The Real Thing

How is it that a visceral memory of thirty years ago sustains itself so vividly in both the body and mind? Such is my experience of whitewater rafting – a rolling, jaunting, thrilling escapade down some of the wildest water that still exists in North America, albeit dam-controlled. Thirty years ago, it was the West Branch of the Penobscot River in Maine. Today it is the Deschutes River in Oregon, and I could hardly wait to get to the mainland from our home in Hawaii in order to experience this kind of water, once again. I love the ocean’s waves, but there is something about whitewater that captivates the imagination.

We don’t have to be on the river until a reasonable hour of the morning. Still, there’s frost on the ground as we don wetsuits and neoprene booties. Teeth chattering, I throw on my long sleeved rashguard for extra warmth. This in no way prepares me for the shock, however, as, on the second rapid, I am jettisoned from the boat, along with two others, into the icy drink. My god, I think, it’s early September! How is it even possible for water to get this cold, this quickly? The guide remarks that we are the only ones on the river, and even a week before, there were dozens of rafts with hundreds of occupants, waiting in the eddies for a turn in the roiling current.

Forgetting how flexible a twenty year-old body can be – certainly compared to an almost-sixty year-old physique – I lurch forward and knock my two front teeth into the back of my daughter’s head. No harm done, save for a fat lip for a few days – but I become wary, a feeling that is asynchronous to the memory I spoke of earlier. I wiggle and tug at the good front tooth that remains, after having an implant replace the other I lost to Hawaii’s unpredictable surf twenty years ago. My arm still aches and is oddly dysfunctional after being torqued out of alignment during my surprise tumble. I shift to the other side of the craft; paddle with the opposite arm. Still, I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to strip out the pain with my other skilled hand. Eventually I am successful, but again I am uncharacteristically cautious, as I turn to the guide and whisper, Hey – I don’t want to bum the others out, but if there’s any way to keep me in this boat for the duration, I would really appreciate it.

The remainder of the ride is enjoyable, mostly because those I love are having the time of their lives. Vicarious pleasure settles in, and it’s okay. I have discovered balance, once again. My delts and biceps hurt less, but I remain chilled to the bone. I launched into this journey with a nagging cough, and cannot imagine how shivering all day is going to make it better. Still, the view from the river is extraordinary, and the water itself possesses a magic that is impossible to describe.