“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” ― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows
A river can be a quirky hostess, one minute familial, the next adversarial. So it is when rafting on the Green River where, after miles of quiet floating, my ears perked to an ever so distant rumble, hinting that the river was tiring of the calm and was about to take us for a ride.
“Hang on,” yelled our river guide Kevin with a grin. Leaning hard against the river’s pull, the oars bent slightly and the raft heaved to, taking a line that would carry us clear of the rocks, but right into the heart of the maelstrom.
Heartbeats kept pace with the increasing speed of the raft as Kevin launched us into the jumble of waves. The raft bucked and heaved, so much so that in the middle of the rapid I managed to execute a nearly perfect back flip with a twist, landing smack in Kevin’s lap.
Kevin, his efforts to navigate our raft now obviously hampered by my presence grimaced “Unless you are particularly more comfortable here than where you were before, might I suggest you attempt a return?”
He needn’t have bothered because the next drop and assault of water provided the necessary impetus to place me remarkably near, albeit upside down, the very place in the raft where I had been seated previously.
Several sets of rapids later, I had completed a full tour of the raft and had managed to swallow several gallons of river water between the spasms of laughter that racked my body.
After reeling in the few hardy souls who ran the rapids, sans rafts, we nosed our tiny boats toward shore and the evening’s camp. The beach buzzed with energy fueled by leftover adrenaline as tents sprang up and the guides readied dinner.
It wasn’t long after the dishes were cleaned and the cooking fire had turned to glowing embers that the hum of voices and camp sounds faded, replaced by the distant, yet ever present thunder of rapids above our camp. As I lay in my sleeping bag, it felt as if the river was teasing me, tempting me to wrap my hands around a pair of oars and try my luck.
At dawn, I scrambled up a narrow path above willow-lined beaches to gaze on a sight I won’t soon forget. The early morning light had begun to caress the black and gray walls of the canyon with the gentleness of a mother awakening her sleeping child.
Far below my feet, probing fingers of light pushed their way onto the boulder-strewn beach and our river camp, bringing it to life. Several redtails were already wheeling and diving among the sunbeams – searching for chocolate-fattened mice from the night before I imagined. It was time to head back to the river.
As Kevin pulled the last gear line taut, he looked up at me, patted the boatman’s seat and grinned. “You were so eager to sit here yesterday that I thought I would take a break and let you paddle. Is that OK?”
I nodded with nervous excitement. Kevin pushed the raft into the current and leapt in. “I’ll play, you paddle,” he said, reaching for his guitar.
Grasping the oars, I began pulling us firmly, convincingly out into the main current. It felt good as I leaned back, pulling on the oars with strength and confidence, but somewhere between good and whatever was to follow, my oars missed the river. My body, surprised at the lack of anticipated resistance launched itself out of the seat with legs flailing and oars flying.
“The idea when you paddle is to place the oars in the water, then pull,” Kevin commented coolly as he pushed me back into the seat with one hand while holding his guitar with the other. “You don’t need to pull quite so vigorously on the oars anyway. The key is to work with the river, not against it.”
I tried hard to ignore the burning of embarrassment as I sat in the boatman’s seat again, feeling a little more awkward and clumsy than I had moments before. I spent the morning at school — playing, pulling, pushing, zigzagging this way and that, trying to get a feel for the river and the raft.
White froth among scattered boulders in the distance coupled with an ominous rumbling announced an upcoming rapid. I looked to Kevin who simply smiled, making no effort to take control.
“You’re doing great and the rapids are small. Want to give it a go?”
Perhaps it was imagined, but I sensed the others in the boat grabbing for handholds and hooking toes under available gear — anything to feel secure. Certainly not a strong endorsement of my nomination as captain for the rapid.
Clenching my teeth, I lined up the boat as Kevin instructed, not too far right, but far enough to avoid the apparent keeper hole and rocks that beckoned.
“Once you pass that hole,” Kevin warned, “put your back into it and pull us away from the rock wall. The main current will whip you through from there. If you hit the wall though, we’re all going for a swim.”
The rapid was only a Class III, Kevin could have run it in his sleep. But, for me this was the moment of truth. The first hole shot by to the left, jagged boulders sneering at me. I leaned into the oars for all I was worth as the wall of rock loomed large and angry.
We weren’t going to make it, no way. Every second began to play out before me in slow motion as the raft bucked and churned toward fate. I struggled to block out the roar of the rapids, chorusing my lack of skill as a boatman to all who would listen as I pulled against the river, shoulders screaming, muscles burning. Just as the wall appeared ready to gobble up rubber and flesh and spit the broken pieces back to the water, the river acquiesced; snatching the raft away and shooting us wet and happy out of the foaming waters and into calming eddies below.
Nervous grips loosened among the passengers as Kevin slapped me on the back, nearly knocking out what remaining breath I had left.
“You did well, ‘specially for someone who couldn’t seem to stay in his seat earlier,” he enthused.
I was still grinning the grin of a victor as our raft bounced off the lone rock occupying a 30-foot wide span of river. It was a necessary jolt, reminding me that I must stay connected to the river to run with it. I dipped the oars into now quiet waters, somewhat wiser, definitely sore, certainly happy.