“Everybody got their lines?”, I ask.
“Yup”, they respond, some looking more sure than others. We trudge back to our fragile craft, looking within, seeking nerve, strength, cajones.
Most of us need to take a crap, bad.
I silently untie my boat, wrapping up the coils nice and tight, and clipping them on so they won’t come loose into a dangerous, wild watersnake should something go haywire. My little ritual. I try not to think about my line, my passengers, or what’s for dinner. Calm reflection. Gentle, inner quiet. While on the outside of my skull and skin, the river roars and foams, expectant. Yin and Yang. A meditation.
The passengers are also rather expectant. However, they’ve learned real quick not to ask dumb questions in these eddies above huge rapids. When I’m ready, I’ll talk.
I check my rope, my oars, make sure everyone’s helmets and life jackets are secure, then check my own. I dip in the water to my neck, holding on to the gunwale, unless its butt-ass cold outside, in which case I just wipe my wet hands over my face and neck. Getting used to the cold embrace before the spray hits. Maybe just a little superstition, having to do with respect. Respect for something greater than ourselves.
“You guys ready?”, I ask my boat full of tingling spines. Along the shoreline, at every boat, each and every one of my pards are, at present, doing something rather similar.
“OK, here we go.”
And I shove, trying to leap into the boat–now sliding away from me–from the steep, sandy bank with a semblance of grace. Typically, its more like “HI MOM! I’M HOME!” (bang, crash).
Grab the oars, one at a time, settle in my rowing seat, have a look around, checking lines, making sure my folks are holding on tight, focused. Close my eyes, take a deep breath. Look downstream.
The world drops away. As does the fear in my belly. As does the river, down there where all that spray is spitting up from that brink we’re slowly accelerating towards. No matter. All is just as it should be. A few adjustment strokes, maybe a push or pull to get out of the eddy and out into the current, and wait. Smell. Listen. Breathe. Eyes and senses alert.
“Okay. Remember, guys”, I say to the back of the two helmets leaning forward in the bow. “We’ll be sideways, maybe a little backwards at first. That’s on purpose.” The helmets nod. I know the ones behind me are nodding, as well. Lips tight, eyes wide, anal clench.
“I’ll hit that first wave and I’ll be sounding like Andre Agassiz. If we slide over the top, and I’m silent, we’re good.” Another nod.
“If you hear me say something like “shit” or “damn”, hold on. We’re going to have a ride.” Nothing.
“If I start swearing like a sailor and throwing F-bombs, I apologize in advance. Its totally unconscious. I’m from Chicago. But that means we’re going big. Real big. Be ready to high side at any moment. I’ll probably be talking to you, either way, but best to anticipate the waves and lean hard into them before they hit us. I might get kinda busy. I might not even be in the boat.” Again, nothing. But I know they heard.
Then, there is this overwhelming sense of timelessness. The Great Pause. The sun shines above, the cliffs hover, the green riverside vegetation rustles and shines, and the water sparkles like little jewels and floats our souls. Intoxicating.
There is a certain moment where it hits you. My boat has been more or less set up in the angle I want, but now I bend towards the threshold, squinting. Adjustment stroke here and there, trying to get it perfect. Kinda like life.
The world pulls into some connection I cannot explain between me and my boat, and a certain spot in the universe that I’d better hit dead-smack on. I see nothing, hear nothing else. Like The Native Eye of Barry Lopez, if a thunderbolt strikes outside of my focused world, I will be instantly aware, tinglingly ready. But there is a voice, speaking to me. I’ve been lucky enough to have heard this voice, and listened just enough to survive, from a very early age. It was the only one I could hear, then. At least the only one I would pay attention to.
Now its time for action. Its all in the timing. Pull too early, get a little eager, lose your poise, and you may end up in a world of foam and moving like a cannonball, no solid ground under you, boat rocking like an earthquake, oars torn from hands and tossed like a rag doll either onto your wooden rails or into your passengers laps (much to their surprise) or, most heinously, into the drink. Meanwhile, all they know is water. Burly, unforgiving, tsunami-like waves crashing over their heads, one after the other. They don’t even know if we’re still upright. A fragile craft tossed in a perfect storm. Hopefully, they’ve learned to lean into it, like a body-surfer heading out to sea and diving under the waves. If not, and someone leans away, we get low-sided and overturn. (Its not my fault).
