Sundays in 8th grade were pretty boring. Especially in winter. Our favorite indoor spots were closed, and it was too snowy and cold to do much outside except maybe walk around and smoke.
One Sunday in January Mike had an idea. His dad worked at an ad agency; They’d been given a bunch of outdoor swag by a client, including an inflatable raft. The plan was to get a ride out to Bemis woods in the morning, blow up the raft, and spend a lazy winter’s day floating down Salt Creek.
Even in the dead of winter, Salt Creek didn’t freeze. Maybe that’s because it wasn’t water. We thought of it more as a sewage cocktail, mixed with runoff and a dash of effluent, oozing down to the Chicago Sanitary Canal. We’d been warned not to fall in, or risk being infected with 22+ diseases.
Salt Creek wound it’s way through the Cook County Forest Preserve, a network of protected wooded zones spread out across Chicagoland. Originally designed as an urban oasis, by the 1980s it had become a no-man’s-land and reputed playground for mobsters and serial killers looking for a quiet place to dump a body.
We were in for a surprise. Apparently a 2-person river raft requires a lot of air, and we didn’t have a pump. Instead we unrolled it on the snow and took turns blowing into it until we were dizzy. Eventually the head rush was so bad that we decided to stop. We figured it was inflated enough to float us home.
Which it did, sort of. Lying on our backs, we drifted under highways and along hidden tracts of land for about an hour, until the boat got stuck on the shallow bottom. At that point we had to step into the creek with gym shoes and push. Without hats or gloves, and nothing to keep us warm except Irish coffee and cigarettes, we got cold.
The situation devolved. In our minds, we were lost at sea, stranded in a raft without means for rescue. The boat deflated and sank. We climbed out in the middle of the woods and our feet were numb. Abandoning ship, we hobbled back to Mike’s parent’s house, which was surprisingly close. I ran up to their bathroom and thawed my frozen feet in the tub, watching my toes shift from bright white to blazing red.
I borrowed some dry clothes from Mike and walked home. Sundays weren’t boring any more.