I position the bright blue raft a little too far left in the river, but have run out of time for a correction. Excitement and fear rising in my chest, I grip the oars and hope we will hit the surging wave at the right angle. All I can do sometimes is hope.
“ALL FORWARD! PADDLE FORWARD!”
My voice is a high-pitched screech. I’m just as nervous as the folks seated in front of me. We crash over the rapid just inches away from a rock, bumping then sliding through. Frigid water careens over us. The right side of the raft dips a little too low pitching everyone to the side. Screams and laughter bounce off the rock face along the shore as my oar is jerked from the oarlock. I’ve got to keep the raft from hitting the next rock, but I have lost control. I grab for the oar, no one in the front of the raft notices my frantic scramble. My arm is wrenched forward as the current catches the blade of the oar, raft starts to spin. Oar snaps into place, head count, deep breath, back on track.
A little rattled, I let the water’s energy calm my racing heart. Breathe in. Breathe out. I watch the river’s ripples float past, never making the exact same shape, a constant dance of newness. In the front of the raft the clients laugh and make dinner plans. I ignore them for a minute. Turning my head left, I see layers of mountains backed up by a blue and white sky. For a second I am lost in them. A bald Eagle floats overhead. I make a quick prayer to the river, giving her my gratitude and asking for her protection, then snap back to reality, it’s time to have some fun.
Afternoon sunlight glints off the river’s surface, a myriad of sparkles spreading outward. We take turns telling jokes, travel stories and talking about our favorite sports. Our raft floats past fishermen, kayakers, other rafters, and beach goers in brightly colored swimsuits. We hoot, shout and holler back and forth. River people are their own breed. A whole community whose dominant intention is joy, excitement and appreciation. On the river, there is a silent agreement, we will always help someone in need. The stakes are too high to be individualistic. This quiet agreement creates a wonderfully eccentric harmony.
I wasn’t exactly sure what whitewater raft guiding entailed when I decided to take the job. I knew I could do it, whatever it was. I’ve never been afraid of the outdoors. The Zoo Town Surfers headquarters is located on the Alberton Gorge about thirty miles west of Missoula, Montana. There were several of us training to become guides, mostly men. Our first trip down the Gorge, an eleven mile stretch of the Clark Fork River with class II and III rapids, was terrifying, exciting and super cold. It was late May. Even dressed in wetsuits and dry-suits we were shivering. The summer spiraled out from that cold start into an exhilarating, exhausting and magic set of memories and lessons learned.
I learned: The river’s force can be lethal. There is no space for anything other than the task at hand. Letting go of control is inevitable as the river’s power propels the raft forward. There can be no fighting against, instead the flow must be ridden with trust, courage and ease. It is a deeply respectful partnership, river and guide, but both know, the river holds the power. Power of water surging onward, falling, cascading. The sound, the energy, the flow, tumbling toward its destiny. We’re all tumbling toward our destinies. Truths, moments, lessons constantly revealing themselves. The ripple, the current, can’t slow it down, must move at its pace or it will drown you. The river arranges her shores into rock faces, exposed pastel colors displayed on towering surfaces. Teaches us vulnerability is beautiful. Teaches us, there’s nothing wrong with turning inside out and showing what we are made of.