Pee trickled down my leg as I stood on tiptoe, gripping my shaking palms to the oars of our 14-foot inflatable raft, and tried to get a glimpse of Snowhole, a rapid named for an enormous boulder on the right side of the river that lifts the water up and then drops it into a billowing white cloud of chaos called a hole. If you can line up your boat in the correct spot it’s an easy run. But if you get caught too far right, if you drop into the hole, you are in serious danger. Although Snowhole is only a class IV rapid (class V is the most dangerous rating for rapids that are considered “runnable”), it still packs a punch. This particular hole, in the right conditions, could flip a fully-loaded boat and guzzle its passengers. People die in lesser whitewater.
Hyperaware of everything that could go wrong, I took a quick, conscious breath, wondering if I was up to the task.
My father raced sailboats when I was a child. I don’t remember watching his races, but I remember a series of hotel rooms along the Pacific coast, where my mother would conjure up bowls of Kraft™ Macaroni and Cheese and leave my sisters and me to ride the elevators until she and my dad stumbled home late. He, clutching a trophy, windswept and happy. She, clutching his arm, happy for him.
My mom was a competent sailor herself, but it took me years to recognize it. When she wasn’t yarding the main sail or jib, lugging the spinnaker boom over to the mast, jumping from stern-to-dock with a tie-up rope, steering, or maneuvering the boat to set anchor, her smiling face would pop up the ladder from below deck, balancing a tray of crackers and cheese and smoked oysters in one hand, a bottle of wine and two glasses in the other. She played a convincing supporting role. It never occurred to me to wonder why my dad always played the lead. If you ask her now, she would demur and say she never wanted to captain the boat. It was too much responsibility, too much trouble, not her thing, not her passion, etc. I believe her and I don’t.
My husband used to guide whitewater rafting trips on the Snake and Lower Salmon River in Idaho. By the time we met in our late twenties, I had done a surprising amount of rafting myself, and so it became part of our family’s tradition to take up whitewater rafting as a summer activity. We have rafted many rivers in our 15-year marriage, but for the last nine years, our main summer trip has been a five-day float down the Lower Salmon.
The Lower Salmon River is not a difficult or dangerous stretch of water except in the spring floods, when a constriction in the river, called The Slide, makes it un-runnable. Most years, by late June, the river is high and fast, but navigable, and it teems with private and commercial rafts, all destined for the large white sandy beaches that make the Salmon a world-class destination for boaters. There are only two hairy rapids on the river, rated class IV in river-speak, that most boaters encounter on their third day. The rest of the rapids are lower-consequence wave trains and sharp, fast-moving bends that my husband calls “giggle and splash” rapids. Between rapids, the Salmon meanders at a calmer pace, leaving boaters time to swim, drink a cold beverage, and lose track of themselves in the deep and arid canyons.
We took our first trip down the Lower Salmon when our kids were four and six years old. Back then, consumed by the responsibility of keeping my children alive, the tiniest bubble of whitewater sent me into a frenzy of worry. When we approached one, I used to position myself between the two kids, hang onto their little lifejackets and prowl the raft with my eyes for throw ropes and other safety devices I would need if they fell in. Their dad would hoot and holler from his seat at the oars behind us, the kids would scream with delight, and I would nearly vomit with relief when it was over.
Until becoming a parent, fear had rarely factored into my relationship with water. I grew up on and around boats. I swam competitively. I rowed crew, raced small sailboats, jumped off bridges, canoed, and fished in water. Before having kids, whitewater rafting felt like another exhilarating water sport. After having kids, it felt unconscionable. On the five-hour drive to the Salmon River, I would stare out the window and enumerate the hundreds of ways the kids could die or be orphaned on a five-day river trip with no radio contact with the outside world: they could stumble on a rock and die from a compound fracture; they could be bitten by a rattlesnake; they could choke on a hot dog; they could get heat stroke; they could fall in the river and get swept away. But the scenario that seemed most likely, the one I could picture most easily, was the one where I would watch my child get sucked into some nasty circulating hole behind a rock or pinned between the boat and a boulder or dragged under a fallen log, and glimpse a red lifejacket and tiny hand grasping the air, seeking my hand before drowning, while I watched, helplessly, from an inflatable pleasure craft that floated away, with its jaunty sun umbrella painting a clownish silhouette against the blue sky.
