Boating Against the Odds

“So, how bad is it?” my wife asked when I got back to our drift boat.

“Well, it’s big,” I said.   “Make sure your lifejacket’s cinched up.”

Gretchen hadn’t scouted Wild Sheep with me, the first major rapids on the Snake River below Hell’s Canyon Dam.   Instead, she’d stayed with our drift boat, too frightened to look at the rapids after watching a 50-feet long commercial jet boat, loaded with passengers, speed past us and drop over the horizon line and out of sight.

We were still 200 yards upstream of the rapids when we heard a loud “Boom!” and saw three quarters of the jet boat standing on end, its bow pointed at the sky.  The sight of that massive boat tail-walking, with scores of passengers staring at the sky, panicked Gretchen. 

“Paul! What are you getting me into here?” she yelled, her eyes wide with fear.

As I made my way down the bank to scout Wild Sheep with the five rafters in our group, they pelted me with ideas on how I should make my run, while secretly worrying that I was going to flip in the inaugural rapids of our five-day trip.   A massive hole at the bottom of the rapids created an impenetrable wall, an immovable force that had stood the jet boat on end, and left me searching for an approach that skirted the hole.

While walking back up to the drift boat after scouting Wild Sheep, doubts boiled up about the wisdom of putting my wife, and myself, in harm’s way on a whitewater river that many had advised was “too big for a drift boat.”  By the time I got back to my boat, I had to consciously jettison those doubts.

As we pushed off from shore, I said to Gretchen,  “If you hear me yell, ‘Jump!’ near the bottom of the run, swing out over the bow to keep your weight downstream.”

“You want me to hang over the bow going through that?” She called back as she pointed downstream.  

“Maybe,” I hollered as we got close to the rapids.

I wanted to avoid stalling on the monster wall of water that had launched the jet boat heavenward.   If we stalled on that recirculating wave and slid back into the  “keeper” hole, the river would gobble us in an instant.  If needed, Gretchen’s weight over the bow could spell the difference between high-fiving after our run, or taking a long, harrowing swim. 

My approach to Wild Sheep began by surfing the diagonal waves at the top of the rapids to get momentum heading from river left to river right, hoping that between the kick we got off the diagonal waves, and some deft strokes on the oars, we’d miss the massive hole.  

The lion’s share of the Snake funneled into the maw of the hole.  Despite my line at the top, and a flurry of hard strokes to keep our momentum headed to the right, we slammed into the right side of the hole. 

“Jump!” I yelled at Gretchen as we smacked into the towering wall of water.   She lunged forward, thrusting her upper body over the bow.  Her weight over the bowsprit, coupled with the clean lines of the drift boat, allowed us to slice through that wall of white and crest the rampart.  The rafters on the bank, who had made the run first, yelled and screamed in delight, or maybe relief, as we sped past them.

Three more cataracts confronted us on that trip, and we made clean runs through all of them.   Below the rapids, we stopped at one of the outposts in the canyon.  As I rowed to the bank, the faces of the jet boat drivers who’d come upriver and waited while their passengers hiked up for sodas, beer and ice cream said a lot.  They looked at us, and then looked at each other with raised eyebrows. 

“How was Wild Sheep?” one of them asked.

“Huge,” Gretchen blurted out to knowing grins.

Months later, a question keeps surfacing long after we left the canyon:  What would motivate a man in his mid-60s to take that kind of risk given the potential loss should things go south?  

In a meeting with other peers my age recently, a question came up from one of the guys, “Don’t you think that whatever your legacy is, it’s already been accomplished?” he asked. 

He went on to say that with retirement at the end of his career, and his kids grown and on their own in different regions of the country, he felt like those were his legacies, and they’d all been accomplished.

I found myself vehemently rejecting the premise.  For me, re-inventing myself in my mid-60s is as important as finding my way in my mid-20s.   I don’t know what my legacy is, because in my mind, I’m still discovering who I am and what I want to do with the life I have left.   And I think that has something to do with why I wanted to run a drift boat through Hell’s Canyon in my sixties, when reason, and a chorus of doubters, questioned the wisdom of that.

