With nothing more than a glorified inner tube between himself and the river, avid whitewater rafter John Hardman often spends his off hours staring down a churning funnel of water plotting how to master its angry eddies.
The ex-Kids’ WB! head, who is now working as a freelance producer in L.A., began his love affair with rafting on the American River near Sacramento, California, when a friend pulled together a group to try out the extreme sport. He was hooked immediately. ‘I’m an avid fan of water and rollercoasters, so I liked the idea that this was a big watery rollercoaster,’ he says. Since then, Hardman has ridden the rapids in California’s Cal Salmon, Pacuare in Costa Rica, as well as rivers in Belize and Mexico.
But it was last year’s trip to Tuolumne River in Northern California that really turned the tide. That spring, the river was running between 7,000 and 9,000 cubic feet per second – three times higher than normal. ‘I had never seen water like that before,’ says Hardman. ‘It just seemed bigger than you, even when you were standing on the bank.’ To navigate the crashing waves, the trip’s organizers called in expert guides, who embarked on a test-run down the channel in a supply boat. Filled with camping equipment and food, the boat immediately flipped over.
Without thinking, the team jumped into two more boats (with Hardman riding in the front of one) to rescue their capsized mates. Experienced guides try to leave a lot of room between boats, but the difficult conditions meant Hardman was less than three feet away when the first rescue raft hit a hole in the water and went belly up. ‘The force of it flipped us right over and into the river,’ he says. The current tumbled Hardman underwater for what seemed like ages, before finally drawing him up underneath the boat. Just as he was attempting to push the raft away so that he could break surface and breathe, another rush of water came in, sweeping him under again. ‘By the time I came up, my lungs felt like they were bursting,’ he remembers.
The river swept Hardman downriver towards shore – but not the shore where the rest of the group had washed up. While his guides were helping the other 12 rafters back onto the boats, Hardman was sucked under again. ‘When I came up, I had no energy left. I could barely breathe,’ he says. ‘I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can hold on like this; I really think I may die.”
Luckily, Hardman hit a gentle current and managed to swim over and climb onto a rock, which he clung to for a few minutes, gathering his strength to make it to the edge of the water. He managed to scramble up on land, and an hour and a half later, his guides came to pick him up. ‘When they came around the corner, they found me sitting on a rock singing show tunes. I didn’t have a scratch on me,’ he says. The reunited crew was naturally jittery about trying the run again, but Hardman kept his cool. ‘They warned us it was dangerous, but it’s the risk you take.’ Unfazed by the experience, Hardman is in the midst of planning a weeklong New Year’s rafting trip to Ecuador.
Since leaving Kids’ WB! last summer, Hardman has been producing and story-editing on a freelance basis, working hard on Viz Media’s Zatch Bell series for Cartoon Network. He also just turned in the first draft of a pilot for Harmony Gold and Kickstart, and is developing three kids projects of his own.