“A river is a metaphor for life,” my friend Ida announced staunchly.
I grasped my paddle a little tighter and turned to look at her across the bright red raft on which we sat with three friends. All five of us were part of a rafting trip down the Youghiogheny River in Ohiopyle, PA, and were currently drifting in a moment of calm. In the absence of the sound of crashing water, Ida’s voice was so loud it nearly echoed.
“In life,” Ida continued, glaring at a jagged rock and cutting her paddle past it, “there are many obstacles. Obstacles that you sometimes have to work around. In life — ”
She paused. A few golden fall leaves scattered into the water from the riverbank.
“Oh, forget it,” Ida said. “Take it back. I’ll stop.”
Too tired to answer, I turned back to the helm and dug my paddle in.
I had not quite known what I was getting into when I signed up for a rafting trip with Wilderness Voyageurs and four friends. What I do know is that I am apparently interested enough in tubing for it to cloud both my judgement and my mind. When the suggestion had been raised in late September to go rafting on October 5, I blissfully decided that “tubing” was another word for “rafting” because both included rubber things and a river, and that “rafting” wasn’t dangerous unless the words “white water” were spoken in haughty tones in front of it.
I was wrong. After asking my group how splashy our jaunt would be, we arrived in Ohiopyle, I was handed a helmet, we were lead through training, and a group of 50 of us were walked to a river that included 7.5 miles of class II-IV intermediate white-water rapids.
I didn’t expect a trip that was the equivalent of Hersheypark’s Canyon River Rapids but without the park. I didn’t expect that I’d sit at the helm of our raft and yell, “In! In!” to keep my group’s paddle strokes in unison while guides stood from rocks and yelled, “All left! Leftleftleft! Everybody in, everybody IN!” to help us maneuver the current. And I definitely did not expect, after hitting Swimmer’s Rapids about 2.5 hours in, that my group would be careening toward another rock-lodged raft, that we would valiantly try to avoid them by flipping ourselves, and that a powerful claw of water would whisk me backwards downstream away from the others, choking and gasping amid the spray of white foam and roaring froth.
I should say that, when rafting, being washed downstream is not abnormal. Over the course of our trip, many groups spilled a passenger or even more. I was actually — dare I say — fairly safe, for as my body tossed through the rapids, I was wearing a heavily-padded life vest and knew to keep my feet up to avoid getting lodged between hidden rocks.
However, never have I felt as helpless as I did when the solidness of my raft gave way to a cold plunge, when the sound of my own splash was lost amid the roar of the rapids, when I was thrown toward rocks only to be currented around them with the leaves that had fallen on the river’s edge. And when my body finally slowed into a pool of calmer water where other rafters had paused for further instruction, hands and paddle edges extended just beyond my reach until two women grasped the straps of my life vest and heaved me, dead-fish like, onto the red rubber of their raft floor.
This river is a metaphor for life.
Last year around this time, I wrote about the complexity of making decisions and what I learned when choosing to plunge; however, rafting was a new experience. When skydiving, the only thing I had to do was chose to fall, and that one decision was hard enough. However, rafting required a series of decisions — maneuvering, directions, strokes — and was dependent not just on me but on my friends and the thick glossy power of the water.
When paddling through the rapids, I gritted my teeth and stared hard in the foam, trying, unsuccessfully, to maintain my focus as if that control would also control my fear. I called out commands to my raft mates and yelled, “We’ve got this next drop!” before we’d reached it, for if I said it out loud it would have to come true. I know that I can be powerful within crises, but what I did not know that I would lose that power when each rock was another unknown, and that once my body was thrown downstream with a force greater than anything I’ve ever felt, I would not remember how to breathe.
But the water pooled into calm, and I was pulled out by strangers’ hands. And when my own raft reappeared in the distance paddled by two of my four soaked and shaken teammates, we climbed back in, nodded to one another, and picked up our paddles. There were miles still to go.
Wilderness Voyageurs, Ohiopyle, PA, October 2013