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Finding Limits

City slicker takes on the great outdoors

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Stop me if you've heard this story before: city girl leaves the city to discover the wilderness and falls in love with the great outdoors. Well ... maybe "in love" is too strong a sentiment. How about "in strong like"?

First stop on my quest to find the outdoorswoman within was the Carolina Renaissance Festival, which seemed, at first, like just a reason to walk around in costume pre-Halloween. Boy, was I wrong. It was more like a reason to gorge yourself on gigantic turkey legs while strolling through Pooh's Hundred Acre Woods.

After adjusting to the first real exercise I've had in months, RenFest (as it's called by its many devoted fans) slowly charmed me. Cute young squires walked hand-in-hand with their fair maidens; beggars, drunks and fools (which reminded me a lot of home) were also on hand. And then, there were the pirates, oozing romance and danger with their devil-may-care attitudes and that certain gleam in their eye. And really, that's what the Renaissance Festival is all about: fantasy.

At no time was this fact more apparent than during the joust. The queen reigned over the event, sounding very much like Dame Judi Dench (who by the way, has played almost every British queen on stage and screen). In a duel to the death, Sir William de Bricassart, her champion, took on the crazed Frenchman (very politically correct, don't you think?) who sneered, laughed maliciously, and spat his way to villainous gold. One observer noted, "Oooh, he spits. I don't like guys who spit." Of course, she also wanted every man in the stands to be like Joe who bought her a $5 rose. To which one guy sarcastically responded, "Thanks, Joe." Who says chivalry is dead?

But, put the mythical code of ethics aside for a moment because in this world, a man would just rather play with his "balls" (not those -- the kind bouncing at the ends of strings ... oh forget it). To gypsy Manolete, morals are an afterthought while performing with his boleadoras -- or polished spherical stones attached to leather strips. In the hands of the former Cirque du Soleil dancer, the stones become both instrument and weapon. The tapping sound they generate makes a percussive beat on the wooden platform and he manages to do figure eights and crossovers without hitting himself in the head ... too much. But, his greatest trick by far was when he convinced a grown man with his family in attendance (including his very chatty daughter) to dress up as a woman, bend over, and allow him to knock a feather out of his mouth. Talk about big cojones!

As the sun began to wane and the temperature turned nippy, we headed toward the front gate past a vendor hut hawking, of all things, pterodactyl leather. Reminder: the basic concept here is fantasy, but, this was pushing it. As a result, our time in the past was abruptly ended with a healthy splash of reality.

Sometimes you need a quick splash, literal or metaphorical, to awaken the senses. But, what I experienced while whitewater rafting needed its own engineered term along the lines of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, except not as cute.

"Superhydronasal enemas," or SHYNEs as folks in the whitewater rafting world call them, occur when a gush of water splashes into every orifice it can find, especially the nose. Briggs, our river guide at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, was kind enough to introduce this all-natural technique for sinus cleansing during orientation, along with river rash and other maladies that could happen if you fall out the raft.

In this brief window of calm before the storm, I also met my raft team: Lyndon, Jana, Wanda, Joe, and Glenn, an after-work group from Scottish Re. As first impressions go, I think I made a pretty good one; while everyone else was dressed casually in shorts, I was a little more covered up in a wetsuit and a splash jacket. But once my raft mates got a taste of the incredibly cold water, they soon found out that you can never be too overdressed!

Keeping that in mind, coupled with the fact that I can't swim, my plan was simple: Stay in the raft. But that's easier said than done. Briggs started us off on the wimpier "Wilderness" course with just Class 2 and 3 rapids (this is on a 10-class system where 6 is described as "suicidal").

Lyndon and I were assigned the lead positions with the added responsibility of being able to see everything we were gonna hit, be it rock, rapid or kayaker. Did I mention we were surrounded by kayakers almost the entire time? This led to a couple of incidents, like when we thought a kayaker was in distress, but she was just testing her lung capacity upside-down for 10 minutes. "That was a woman?!" asked Lyndon, obviously impressed. Extreme matchmaking at its best.

When we hit the first rapid and it pushed the entire front end of the raft at least four inches into the air, I admit to being a little nervous, thinking "OK, I may fall in. Just remember what Briggs said in orientation: 'The paddle's T-grip handle has been known to cause "summer teeth" -- some of your teeth are in your mouth, some in the raft and in the river.' LOL! I'm a goner for sure." After making it through the entire course without losing anyone, we upped the ante and tackled the Class 3 and 4 "Competition" course with the added bonus of avoiding the slalom gates.

Here things got a bit more technical. Thank God for my two years of Naval Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps back in high school. Briggs yelled out commands and we all snapped to attention: "LEAN LEFT/RIGHT, FORWARD, BACK, LEFT FORWARD, RIGHT BACK, DOWN, RELAX." It was sorta how I would imagine sex with a Marine might be, except lying down. In our inflatable raft with feet wedged in weird positions, being blasted from all sides by huge amounts of water, the only thing between us and the brink was Briggs. Jana's words after we successfully completed each course, repeatedly, about sums it up: "Damn, you're good!"

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