The shoals break up the rhythm, with your freeform stops and starts. And your soul will be enriched, become embiggened as your liver, but full of sunshine instead of whiskey. You blend all that together? Now that’s a potent cocktail.
We’ll shove off with some parting advice—if you have the option of multiple routes, take the short one. I like six miles, but use your best judgment, and do not assume that more is necessarily better. Ask while you’re renting. Because you know what ruins a great float trip? Being stuck on one that’s going on too long. There’s a pretty good reason why roller coasters don’t last a half hour. As with all you can get up to in life, everything in moderation.
So—fellow no-coasters, or the tourists, the intrigued: follow these steps, adopt this mindset, have some decent friends, and you’ll have a damn good time. The Illinois, for instance, is a serene and placid river, with clear water, and smooth rocks. As nature goes, this river is tame. Someday this summer, find a river of your own and get out on it while you can. Bring a thousand beers with you and make that river run wild.