Have you ever known a real “river rat?” Do you think you qualify? Would you be offended if you were called a “river rat?” It’s a term that seems to be degrading to most non-river people, but it’s a badge of courage to true “river rats.” Below you will find just a few traits deeply rooted in anyone calling themselves “river people.”
First, if you learned to swim in the river before you could walk, you have a great start at carrying the moniker of “river rat.” My son went on a canoe trip with me when he was just two weeks old. The guy launching us freaked out, strapping personal floatation devices all over little Jesse James’ car seat, telling me he thought I was crazy. He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. By the time the guy got done wrapping the child up, he could have held the Titanic afloat. I don’t think it was any coincidence that Jesse’s first word was “water.”
Next, if you have ever lived on the river continuously for more than two weeks, you might be classified as a “river rat.” While this feat might appear easy enough to a regular Joe, it is much harder than one would think. After two days, you start smelling like a fish. After four days, you can’t stand the sand in your sleeping bag. After five days, you are used to the sand in your sleeping bag, but the sand in your food is wearing down your teeth. After ten days, your sunburn has peeled twice, and you start to look like you fell asleep in a tanning bed. By fourteen days, you are talking to a soccer ball that has floated to shore and naming it “Wilson.”
If you have ever chosen to put fuel in your boat over fueling up your car, you can call yourself a “river rat.” I once had to siphon gas from my boat to put in my truck, just to get off the boat ramp. Boy, you want to upset other river people? Just run out of gas while launching your boat on a busy day at the harbor.
If you have ever dragged your flat boat on shore and flipped it over for shelter from a storm, you must be a friend of mine. More than once, our tent has filled up with water and a few times the trees all around me were falling everywhere in the storm. The obvious choice was to hide under the bow of the old flat boat. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it was better than getting clobbered by a tree while hiding in a tent.
Finally, if the river draws you to it like a magnet, you are truly a “river rat.” I have been all around the country working on printing presses, and every time I get too far from the mighty Mississippi river, I feel like something is missing in my soul. I ache for the sight of a big old barge dropping the river level, then raising it as it goes by. I miss the feel of mud between my toes. I long to be back along the banks of my river. This is what being a “river rat” is all about, having river water in your veins. Many people get out on the river to enjoy a warm sunny day on the beach. I am so glad they are out there, but until you have brushed your teeth in river water, until you have washed dishes with sand and mud, until you can shake your head and have sand fall out everywhere, you are not a true “river rat.”