Fear burned in my body as we launched our tiny boats onto the vast fast water, a strong wind whipping up whitecaps and magnifying the rapids. My efforts at control were no match for the frightful power of the deep current, the churning eddies, the rocks and rapids. On a mountain bike, fear skids me out of my flow, and I tense and hit every rock and cut short the curving berms, and feel close to crashing. Now, on this huge current of water, I am stiff and afraid and not having a good time at all. Fear affects the quality of my experience, always. But I remembered the dusty trails and the times I had found the flow and had raced fearless and free and skilled down the mountain. Intense. Joyful. And I relaxed now on the water, feeling my tiny boat in the groove of the current, feeling my tiny boat bob humbly and determinedly through the rapids, feeling the effects of each nuanced paddle stroke. Fear had turned to fun, and John and I called to each other, two men, connected, seeking happiness and truth, one older and the other young, one a father and the other his son, calling excitedly to each other about the water’s power and surprise. Benefitting from a little experience, I settled into competence and enjoyment and the intense focus of joining with the colossal headlong course of the river. We were coming to understand each other now, the malevolence and panic were gone, and neither was a threat to the other—we rushed together toward some distant sea.
An enormous diversion structure seemed to dam the enormous river, straight ahead, and I could imagine getting sucked into some deadly sluice or turbine or chute. That fear again. The structure obscured the river curving invisibly and sharply to the right. My son flipped his boat on the brink of a very shallow spillway that tricked us both into thinking it was the correct river course. I pivoted my kayak to look and paddle upstream, a ridiculous effort in the incontestable current, like whistling in a hurricane. Before it was too late, and I was crushed and drowned in the diversion, I needed to get off the river, now, and found an eddy and a willow bush by the bank. John came carrying his kayak, and I announced that I would not brave what was coming without knowing exactly what I was braving, without studying the thing up close and planning our way through. So, we pushed through thick brush, hundreds of burs sticking to my gloves and pants, thistle spikes stinging my legs—this was what John called shwacking (short for “bushwhacking”; adj. “shwacked”). And, finally, we stood at the point and saw the big harmless diversion structure and studied the frightening current of the river curve with its rapids and lateral waves that gleefully would tip a tiny boat. And we talked through how we would hug the bank to the point and turn the kayaks hard and chute the center of the rapid, away from the capsizing laterals. And we shwacked back to the boats and launched with trepidation but also with the courage born of knowledge and preparation. And we hugged the bank and rounded the bend and ran the rapid and defied the swamping waves and skirted the eddy, and we looked back and at each other with smiles, wondering what all the worry had been about, ready to do it again.
Every day I shwack through politics and arguments and deceits. I shwack through relationships and confrontations and responsibilities. I shwack through court records and divorce decrees and dating apps. And burs weigh me down by the millions and nettles slice my skin and dust reddens my eyes and I bruise my shins on fallen tree trunks as I shwack through to my observation points. The current is compellingly strong. Running the rapid is required. There is no possibility of portage. I must go through to beyond. So, I hug the bank and pivot the stern and slingshot through the rapids. And I make it through.
(Pictured above: Yours Truly with my awesome son John.)