It was this image that kept me awake at night and kept my brain churning out alternative outcomes: all the possible ways I could prevent or save a child from dying on what we intended to be a fun family outing. The responsibility I felt for my children’s safety was all-consuming. When my husband told me to relax, I said that I could relax if I didn’t have to do the all worrying of two parents and that he could help by worrying a little bit himself.
There was no question my husband would row the raft. He was the more competent rower, and I was convinced the kids would die an untimely death if I didn’t—personally—hold onto them. I spread sunscreen on little noses, handed over hats and umbrellas, zipped lifejackets, kept water bottles filled and hands held. My husband backed the trailer down the boat ramp, loaded the gear, tightened the straps, tied the knots, kept the boat tubes filled, and rowed the biggest rapids. His competence and generally good judgement made me breathless with gratitude.
When my sisters and I were school aged, my dad bought his own sailboat, and my family spent summers cruising in Canada between the mainland and Vancouver Island. These were tame voyages punctuated by a few terrifying crossings.
Open-water crossings were generally timed to favor both tides and good weather, but tides were more important than weather, and we found ourselves occasionally in yellow foul-weather gear and lifejackets, gripping the rails, and keeping our eyes on the distant horizon to combat nausea. My dad insisted that our boat was more stable on keel, which meant that we sailed through all high wind events at a sharp, leeward list and tacked our way across the channel. Sometimes we leaned so far port or starboard that the keel itself, covered in barnacles, emerged from the water like a whale. If it breached completely, we would capsize. But it never did. My mom held us close to her side, and together we watched my dad sail, counting on him, and him alone, to bring us safely to shore.
It seemed at the time that my dad carried an unfathomable responsibility at the helm of a wind-powered boat, in a storm, with a fickle radio to guide him. He was not only responsible for the boat’s safe crossing, but for the very lives of the people he loved most in the world: my mom, me, and my sisters. We did nothing to help him. We just stared wide-eyed at the storm, crossed our fingers, and occasionally my sisters and I buried our salt-splashed faces in my mom’s chest and cried. His calm confidence astounded me. I never considered that he might prefer, that he might genuinely enjoy, being the one in charge. And that not being in charge, being incapable of sailing oneself to shore, was far scarier.
When we were small, my mom used to read from a worn hardcover book of bedtime stories that had been read to her as a child. They were mid-century morality tales, and they captivated my sisters and me. We requested the book often. The most intriguing story was called The Flood. It was about a “brave little mother” and her three daughters who were sleeping inside their house one rainy night when the nearby river flooded its banks. The men in town realized that the house was in danger, but they couldn’t get to it safely. As they stood behind a barricade of sandbags and figured out what to do, the mother woke her daughters (who wore nightgowns just like ours) and gently urged them to higher ground.
Our basement had flooded once, and I remembered the terror of touching the saturated carpet with my bare feet. I had woken up early, perhaps knowing something was amiss, and I ran into my parents room, tiptoe running on the spongey floor, to tell them. It was my first confrontation with the idea that the safety and predictability of my home could be violated by forces beyond my control. It unmoored me. It was my first conscious wrestling with needing rescue and being self-reliant. In The Flood, the storm did not merely dampen the carpets. It became a river that entered the house and began filling it like a cup, so that beds and bookcases floated across the room. Standing waist-deep in frigid water (there was an illustration of this scene in the book), the mother lifted her children up a ladder into the attic, handing them a book of matches and a lantern and a blanket for warmth. She followed them up last, her nightgown floating around her waist. They were rescued that night by a strong swimmer with a rope tied around his middle. The moral would have been about faith, about trusting God or men. I don’t remember the moral. I only remember the image. The prudent mother, the wet nightgown, the cold water.
“Again,” I would say to my mother, “read it again.”
As my kids grew older, I began to row the smaller rapids, and experienced a fleeting desire to attempt the bigger rapids. I thought I could probably handle them in the raft, but I couldn’t shake the images I’d cultivated after so many wakeful nights. The names of the rapids loomed ominously large in my psyche, like billboards lining the road to hell. As we approached one of the big rapids, I would feel its vibrations in my stomach and taste bile in my mouth.
Eventually, some non-boating friends asked to join us on the river. We encouraged them to come along, but warned them of the serious barriers-to-entry to whitewater rafting. They would need to find themselves a boat, plus rigging for a multi-day trip: a frame, lock boxes, tables, coolers, straps and safety gear. They would also need to learn how to row.
I had been learning to row for half a decade by then, and suggested to our friends that they work their way into rafting slowly over a period of years, like I had. But my husband shrugged his shoulders and said to his friend, Paul, “Dude, you can totally row the Lower Salmon. It’s not that hard.”
