White-water rafting is one of the fastest-growing sports, combining adventure, danger and fun. It's becoming competitive too, and before long there's likely to be some kind of international championship.
Meanwhile, it's big business. In the United States alone, more than 300 companies run expeditions lasting from a few hours to a week. On the Kennebec river in northern Maine this year, about 30,000 people will pay dollars 75 each (about pounds 40) for the dubious pleasure of being tossed around in an inflatable boat like a wasp trapped by urchins in a lemonade bottle.
I started to get frightened about the time they repeated the safety lecture and came round on the riverbound bus with yet another indemnity form. Northern Outdoors, which offers a variety of rugged pursuits for backwoods romantics, pioneered rafting trips down the Kennebec 16 years ago. I expected them to make the five-hour jaunt sound as cushy as a cruise down the Thames. Instead, they warn upfront: this river can be more dangerous than a teenage hoodlum with an Uzi.
The Kennebec is normally a wide, low river, the water trundling through at 140 cubic feet per second. But daily demand on the nearby hydro-electric station raises the flow as high as 6,000 cfs - and that's when the trickle turns into a foaming, hissing torrent. Waves as high as 15ft are created where the river rampages into underwater rocks. It is vital to paddle hard through these, or the backwash can turn the eight-person rafts over like a gambler flipping a coin.
'Usually one or two people will fall out,' Russell Walters, who manages the company, said. 'We have safety procedures when this happens. Don't panic. Just try to breathe normally and float downstream feet first. The life-jacket will keep you afloat and the crash helmet will protect your head.'
Ages range from 12 to 60 and occasionally people even older will sign up. 'We had a group of women where the youngest was 57, the oldest 76,' Walters said. 'When we hit the first rapids, they stuck their heads in the bottom of the raft and screamed. We just got through.
'I warned them that if they didn't paddle, we would have to abort the trip, and they apologised. But when we came to the next rapids, the same thing happened. I screamed: 'Ladies, if you don't start paddling in the next 10 seconds, we're all going to die.' They did so just in time.'
Walters, a top canoeist who left Windsor to find wilder water than the Thames could offer, crewed our boat himself. The other six included an insurance claims adjuster, a legal secretary and a member of the FBI who looked like Burt Reynolds. Nobody had done it before, so we were unprepared for the speed at which the raft travels - and how wet you get. It is as if someone is hurling giant cauldrons of cold water into your face.
Amazingly, there is little time to feel fear. You are too busy paddling and trying to predict the next bucketful to be frightened. The raft sways, bumps, even flips through the biggest rapids, which carry evocative names such as the Rock Garden, the Three Sisters, Z-Turn and Magic Falls. It's an exhilarating sensation, like surfing the wind. When you realise you are not going to die after all, there's a yearning to do it all over again.
The Kennebec is classified Class 4. The most dangerous, Class 6, is only for experienced rafters with state of the art equipment. 'If Disney was going to have a white-water rafting trip, it would be like the Kennebec,' Walters said.