The River

Growing up, I spent a fair amount of time white water rafting with my family. We traversed most of the rivers available in California and beyond: the Kings, the Kern, the Merced, the Tuolumne and the various forks of the American river.

Rapids are graded on a scale of one to six, with one’ being the smallest amount of turbulence imaginable and sixes’ being rapids that you’re legally prohibited from traversing… the likelihood of injury or death being judged too high. For all rafting, you wear a life preserver. For class fives, you also wear a helmet.

On a particular class five (I think it was on the Merced) the other front rower and I fell out of the raft and into the water.

When you swim’ a rapid, there’s some things you’re supposed to do. Getting back in the raft (if you can do it safety) is the best option; if nothing else it grants you a lot of insulation between yourself and the various stones the river has been trying to break or move for the last hundred years. If you can’t get back in the raft, you’re advised to concentrate on keeping your head above water, keeping your feet out in front of you, relax/stay loose, and if you bump up/into anything push off with your feet so as to avoid getting battered/stuck between a boulder and the onrushing current. Since I was unable to get back in the boat, I more or less did that second thing. The river knocked me around some, but I got spat out on the other end of rapids not really any worse for wear.

The other rafter… he went with a different option. When he went into the water and couldn’t get back in the raft his first, his only thought was to get to shore. This is understandable given that that’s *usually* a pretty good strategy to avoid drowning. And, he was a strong enough swimmer that he made it. Only problem was, that river kicked his ass; his body was bruised from dozens of impacts, his face was shoved into and out of the water as so he couldn’t catch his panicked breathing. He saw his death in that river. And as he huddled on the round, watersmooth stones of the shoreline, shivering, with all color drained out of his face he decided he was done. He yelled he was hiking back to camp, and –as far as I know- he never rafted again.

I think a lot about how critical it is to fight for what’s important, sometimes even fighting when you know you can’t win just to train yourself or because it’s the right thing to do. Because sometimes to ‘win’ means to be a hardass, to fight tooth and nail and claw out a victory by struggling for every inch. I think that’s the right approach for a lot of human scale problems; most of the problems we make for ourselves and the problems we make for one another. But in this case I think that other rafter, choosing to fight was the wrong choice.

The river was/is bigger and older and stronger than either of us. We could fight it, maybe even get to shore but I always felt like it was a better option to just go with it, let the river move me how it was gonna move me while keeping my airway (mostly) clear, my skull from striking against something, and my body from getting tangled & stuck. Even if I could have beat’ the river, it would have been at terrible cost. So sometimes, even when I’m terrified, I remind myself to take a breath, keep my head above the water, and keep my feet downstream.

Because the rapids will be over soon enough.

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