I looked over at my husband and scanned my memory for a time when he’d said those encouraging words to me. I asked him why he had never invited me to row the big rapids. “I would have,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “except that I like to row them.” And we have only one boat. “You could row them, though. I’ve always said you could.”
Now, it is entirely possible that he had told me I was capable of rowing the Lower Salmon. It would be well within his character to say something supportive like that. But there was something about the way he said it to Paul. Or something about the way Paul interpreted his words that felt different to me. Was it the word, “Dude” that implied some kind of equivalent strength and skill between them? Had my husband said I could totally row the Lower Salmon, or just that I could row it, as if it were a theoretical and not an actionable observation? Had I been waiting for some kind of definitive signal from my husband? A permissive gesture? A playful dare? I couldn’t say. My line of questioning led me to a cul-de-sac. Was my husband preventing me from rowing? Or was I?
That summer, our friends Paul and Teri and their two boys rented a raft and frame and boxes, put it all in the back of their truck, drove to the put-in at Hammer Creek and gamely got down to business at the boat ramp.
Just like my mother would have done, I showed them how to rig their boat, strap in the cooler, set up the oars, top off the tubes with air, and navigate the water. During all the bigger rapids, I sat behind Paul and told him where to go, which oar to pull and how to position the boat down the rapid. When I watched Paul throw his fist in the air at the bottom of Snowhole, I decided it was time for me to row.
Once you move beyond the tongue of a rapid, you stop anticipating the ways things can go wrong. Your worried self just stops what-iffing mid-sentence and gapes at the frothing mayhem before you. Fear, once so central to your experience of rivers, deflates like a bouncy house in a power outage. The idea with rafts is to move with the river, not against it. As a rower, your job is to position the boat, to set it up for success, so to speak, and let the current do the work. When the current pulls you toward an obstacle, you spin the bow toward the obstacle and then you pull away from it, sideways to the current.
I had positioned myself in the center of the rapid, exactly where I wanted to be. On my right, a massive tower of water fell on a continuous loop, and my skin rose in goosebumps at the sight and sound of it. Part of me wanted to bask in its destructive force and gorge on its power while the other part fought to look away. On my left, a minefield of exposed rocks passed by, and I had the sensation of riding through a house of horrors in a chair with a seatbelt. The difference this time was that I was in charge.
I pointed my bow toward a submerged rock on the left and pulled away from it. My boat slid past and I spun to face a large wave. Lacking momentum, a boat can stall at the crest of a wave, so I lowered the oars into the water and pushed hard against them rising up and over the first wave. My bow dove into the trough, rose again, I pushed again, dove again. And it was over.
My body surged with excess adrenaline. Like a boxer dancing on tiptoes, I wanted to keep fighting. I wished the rapid had been bigger, longer, and more complicated. I looked back at it, longing for another go at it, another encounter with this elemental force that could have destroyed me were it not for my clever brain and not-too-shabby lats.
I felt like I’d been reconstituted. Like one of those encapsulated sponge animals that inflates into a giraffe when immersed in water. The river had awakened a dormant part of myself. The part of me that had gone into a necessary hibernation when I made room for motherhood. I had mistakenly thought this part of me had been humanely euthanized, or that she could only be trotted out in an emergency. I had thought I was supposed to make peace with all the things I could no longer do or attempt to do. I had thought I’d make a great supporting actress on the river.
But in fact I had been playing an obsolete role for a few years: pushing sunscreen, water, and lifejackets to kids fully capable of managing themselves. I forgot, I suppose, that roles can change. That stable, married adults change. Mothers change. Times change. My husband saw the implications of my newfound interest in rowing before I did, and when a friend offered to sell him her raft and frame, he bought us a second boat.
This year, when our kids started asking for a turn at the oars, I could feel my worry returning. It feels too soon for them to row. Not only are they still scrawny, my son is overconfident and my daughter is fainthearted. Their bodies are still developing; their brains are still malleable; they are still defining who they are. What if something goes wrong? How will I save them? What line can I throw them?
How easily we fall into old habits.
My kids are staring down the tongue of adulthood and they’re standing on tiptoe to see what lies ahead. I don’t tell them it’s easy. I don’t tell them they can totally nail this. I whisper in their ears: watch the water, position yourself for success, pull away from obstacles, let the current do the work, and push into the waves.
They sit and nod, biding their time.