When you first see a river, you know respect. The ocean is big, but utterly impersonal and almost lazy in the way it pushes waves around, just getting on with its business. A thunderstorm is a terrifying flash, it flings rain around like insults, then moves on. There’s something safe in how uncaring the ocean is as well as in how much the storm cares. But a river is something more, a mix of power and amused indifference, like it could eat you without opening its mouth but it’d rather just be friends. You’re as likely to get swallowed as you are to be licked, and you can never tell until it’s happened which it’s going to be.
Seasonal August forest fires made the air fresher indoors and dulled the colours of the mountains stretching pale gold with dead cheat grass around us. Despite the month and the smoke it was a tepid day at best, and the tenebrous water held a blank expression as we eyed it dubiously.
Cheerfully ignorant of the mood the two bright yellow rafts bumped noses as we boarded and shoved off, playfully nudging back and forth until they were separated by the river. With small but shockingly cold bursts of silty water washing our feet at every wave and the sun pale and hidden by smoke, the mood quickly turned gloomy. No one spoke as we drifted, the guide pushing or pulling the guide oars when he felt it necessary.
I was excited. I got to ride bull–the very front of the raft–while the others were forced to row through the rapids, a privilege I gained by being loudest and most insistent. My family’s rafted a lot of rivers, but it had taken a good sixteen years of my life for me to appreciate the adrenaline of being flung all over the place and drenched repeatedly in near frozen water. My classmates hadn’t reached that point, so I was alone in splashing my feet to try and pull up feathery green water weeds on my toes as they floated by.
I missed a huge one just as the first rapid could be heard, roaring like an old vacuum. The river bottom sprang up to meet us, shallow over the grey and gold gravel bar that signaled the start of the rapid. Ahead of us loomed a rolling mess of whitewater and smooth green waves.
Paddles dipped down and dug deep, and the raft was swallowed in a dark, foamy trough, spewed out, and slapped around. We emerged yelling and soaked, too cold to be cold and too wet to care. The tension broke and everything settled into a relaxed rhythm as the first few rapids roared past.
It was near the end of the river when it came into view. Cherry, a much milder rapid that the guide allowed us to swim on our own. I threw myself into the water with a crash before I could think about the consequences, and came up gasping and kicking hard to try and warm up. Everything quickly went numb, and the cold faded. My friend hesitated at the front of the raft, shivering in the mild breeze, arms wrapped tightly around his life jacket and hands stuck in his armpits.
“Come on,” I called, grinning. “It’ll be fun. And funny for me.”
He shrugged and made direct eye contact, muttering “Seniors only live once,” before jumping off the raft. He emerged gasping and grinning as well, but shivering so hard his teeth rattled.
The five of us from our raft were all relatively close as we approached the lip of the rapid.
“Grab onto each other’s shoulders,” my friend yelled. We all took hold of each other’s life vest straps in a vain attempt at camaraderie. As we were sucked into the rapid we realized what a completely terrible, awful, and overall bad idea it was, but each of us at a different point in pain.
My friend and I realized it as we entered the rapid and felt the pull, both of us immediately letting go. The classmate on my other side realized it when we were forcibly separated by the force of the river and a large rock.
I have trouble letting go of people I care about, and it was such a perfect and laughable metaphor; the dangers of holding on to people when it’s time to let go. Unprepared and already tumbling we were each taken on our own course over many rocks and under many waves.
Due to some impulse control on my part, I’d already swum rapids earlier in my life. I knew to wait until I saw a clear opening to breathe. This allowed me to watch in relative calm as my class fell apart, running into rocks, leaning forward instead of back, taking a deep breath just as a wave smacked over them, and generally doing everything we’d been instructed not to do.
We were all spat out at the end and floated a while before crawling, shivering and bruised, into the raft. The river laughed at us in a slow and flat stretch from Cherry to the take out. We all staggered ashore that day with a new quiet respect for the river.