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 belie 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

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