The Zen of Whitewater and Black Holes

Behind the fabulous raft trip in my previous post was my knee injury I had sustained last spring on a hike by twisting my ankle on a rock. The “no big deal” turned into months of pain.

My orthopedic surgeon told me not to go.”I’m going “ I told him.  He looked at me sternly and said “be sure you have  someone help you in and out of the raft.”  No worries.  In my mind, my knee was already shot.  Why stay home and be depressed while missing a trip of a lifetime.  Plus, it’s hard to injure yourself by watching the scenery go by in a raft.  Yes, there was that white water kayaking but I am experienced and the guides took care of all the camp chores.  No regrets. ( I did purchase that Life Flight insurance beforehand, though.)

The MRI results came in after the trip- worse than I thought.  I had a stress fracture in the head of my femur and a fully torn medial meniscus in my left knee.  My doctor said he didn’t think he could do anything for me.  WHAT?  “Stay off of it for four months and see me after the first of the year.”  Now I had already been severely impacted for months and this news was devastating.  I thought I’d have laparoscopic surgery and then presto!-be good as new.

Having a serious injury or illness is a humbling experience.  One day you’re fine and the next your life is turned upside down and full of pain. Walks are a thing of the past.  Daily chores seem monumental. Currently, I’m hobbling around on crutches hoping that the new doctor I will see soon is more creative and compassionate than my former one.

I’ve had numerous traumas in my life –  “black holes” I call them, fraught with frightening unknowns. This qualifies as one. Will I get my life back anytime soon? To get out of black holes it helps me to use a whitewater kayaking analogy.  It’s the same skillset I use in a big rapid but it also works to keep me from psychologically tipping over.

  • Gather my confidence.
  • Have on all my safety gear but rather than a helmet, floatation vest, first-aid kit, and a rope bring along friends and family, a journal, meditation, and spirituality.
  • Research the river ahead of time – research the condition.  Don’t rely on the medical profession to explain everything..
  • Keep up my momentum – my boat is more stable than I think.
  • Go with the flow.
  • If I tip over, hang onto my boat and paddle, find an eddy, and rest before getting back in.  It’s hard to be up all the time.
  • Get back in and keep on paddling – hard.

Aging, injury, trauma –  it’s all a wild ride.

Class 3

The sound of big water

I sit upright

pulse quickening

paying full attention with my body

the rapid comes into view

I spot my line

scouting for boulders, whirlpools

obstacles

that could flip my boat

The current grasps me firmly

taking me up, down, up, down

waves splashing over the bow

drenching me with exhilaration

as I paddle with intention

through a chaos of whitewater

knowing if I keep my balance & focus

my kayak will find its way to calm waters

where I turn

look upstream

raise my paddle with both hands

and laugh

On the Lower Salmon River, Idaho

Artwork by the author

Visit my other blog about living sustainably at onesweetearth.blog

Notes on a Wild River

Me enjoying the scenery

The Salmon River in Idaho is the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48.  Its unpolluted waters cut through rocky canyons dotted with white sand beaches, and peppered with exciting rapids and a plethora of wildlife.

Earlier this Sept. my spousal equivalent and I had the privilege of joining other family members to spend 4 nights and 5 days on this lovely river on a fully guided raft trip courtesy of Salmon Raft based in McCall, ID.  A fully guided trip means that a group of lively 20 somethings take care of all your needs- among them navigating the rafts, cooking fabulous meals, doing the dishes, and loading and unloading your gear.  Our crew were champs, always smiling and gracious even after a long day of rowing. I was a raft guide as a young woman one summer in Arctic Alaska so I know how hard a guide can work.

Jack, one of our fearless raft guides

The gear boat went ahead in the morning so when we arrived at our campsite everything was set up including our tents. Our job was to enjoy the view from the rafts, learn about the geology, wildlife, and history from our guides, swim, and fish.  Two small inflatable kayaks called “duckies” were available for the more adventuresome. We are kayakers so paddling these little “sport car kayaks” were a highlight of our trip.

With a knee injury, I had to pass on a hike to a historical cabin and a bit of cliff jumping but I did get to a waterfall close to the river.  We spotted several bands of big horned sheep and a golden eagle overhead. I read the stories of the rocks in the canyons of columnar basalt and serpentine imagining their formation during volcanic time millions of years ago as we floated past. Then the ever changing river was captivating, from placid swirls of current and eddies to raucus rapids. Going through them were like wet bucking bronco rides waves spashing over us as we hung on laughing.

In camp, we read, napped, and enjoyed pleasant conversation during meals and over cards and games of dominoes.  There was no cell phone service. We were blissfully unplugged and relaxed.

Columnar basalt on the river

I so enjoyed the comradery of this trip, the chance to be fully immersed in nature, kayaking through rapids, poking around on the beaches for interesting rocks and treasures, and the opportunity to just BE. It’s a treat to go to sleep to the lullaby of a river and wake to the call of canyon wrens announcing a new day. Why go on a cruise when you can enjoy the magic of a wild river?  I highly recommend it.

a farewell gift I made for our guides

Lessons From a River

“A good river is nature’s life work in song.”
― Mark Helprin

River doodle by the author

If there is one place that will give me a sense of peace, it is in the presence of a river.  Besides being beautiful, rivers have an uncanny way of calming the spirit no matter what kind of dither you are in.  In the infinite haiku of moving water, we can let go.

Clear Lake, Oregon

My favorite river in Oregon is the McKenzie.  It is born from an underwater spring in Clear Lake high in the Cascade Mountains out of Eugene. From Clear Lake, it tumbles down a fantasy of waterfalls, disappears for a bit into the lava bedrock, and reappears in Blue Pool, a deep touramaline pool that gathers all kinds of visitors to admire its beauty. Eventually, the McKenzie becomes a big river. It tumbles down from the mountains in a sparkle of rapids, calming as it flows into farmland before it flows into the Willamette..

Upper McKenzie R. waterfall

Every year we take a trip on the fourth of July to camp by the McKenzie.  Part of that trip includes one or two runs down the river in our inflatable whitewater kayaks.  We skipped last year as my spousal equivalent had a series of knee surgeries.  We were both nervous about this year’s run down the river as our skills were rusty.  In the end, we both agreed that if we didn’t buck up and get out on the water we would never forgive ourselves.  There is the feeling of being by a river but being ON a river is the ultimate experience.

Off we went and in 50 yards hit a class 2.5 rapids, a rough way to warm up.  We paddled through the waves as they roiled up around us.  My adrenaline was buzzing until my mind and muscle memory kicked in and I thought to myself “oh yeah, I can do this!”  The following rapids were pure fun. We had lunch on a gravel beach with wildflowers around us.  It was a memorable run and probably will be the high spot of our summer.  I’m so glad we got over our fears. 

Rivers are great teachers, so full of metaphors.  Here are a few lessons I have learned from my numerous rides on their liquid paths…

Pick a run that matches your ability but is still challenging.

Have at least one buddy that will watch your back.

Go with the flow- watch where the main current is.  It takes less effort.

Keep your sights to where you want to go.  If you fixate on a rock, you will hit it.  Aim to the side.

Stay committed in tough water and paddle with intention.

Find a peaceful eddy and take a break now and again.

Enjoy the scenery.

You will fall out of your boat occasionally.  It’s okay.  Get back in and keep on going.

The river is always changing.

The white water is what you’ll remember most.

The author

Alanna also blogs about sustainable living at One Sweet Earth