Sunday, June 10, 2012

Inevitability and Fear

     When asked if I have ever fallen out of a boat, my response is always, "We are all just in between swims." As any boater knows, this is solid truth. And, as any boating parent knows, our River children will someday take their first swim.
     I remember my first swim... I must have been about 7 years old, we were on day three of a Chama trip. My mom was rowing the cataraft. Our boat mates were Kelly (who was a year or two younger than me,) and her mom Linda. There was a kayaker surfing the hole at the bottom of a rapid. Oblivious to the raft barreling down on top of him, he didn't move. To avoid running him over, my mom made a last minute evasive maneuver, slamming a rock, which stuck us good. I had been sitting on a cooler, holding a loose strap end. The bump sent me head over heels backwards. I somehow managed to have hold of the boat, I don't remember if it was the loose strap tail still in my hand, or the frame, but I was holding on Tight! I remember thinking that I just needed to get myself back in the boat because Mommy & Linda were trying to get the boat unstuck and that was important! I remember being annoyed with Kelly when she started screaming "Mommy! Mommy! Lishy's in the water!" I was climbing in, I could do it myself & the moms were busy doing something important! Hurumph! Kelly's screams struck what I now know to be instant terror in the hearts of the moms & both came rushing over to the other side of the boat & pulled me in. The simple weight shift to the low side freed us from the rock they had been hauling on, and on we went down stream.
     I don't remember my dad pounding safety talks into my brain, I know I had a very good sense of River safety as a kid though, as well as a good understanding of currents, eddies, and swimming at a ferry angle. I do remember my dad making me swim allot of little rapids. I Loved it! I would swim a ripple, eddy out, hike back up, hop back in & do it over & over & over again! I think my parents prepared me well for my first swim, and consequently I handled it well. 
     I try my best to prepare my daughter for her inevitable first swim... I do pound safety talks into her brain, heck she hears my commercial speech often enough she'll probably have it memorized in another year or two! She helped me give the safety speech to her cousins today. It was their first time rafting. "Stay in the boat, hold on tight, hold on even if you fall out, swim to the boat, lay on your back with your feet out, don't stand up." She knows her stuff, if not all in practical application yet, at least in verbalization. We talk about currents, watch where it flows, point out eddies, talk about ferry angles. She swims great with her PFD, but it's a crutch. She starts swim lessons on monday morning, and not a moment too soon! 
       She swam her first rapid a few weeks ago, one of the little ripples I so often took training swims through on the Rio Grande as a kid. Back then it was called Ben & Jerry's hole. Due to alterations from a mudslide in '95 it's now called after five, but it's essentially still just a small hydraulic with nothing else around it.  We were stopped on the beach above it eating chocolate cake when we saw passengers on a commercial trip swim through it. I asked if she wanted to try swimming it, and she excitedly replied, "Yeah!" I ferried out into the tongue with her, so very proud and more than a bit nostalgic. She rocked the whitewater swim position & then took a face full of water like a champ! She said it was fun, except that she didn't like the part where the wave went over her head. Bubbles, we need to work more on blowing bubbles out the nose...

Riding the tongue into "After Five" on the Rio Grande!
Taking a huge face full of water on her first whitewater swim!
     I really do try to prepare her and emphasize safety, but the thought of her taking a swim scares me... and she almost did today. In fact, I almost sent her and all three of her cousins (ages 6, 8, & 10) for a swim, not to mention myself and the other two adults on board. The water is low, it's really low. I am no stranger to low water, and actually have quite the Love affair with technical boating. With the water this low there are plenty of rocks out, and it is on your toes technical!
     Browns Canyon of the Arkansas River, stare case rapid, stair step #5, has a huge rock in the center. It is a left run, and as the water drops, little bugger rocks begin popping out at the top left, making it a swoop kind of maneuver. Rowing today (as opposed to paddle boating) I set up to pull it, in my normal oar boat line; pull nose just past big rock, ass behind bugger rocks, big left oar back stroke & swoop-whoosh! 
     I still am unsure as to whether it was simply visual error, or the left to right upstream wind, but I thought I had my bow around that rock, right where I wanted it. When I gave that good solid left back stroke though, my insta swoop-whoosh glory line suddenly turned nightmarish. My right tube rode up on the big rock & I yelled the first "HIGHSIDE" I have commanded in a long time. I handed my vertical & useless left oar to Charlotte's Uncle Andy, to simply keep it from falling out of the oarlock, and commence to climb out onto the rock, barking commands at the girls (who were sitting in water on the low side) to hold on tight, and at Charlotte's dad to get the girls up on the high side & hold on to Them tight! The boys, the two older kids, seemed to have a pretty good idea of staying high & holding on. Along with all the commands, my normal silent prayer to the River was uttered audibly... "River Be With Us." Andy handed my oar right back to me saying he wanted to get out on the rock, for some reason I let him. Gingerly, him pushing and I pulling, thinking to myself the last thing I ever want to do is flip a boat load of small kids, holding small consolation in the bottom of my gut, of my friend eddied out below us, ready to nab kids out of the water. We ease the boat off the rock and Andy flying leapt into the freed and racing boat. Relief flooding my every cell like a drug...
     I felt like I had been standing on the left tube, though I know I wasn't. My friend in the eddy below consoled me that my boat actually looked pretty flat, and that he didn't think we were in danger of flipping. It felt vertical to me though. There was a moment when I thought we Were flipping, and the ease off the rock was very touchy. I was scared. I didn't feel scared in the moment, I was in complete crisis management - get 'er done - head on shoulders mode. Once we were off and ok though, I realized I had been scared, very scared. As the day has ended and the evening worn on, I have allowed myself to realize just how scared I really was. I scared myself damn good today, and feel incredibly humbled, as the only the River can do. As much as I try to prepare Charlotte for her first swim, she is still only four years old. As many times as she has run browns canyon, and other class III rivers, there is still always that chance... that fluke move, that gust of wind, that whim of the River Gods.
     Had I been in that predicament with a commercial trip (as I have a time or two in my career,) I would have come out of it laughing, whooping and hollering, "Adventure and Excitement!" Exciting runs are not a normal part of my daily commercial grind, so when they happen I get a real kick out of it, and the customers seem to as well. Today though, I came out of it shaking and pale, thanking Andy for his help, and the River for its kindness. Four small children. My daughter. Inevitability lurks in Charlotte's future, not necessarily her cousins futures though. I am just grateful that all stayed in the boat, and that the grey side stayed down today. 
     As I carried my sleepy Charlotte from the car seat into pajamas and bed tonight, she told me, "Mamma, my favorite part of rafting is when the boat gets stuck and all the water rushes in the floor and I get soaking wet & we have to get unstuck and then I dry out." She seems to have enjoyed herself today. Thank you River for not scarring Her too much too fast. Thank you River for showing me the difference between being a River Mamma and being a raft guide, and Thank you for postponing Charlotte's appointment with the Arkansas River swim team. 
Charlotte and her cousins Loving the ride through Zoom Flume.


1 comment:

  1. Oh My God, now you really know what it feels like to be a mom. I am so happy for you. Welcome to the club!