As I ponder the question now, a host of internal voices rise up positing theories: did I run Hell’s Canyon in a wood drift boat purely to burnish my name as a guy who’s still got some cajones left?  Or did I do it to feed my ego and reputation as a skilled drift boat operator?   I can’t discount these as part of the mix, but they don’t fully answer the question.  

Others have taken drift boats down hair-ball whitewater runs: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River and the Illinois River in Southern Oregon are two such runs not frequented by wooden drift boats.  And yes, partly it’s the challenge of making deft moves through difficult whitewater in a quarter-inch plywood hull.  The boat’s thin skin is too fragile to take crushing blows against rocks.  And their lack of floatation means that if a boat flips, it’ll turn into driftwood and flotsam in short order as the river batters it against boulders and bedrock.

But maybe taking such risks has to do, at least in part, with pushback against the inevitable loss that comes with age.   At 65, I don’t have the stamina, flexibility, and strength of a younger man.  Sure, I’d love to combine the wisdom that I’ve gained over the past six-plus decades with the physical prowess of my youth, but that’s not the hand we’re dealt in life.  So finding ways to slow the inevitable tug of time that sends me toward my demise remains important. 

Maybe I’m just another disgruntled baby boomer who wants to define old age in a new way, just as my generation defined our teen-aged years differently than our parents.  Back then, what I wanted most was to find meaning in my work and personal life.  Working for a paycheck and a house with a two-car garage didn’t present an inspiring vision.  And that thirst for meaning drove me to pursue careers as a counselor for developmentally disabled adults, as a GED teacher in a county jail, and for 18 years, as a wilderness river guide and adventure travel writer, before working as a consultant mediating natural resource and public policy disputes.

Giving meaning to life can come in a variety of forms.  When I was a small boy, my father, who was a diesel mechanic, repeatedly took on new trades as a way to earn extra income—probably the closest he came to having “hobbies” as a working class man with restless energy.   He became a locksmith for a spell.  He sold motor oil and lubricants on the side for years.   And for a time, he pursued becoming an electrician as a second career.  For my father, learning a new trade was exciting, engaging, and it added a few shekels to our family’s modest coffers.

And as a kid, while he was rebuilding some neighbor’s car engine in the evenings, or learning to wire houses, I was given the task of holding the chord light so he could see in the dingy garages and basements he worked in. 

During the electrician phase, he had a mentor, an old, Italian electrician by the name of Tony.  And Tony, in his thick Italian-accented English, used to wax philosophically about life while my father installed a circuit breaker box, or strung new wiring circuits, under Tony’s tutelage.  

“David,” Tony would say repeatedly, “it’s all a-back-awords. When you young, you gotta the vitality and the piss and the vinegar.  You wanna go places and see all these things.  And then you worka your tail off, and when you get older, you gotta the money, but you don’t gotta the energy.  Better to give the kids the money and let ‘em pay it back when they get older.  That way, they get to see all those things before they too old.”

Over time, I saw the wisdom in Tony’s preaching—we do have a wealth of capital in our youth.  For most of us, this isn’t a wealth based on financial assets, or investment equities.  This wealth lies in our vitality, in our energy, and in our curiosity.  Yet this wealth doesn’t accumulate.  It dissipates, like the tail-out of a river’s rapids.  And now, in my mid-60s, I find myself looking for ways to stall time’s tide, to put the breaks on the inevitable physical decline that comes with age.  And maybe running Hell’s Canyon in a wood drift boat was one small marker, one effort to put a chink in time’s highballing express.

Will I run Hell’s Canyon again in a wood drift boat?  Probably not.  After having a peak experience like that, where the odds of success are slim, and the adrenalin rush is huge, I don’t need to tempt the fates. Finding the crease in the Red Sea that lets you pass safely to the other shore is an experience that deserves respect for the forces negotiated and engaged. 

My sights are now on other pursuits that help delay the flow of time.   And in the meantime, recalling the image of our run through Hell’s Canyon adds to a portfolio of experiences and adventures that give my life a different kind of wealth and meaning. 

Am I glad I made such choices, as opposed to building a portfolio with greater monetary assets and equities?  Sure, a few more creature comforts would be nice as arthritis ossifies my joints.  But for the most part, I’m perpetually grateful for the experiential portfolio I’ve accumulated.