Thirty-plus years ago (YIKES!) my parents did something that changed the course of my life: they took me whitewater rafting.
I grew up outdoors. My first hike up Mount Pilchuck was when I was too young to have, much less tie, my own hiking boots. I still remember the mildewy canvas smell of our army-green camp tent and my black and white kid-sized knapsack. It seems like every weekend of my childhood was spent in a boat or on a trail or in the car bumping along narrow logging roads. But by the time I was a teenager, music, boys, makeup and high school were fast outpacing the desire for scenic views and mud caked boots. Like most teens, I was a bit of a pill. Or maybe a lot of a pill. It still baffles me that my parents wanted to spend any time with me much less days isolated on a raft camping excursion in remote Oregon. Nevertheless, they booked a three day guided raft trip the summer I was fifteen on the wild and scenic portion of the Rogue River. They did, however, put me in a different raft.
The Congressionally-designated National Wild and Scenic portion of the Lower Rogue begins 7 miles west of Grants Pass and ends 11 miles east of Gold Beach. Steelhead and salmon fishery, challenging whitewater, and extraordinary wildlife viewing opportunities have made the Lower Rogue a national treasure. Black bear, river otter, black-tail deer, bald eagles, osprey, Chinook salmon, great blue heron, water ouzel, and Canada geese are common wildlife seen along the Lower Rogue River. Popular activities include whitewater rafting, fishing, jet boat tours, scenic driving, hiking, picnicking, and sunbathing. The Wild Section of the Lower Rogue River is one of the most popular whitewater runs in the world.
The water was running high that summer, increasing the difficulty of the rapids, and none of us had any whitewater experience. Nevertheless, we literally threw ourselves into the river. We ran it all except the famed Class V Rainie Falls, which our guides navigated through alone while we watched breathless from the shore. I remember Randy and Bruce as exactly the sort of brash, good-looking, tan, and beer guzzling adventure guides a teenaged girl would fall for. And fall I did, but not with them.
I was experienced with canoes, but whitewater paddling was more like trying to steer a bucking horse. Again and again, the front paddlers got knocked to the raft floor as we shot through frothing Class III rapids. From my place in the back, feet lodged firmly under the thwart, there was nothing but water and Randy’s shouted commands to PADDLE! or BAIL! With no time to look around, worry, or think, I was fully engaged in staying right side up and IN the boat. For the first time in my life, I felt like what I did actually mattered. I lived for Randy’s high-five once the water smoothed out. The adrenaline rush from the praise and the fear was addictive. but more importantly, I’d never felt so strong and capable. I loved it all.
I can’t tell you much about what the trip was actually like except to say that you should absolutely do it. I’m pretty sure that my memory of scaring off the bears snuffling around camp with fireworks, the unreal amount of beer the adults consumed, and the difficulty of rapids beginners shouldn’t have run is flawed. What this trip meant to me was much more than scenery and adventure.
Randy, our strawberry-blond stump of a guide with a red porn-star mustache, believed in me. He believed that I could do what was needed and could accomplish far more than I thought. He didn’t know (or care) that at home I was bitchy and difficult. And he was completely unaware that while my parents were at work someone was hurting me, leaving me feeling so confused and ashamed that I didn’t want to live anymore. On the river, he made me feel valued.
The Rogue made me want to live. I woke to sore muscles and a thrill of excitement about what we would see and do that day. At night under a mantle of sparkling stars, I felt both infinitesimally small and part of a profound whole. As I faced roaring whitewater with nowhere to go but through, I found an inner strength I didn’t know I possessed and the feeling of worthlessness vanished as rapid after rapid spit us out whole.
There is this one final memory of that trip – maybe another one I am not remembering right – a natural water slide that dropped into a deep pool in a sort of grotto or cavern off the side of the river. I didn’t swim well and I HATED getting water in my face (I can hear you now – what was I doing on a raft trip, right?). But I remember sitting down on the cold slick stone, water rushing around my legs, then shoving off, flying down the moss-covered chute and through the air until I hit the water hard enough to shove my bathing suit deep into my nether-regions. As I rose to the surface sputtering and laughing, I thought, THIS is who I am.
Up until I finally moved out of the house, family rafting trips on the Rogue and Wenatchee Rivers were part of each summer. Hiking became a more important part of my life, and part of the reason I stayed with the guy my parents hated was because of afternoons spent on the trail or at the old REI on Pine street, rummaging through bins of stuff sacks and camp-stove parts.
Over the years there have been many outdoor adventures that tested my grit as I faced my fears and many moments of beauty that literally took my breath away. More than once I have I have wondered if I could keep living only to find reassurance and comfort under the stars. As surely as the waters of the Rogue wore down stone to form that magical waterslide, the wilderness has crafted who I am by sharing its fierceness and revealing mine.
And hey Randy, wherever you are, I lift a beer to you. Paddle on.