A Half-Bubble off Plumb: Life lessons learned from recent rafting trip

Life lessons learned from recent rafting trip

By Randall Thatcher



As I consider the many first-time experiences I’ve encountered since moving to Sanpete County, and all the many horizon-expanding lessons learned in the process, I can now add one more: rafting down a river.

A local friend, and rafting enthusiast, had been eager to get me out on a river; a thing he knew I’d never done before (unless you count the times, as a kid, I floated in a two-man rubber-raft down a nearby irrigation canal, which he didn’t).

The first time I ventured with this fellow was fairly disastrous, as I wound up piloting my own inflatable canoe, and seemed to spent more time in the water than in my actual vessel.  I was, during the whole of that day’s rafting expedition—quite literally—in over my head.

The second time I ventured (which took more than a little persuading on the part of my friend), I was assured of a nice, relaxing float down a very tame and placid San Juan River.  Nothing to be done, really, but drift leisurely downstream with the current, enjoying the red rock splendors rising up from either bank.

We put in at Sand Island, a three-day float from our destination of Mexican Hat. And the first two days of this excursion were exactly as advertised: a nice, relaxing sail, in my own little pontoon-boat, down a lazily tranquil river, with new and increasingly astonishing sights to behold around every succeeding bend.

But then came day three…

I was soberly admonished, by my vastly more experienced friend, to remain alert and vigilant when we encountered those formidable “Eight Foot Rapids” that would be coming along that morning.

“Wait… What?!” I thought in a rising panic.  “Rapids?  What happened to ‘tame and placid?’ Where was that ‘nice, relaxing float’ I’d been promised?”

As I continued to psyche myself out, imagining the terrifying sight of eight-foot high rapids menacing my little craft (which rapids, of course, are not really eight feet high, but only a designation of their gradient), I tried to calm myself by reviewing the advice I’d been given to successfully navigate these approaching rapids:

First: Keep to the right of the big rock.  (“Which big rock?”  “Don’t worry.  You’ll know it when you see it.”)

Second: Don’t attempt to out-maneuver a wave, but steer the bow of your boat—against your natural instinct—directly into it.

And, third: Never stop paddling.  Even if you think the cause is lost, keep paddling!

I mused and mulled and meditated upon these three rules for running rapids, trying to etch them so deeply into my brain that they’d become automatic when the critical moment came.

And then it came… Shouts from the big raft ahead were warning of the approaching rapids.  I didn’t need such bellowed alerts; I could already hear the roar.

Coming round the bend, and catching sight of my foaming, whitewater foe, those all-important rules flew instantly out of my head.  For several critical moments I sat there in my little boat, completely inert, just staring in wild and wide-eyed panic. Finally, however, spotting the big rock I was told to stay to the right of, I began paddling madly, barely skirting the boulder’s right flank, my left pontoon glancing off of it, and throwing me into the path of the largest wave in the rapid.  My instinct told me to take evasive action.  Wrong.  I tried to avoid it altogether; to paddle around it. Wrong. I was now sideways to this threatening wave; and as it came fast upon my starboard side, I assumed all was lost, and stopped paddling altogether.  Wrong.

I had abandoned myself to my fate, assuming there was no viable option but to surrender to this heedless river, and abandon myself to an inadvertent swim in its chilly waters (while wearing every single stitch of dry and warm clothing I’d brought with me on this trip).

It became a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I did take that frantic, flailing, shocking swim, requiring a mid-water rescue from a larger raft in the vicinity.

Later that afternoon, while clad entirely in borrowed clothing from my friend’s own duffle, I was shown the video, taken by my friend’s wife, from their own raft, which had been following behind, of my ill-fated attempt.

It was hard for me to watch this video, so painfully glaring were my mistakes.  In my panic, I’d broken those two cardinal rules: to steer directly into any oncoming wave, and to keep paddling.

I don’t yet know whether I will ever again come up against those same Eight Foot Rapids of the San Juan River.  If I ever do, I will not forget my lesson.

But, even if I never run rapids again in this lifetime, I will still not forget what they taught me: to be bold in facing challenges head-on, and to never stop paddling, no matter what.

For, in the end, until we’ve abandoned hope and given up, nothing is ever truly lost.

Keep paddling!


[Comments welcome: ahalfbubbleoffplumb@gmail.com]