Paths (part 35-kayaking)

One Friday afternoon I returned from working in Santa Rosa, and joined the others who were spending the week at a Christian Retreat Center in the woods south of Fort Bragg. It was a beautiful rustic campground with log cabins, outdoor fire-pits and other amenities situated beneath the redwoods. Among the activities available for our use were river kayaks. That evening I learned that we were all going to go kayaking the following morning in a nearby river. This sounded like a lot of fun although I was a little concerned because it was early spring and the river was still flowing fairly high and fast, it would be an unguided trip, and several of us had never been in a kayak before. I had taken kayaking lessons years earlier and knew how to roll, and the basics of navigating a river so I felt okay about the adventure for myself but still had a foreboding feeling about the event.

Apparently a conversation earlier in the day between S and MD had spawned our impending kayaking challenge. In this conversation S and J had both addressed our world with a certain prideful disdain and had underestimated the power of nature, and overestimated the ability of humans in relation to the cosmos. MD devised this event as a means of educating us all firsthand of the awesome power of water, even a river which appeared to be relatively small and seemingly innocuous. Perhaps we would gain a healthy respect for the power of nature and maybe learn a little humility as well, and hopefully not sink along the way.

The next morning, as we gathered the kayaks and other gear into our trailer the idea of sinking seemed much more likely to me. I had always used a fabric skirt that covered the cockpit and kept water out of the kayak, so when I learned we wouldn’t be using these I was surprised, but then I figured since most of us hadn’t used a kayak before, it would likely be safer without them, and easier to get out quickly if needed. Even so, I wondered about water getting into the boats and how that would work out. Each of us was also going to be wearing large rubber boots as we navigated in our kayaks. These boots certainly offered excellent protection against sharp rocks so I was glad of that, but I could only picture them filling with water and transforming into big rubber anchors in the event we fell out of our kayaks and into the river. These boots became my biggest concern and I determined not to fall out of my kayak no matter what.

The seven of us took off from shore with little difficulty and a lot of hilarity. Shrubs and trees hanging over the margins created thickets which managed to trap several of us right from the start. Getting untangled from the overgrowth became our first obstacle as the current pressed us deeper into the branches and spun our kayaks. I managed to avoid this hazard but was unable to work my way upstream again to offer any assistance to the others. Not long though, all of us had worked our way out and were traveling together at a nice clip downstream.

There is something thrilling about a river adventure: the wild, rushing water, the beautiful and varied nature one passes as they, in a sense, fly past it; the joyful, almost childlike enthusiasm that is drawn out of one as they rise and fall on the currents, and as the cold water splashes them in the face. It is simply exhilarating. We were having a great time and everyone was staying upright and afloat. I supposed I had overreacted earlier and had been too concerned as I had imagined dangers that perhaps weren’t there. The fact that the river was still swollen actually had the benefit that many of the boulders which could have threatened us were deeply submerged and posed less of a threat, and were one of us to capsize there was a smaller chance of hitting our head on one of these submerged obstacles.

About midway through our river adventure we began to hit more frequent and longer stretches of whitewater, which became more difficult to navigate, and required greater finesse, or greater brute strength to get through. Because of this, our group began to get stretched out and greater distance grew between us, leaving us to fight our way downstream in smaller groups or alone. It wasn’t long before we began to lose each other around bends, in eddies, or finally underwater. One by one the currents began to claim the members of our expedition; toppling us over, carrying us submerged, or pulling us over rock-strewn shallows. Occasionally I saw an unmanned kayak float past me, or one or two of my friends pulling themselves, bedraggled, up out of the water and casting themselves, half-drowned onto the dry rocks at the river’s edge. We began our journey that morning, like children, joyfully laughing and giddy with the excitement of the day’s coming surprises and were ending it that afternoon in a struggle for survival.

My day on the river ended with me launching over a large submerged boulder, taking some air, and losing control when I reentered the water further downstream. To my relief when I fell out of the kayak my rubber garden boots didn’t turn into two large anchors as they filled with water because the river was shallow enough that I was able to scramble across the bottom, out of the main flow and into a calmer area near the river’s edge.

In a sense this river trip was a microcosm of our years together in the community; it began in pure joy, coupled with an overwhelming sense of anticipation, adventure and hope, and as the journey continued it grew more and more difficult, so that one-by-one each of us found ourselves in a struggle for survival. By the grace of God no one was lost, or seriously injured. However, we were all taxed physically, emotionally and mentally.

As the evening approached we somehow managed to collect all of the kayaks and gear into our trailer, and all of the members of our group into our van, and drive back to the retreat center. By nightfall we were all back in our cabins and ready to sleep. It was a quintessentially MD kind of day; a complex and complicated mixture of delight, adventure, thrilling fun and laughter interwoven with struggle, danger, tension, difficulty and fear. In short it was just another day at the office, so to speak; the kind of day I had grown accustomed to, and one that yielded an abundance of food for thought, a bounty of personal growth, and copious material for either a good story, or a cautionary tale—or perhaps a little of both.

(to be continued)


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