Pull too late, and you’re simply not going to get there. Okay, maybe you still have a chance to recover. But in that case, you’re yanking your guts out, frantic to pull your boat over a moving torrent of potent, purposeful liquid. Its important to sense, way deep down, when to quit. When to submit and turn your boat head-on into what’s coming. Maybe you can’t fight your bow around and your boat is backwards. Fine–just don’t fight it. Otherwise you’ll be sideways, which is not a good way to be. Hit it straight and impel, yearn, will yourself over the top. Hopefully, your “intelligent weight”–your passengers, comrades in arms–are doing the same.
I saw a raft once, hit the “Old Crystal Hole” at the biggest water anyone alive had ever seen. Glen Canyon dam was near to bursting. We were secretly praying it would, but with enough warning so we could run uphill six-hundred feet and watch the tsunami from the clifftops, cold beer in hand.
We were on the shuddering shore, observing the carnage. They missed their line. We boatmen knew it right off, though the clients were cheering them on. Two people were on their knees in the bow of the boat, holding on to the lines on the outside perimeter, leaning over the near-vertical tubes, ready. The boatman, hopelessly flailing, never gave up, even after their sixteen foot craft slid up onto the clean, green face of the thirty foot wave.
Their boat stood, for a moment, transfixed by its fate, surfing halfway up, water arcing off the oar blades, boatman straining forward on the handles, the two high-siders facing forward, which at that moment was, in actuality, pretty much up towards the sky and a circling buzzard. What a stunning image it was.
That boat and those spirits and the mountainous water. It lasted forever. Okay. Fifteen or twenty seconds. We held our breath, but it was not to be.
Funny thing was, all of us on shore knew they had screwed the pooch at the exact same moment the boaters did. Combined wills notwithstanding, the high-siders heads whipped around, looking over their shoulders, down into the maw to their left and upstream (and down in elevation, oh, maybe fifteen feet). So did the boatman who was still clutching his oars. So did we.
And it slid down that liquid mountain, against the current but downhill, looking like a surfer in one of those Hawaiian monsters, so fast it seemed to be sucked into hell on Gods command. Whp! Gone. Pretty impressive.
Some time later, it reappeared about twenty feet left of where it had disappeared, and about thirty feet higher, spat out the top of the wave like a sunflower seed, clearing the water, and doing a perfect backwards somersault with a twist, to disappear underwater once again. It later emerged far downstream, upright, to our whoops and hollers. Unfortunately, the former occupants had already surfaced in their life jackets and were around the corner and gone.
But I digress (as boatmen will).
If you’re on your line? There is a point where you just know. It may change with water levels. It may, perhaps, change with experience and age. But its there, and you can sense it. You can know it deep in your bones like when my momma saw my dad at that party for the servicemen about to go to the Philippines and whispered to herself “That’s the man I’m going to marry”.
Calmly, just loud enough to hear over the forgotten roar, “Okay. We’re good. Just keep doing what you’re doing and we’re good.”
Much better than “F………k! HOLD ON! WE’RE GOING BIG!”
Waves crash over the bow, splash over the sides, the boat tilts crazily in a confusion of water. The clients can’t really tell which way they’re moving. Boom! Underwater. Breathe. Boom! Under again. Breathe. Look out! Boom! Hold on and trust. That’s what I’m doing, anyway.
They hear the calming voice of their guide. That ageing hippie they couldn’t believe they were entrusting their life to only days or hours before.
“We’re good. Here comes one on the right. Hold on. Lean right. Good.”
And, at long last (oh, maybe twenty or twenty five seconds), you can see again. Spit out the water. The world is coalescing into something more like a place one could weather. Maybe even inhabit.
Which is about the time you start hearing the whoops and laughter, shouts of joy and life. Not long after that, you realize that some of that was you. The boat is gently rocking and rolling, amongst cliffs and sky and trees and other human beings. And that dang buzzard up there, too, still waiting.
And this is what life is all about. Not death, but the nearness of it. The recognition and sweetness of just that simple act of breathing in, breathing out. Slaps on backs. Laughter shared. Risks taken. One clean, neat shot, just so much.