Sunday, August 23, 2015

Rivers, Swift and Slow

Roaming the Snake River

Everywhere I have gone this summer the rivers have stirred me, whether it was in Iceland, Missouri, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, or Utah. Maybe it is because of the scarcity of rushing rivers in Qatar where I now live (yes, one of 18 countries that have no rivers). Perhaps it is because I like to fish with my family on a river. But it is also because a river's waters flow with unexpected beauty--that belies my imagination in every season and turn. They remind me of the constant motion of Life, with its ongoing swelling and ebbing. Sometimes there are gushing surges, and other times a trickling tributary becomes a river with white water rapids. The shallow, clear water that flows beside the deep, swift rapids are a reminder that Life is tenuous. Unanticipated twists happen on any river, and in any life. A river can be full of glimmering light, but also with shadows of concealing darkness.

Coming home from the rafting trip as the sun was setting

On a scenic river trip on the Snake River in the Teton National Park this summer, we were in a group of 22 people who were slowly gliding down the river. We had happily spotted beavers swimming next to our raft in the current, and bald eagles soaring above us. We even saw a moose about 20 feet away as we floated by on the raft. As we neared the end of the trip, we came upon an island where there was a fork in the river. A man was waving his hands wildly, calling out to stop our raft,  and a frightened young couple were behind him. We could see their clothes were drenched, and they were trying to keep warm. Our two guides, who were rowing a model of an old World War II raft, mightily tried to push their way over to the rocky shore. We could see the people's small fishing raft was punctured on a tree stump that was sticking out of the water.

As our two river guides rushed out to help the three people on the island, I noticed the rescued people's solemn, shocked faces as they tried to keep warm. When the young married couple climbed on our raft, we wrapped them in a blanket the guides had on the boat. A few people added their jackets for extra layers. There was even a hot thermos of water so they could drink a hot beverage. When they were warmed, the husband began to tell us why they were on the shore with their boat capsized. But his wife just sat silent, deep in reflection.

He said they had been pleasantly drifting down the river on a fly fishing boat (the kind where your feet are fastened to the raft like a seatbelt). Their pace was slow as they moved down the river, catching more than a dozen fish. Suddenly, their fishing raft was overturned when the raft hit a deep, swelling hole that hid some felled logs. The young woman's feet were stuck in the straps, and she could not breathe with the raft on top of her. The raft clung to her, and she was unable to escape. The husband said he frantically pulled with all his strength, but was unable to unloose her. The other man, their friend, was finally able to dislodge her from the footholds.

As the young husband spoke, we all felt an incredible relief, but also a sober realization that a dangerous situation had been rectified. Sometimes in our lives the proximity to death, for ourselves or for others, intersects. There is the immediate vulnerability--the sense that life can be reversed so very quickly, sometimes with hardly a warning. None of us are immune to the swift waters that can swallow us.

My son learning to read "the swift and slow" of the river with his fly fishing rod.
It seems every day of our lives we are on a journey down a river: sometimes almost motionless, with a sleepy stillness, and other times with a racing momentum where we can hardly hold on. The unpredictable nature of a river is magical, perplexing, alarming, calming. As my fly fishing friend instructed me, "You have to learn how to 'read the river' when you fly fish." But this summer I was reminded of the precarious nature of a river and of a life. A river is always changing its course, depth, and force. As we climb on our raft every day, we must be prepared for every twist and curve, and to stop for replenishment and an occasional rescue. Sometimes, and we never know when it will happen, we may be on the shore ourselves waving our arms wildly for a fellow rafter to stop for us.

Gazing at the Snake River's rough water with its wildness, power, and unpredictability.

My son whispered to me as we climbed off the raft, "I will never forget this rafting trip down the Snake River." I nodded and said, "Me too." To be nudged and reminded of our mortality sweetens the journey, adding a layer of new wisdom to our experience. Our scenic rafting tour was longer but filled with more than just mere beauty or pleasantries. We climbed off the raft with an increased desire to rescue, but also a renewed respect for a river.

I am trying to "read the river" with its ripples and rapids, but I also understand a little better the delicate nature of life--to love every second I get to be on the river. The journey on any river is that much more cherished with a loved one by my side.

Learning to navigate the waters with my son who has autism

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Fly Fishing

Don't laugh--fishing in a long skirt, on the way to dinner....

This summer I discovered a new passion: fly fishing. There is a contemplative adventure to swinging a pole with a flowing, designated rhythm--an art and athleticism that is quieting, but yet electrifying, all at the same time. It soothes the soul. The simple sway of the pole soaring above your head, and then placing the curved line onto the ripply water is pure mediation. To be on a river, stream, or lake, pole in hand, brings a oneness with the wilderness world surrounding you. As Thoreau once wrote, " Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after."

To hold a pole in your hand, and watch the slanted sun glisten as it dances on the swelling water elevates the endorphins in the brain. To be alone on the river with your thoughts or in silence with a companion ties you together, with a tangle that cannot easily be unloosed. And sometimes, if there is conversation, it is of the most salient variety--peppered with humor and wisdom--acquired only on the river and other special places. The hours of time, the chaotic pace we run with, slow down with a fishing pole. Somehow fishing moments are remembered with more clarity and vividness. As my son said yesterday on the river, it is not necessarily about catching a fish, but it is about "catching the happiness" that the moment offers.

Catching the happiness and the fish!

Navigating the river with three of my sons
I have "caught the happiness" many places this summer in the Teton Valley of Idaho, Star Valley, Wyoming, the Provo River on the way to Sundance Ski Resort in Utah, and in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Two weeks ago on the Snake River near Jackson Hole a friend recounted, "It is not only about the motion of a pole above your head that makes you good at fly fishing. It is about 'reading the water.' It takes years to understand the ripples, seams, shallow and deep spots on a river. Sure, it is important to know which insects are jumping in the season to tie onto your pole. But it is the constant 'reading of the water'' that is the barometer of a good fly fisherman. " This summer I am trying to "read the river" a little better--watching the quiet flow, anticipating the rapids, and delighting in the waterfalls.

The Pete, learning how to "read the river."

Watching a river for me is like gazing at a crimson fire on a star-filled night; it is mesmerizing, riveting, almost transfixing. The light and shadows, the shallow and deep ravines, and the interweaving creeks that merge unto The River all remind me that watching a river is like trying to understand Life. While I am on a river, I am hoping to catch a fish, but I know that just being in a quiet place, with a pole in hand, prods and revives my soul. As I watch the river gliding by, with the water winding around the creviced banks, I am beginning to understand how to "read a river." It is about standing apart from your own self, and trying to understand a bigger and more beautiful world that surrounds you--even if it is a minute buzzing fly.

Jonathan, my son, taking the time to "read the Mississippi River"--where he grew up.
In the stirring small book about fly fishing and his own family life, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Norman Mclean writes about his early life fishing on the Blackfoot River. His relationship with a rebellious brother was more loving, more understood because of their constant escape of fishing together--sometimes with their father, and sometimes just the two of them. Although his brother's reckless actions and ways often eluded him, their relationship was tied together with a line of a fishing reel.

Mclean's words at the end of his life when he wrote his autobiographical book summarize a lifetime of questions answered on the Blackfoot River: "Like many fly fisherman in western Montana where the summer days are almost Arctic in length, I often do not start fishing until the cool of the evening. Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise."

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs (his family's words). I am haunted by waters."

Yes, fly fishing is about "all existence fading" around you. The moments in a river can make all the difference.