Less than twelve hours before my first flip, Sabrena asked me why I keep coming back to the river. I have a million reasons: it’s peaceful, it’s adrenaline-filled, it reminds me to be flexible and to accept plan B or C without attachment, it facilitates a confrontation with thoughts I’ve been trying to quiet but need to explore. It’s humbling.
When I mentioned humility, she laughed. “You like that?” she asked, with slight incredulity. “Yeah, I need it. We all do,” I responded with a smile.
We were a few days into Sabrena’s first river trip when we scouted the alley of adrenaline: a four-mile stretch of the Selway with steep canyon walls, few eddies, no beaches, four Class IVs, several IIIs and a couple IIs. The 50-foot-per-mile gradient coupled with a tributary, Moose Creek, that doubles the volume of the river, coalesce to create a quick-moving section of Idaho whitewater fraught with thrill. The fast water and the sheer canyon walls in this section make it impossible to stop and scout these rapids from the river. Instead, boaters walk two miles downstream from Moose Creek and scout from the trail above the canyon walls.
The day of the flip, we shoved off under a cool, gray, drizzly sky; bundled in our warm layers, we teemed with excited anticipation. The rapids sure look different from 150 feet above than they do at water level and our group relearned this quickly with two swimmers and a snapped oar leash in Double Drop, the first Class IV.
As the safety boat, I was last in our boat order. I watched the scene unfold from upstream, three boats away, feeling powerless to help. My adrenaline spiked and I pulled hard to keep my line. Winded and worried in the tailwaves, I eddied out with the rest of my group and tried to settle my heart rate.
The energy changed with the swimmers, as it does, particularly on a cold day. The excited anticipation turned to unsettled nerves.
When Sabrena asked, I told her with honesty, “Double Drop was the rapid I was most nervous about. I’m not as worried about Wa-Pootz or Ladle.”
From the trail above, Wa-Pootz looked like a wide-open tongue with a feature to miss on the bottom right. Pretty straightforward. Five minutes later, when we rounded the blind corner, I had no idea where my markers were. Am I too far left? Too far right? Where’s the feature I need to miss? Feeling disoriented, I set up to pull a downstream ferry angle. Suddenly, we took a wave over the left stern and I lost my angle. White was everywhere. The left tube flew up and the boat flipped in a flash.
That feature I needed to miss? I hit it.
I swam around the boat and counted heads. I saw Sabrena. I found Miranda. I gripped my boat and kicked in the general direction of shore. Eric yelled my name from the eddy. I looked at him, and then at the boat, and then downstream. There are only .2 miles between Wa-Pootz and Ladle. His shouts reminded me there are consequences downstream and that swimming my boat to shore was actually comical.
I actively let go.
As I swam to the eddy line, I ran through the list of gear I didn’t want to watch float away: the sweep kit, breakfast, toilet paper, my camera, the rain tarp, all of Britt and Cyrus’s beer, two crates of produce, my sleeping bag. By the time Cyrus pulled me into his boat, mine was already through Ladle and out of sight.
With fifteen years rowing and six professional guide seasons, I was one of the more experienced rowers on the trip. My most profound feelings at standing on shore without a boat were shock and disbelief, followed by guilt.
I felt a tumult of emotions as I climbed on Riely’s bag stack and scanned the dark water for the black underside of my boat as we moved through the remaining rapids. I replayed it again and again, wondering how. But also, all it takes out here is one missed stroke, or a too sharp ferry angle. There is inherent risk. It was going to happen one day.
Later that evening, when everyone was warm and dry, Sabrena looked at me with humor and asked rhetorically, “What was it you were saying about humility?” I smiled and nodded, because of course the river reminded me who is in control. Of course the river heard me when I said I wasn’t worried about Wa-Pootz. Of course the river took my 15 years and six seasons and said, “Really?” with a raised eyebrow.
We had a rainy layover day at Tango Bar which gave me time. I fiddled with my metal dry box lid that had ripped open and all contents lost. I stared at my two snapped oars and remembered the power the river holds. I confronted those feelings I didn’t want to think about, but needed to. I felt gratitude at being with a crew of competent, helpful, and supportive team members as I replayed plan C, and worked toward accepting the outcome. I thought about humility.
A week later when a fellow guide friend asked me how I was feeling, I wrote to her, “I feel sobered.” Then added, “And I want to go back.” She responded that it seemed logical. And it is.
For those who love the river those paradoxes exist and we crave them.
Photos: Ari Silverman and Alex White