Into the Flow
You have decided to venture onto the mighty Colorado River with some of your closest friends to test your courage on a paddleboard. When you arrive at the banks of the waterway, where you will begin your adventure, you meet your guide. She is a spunky rendition of Annie Oakley in a string bikini, braids and a trucker hat. She greets you with a pile of gear—a lifejacket, a paddle, a helmet, a leash, and an oversized board. Before she helps you into this bulky gear and begins her intro into paddleboarding, she has you sign your life away. The risks spelled out in black and white do not faze excitement; you sign on the dotted line without question. As your lifejacket is cinched beyond your lung capacity, you are reassured that this life saver will be your greatest friend of all time. Your guide goes over safety protocols, paddle stroking, board orientation, then explains that the river has many temperaments, especially with the 20,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) raging past the shore.
She tells you that there are smooth glassy sections that invoke care-free drifting where the water glides effortlessly downstream. There are eddies which take the unassuming rookie back upstream, and the unforgiving eddy line where the two currents meet. There are also sections of the river where chaos reigns--when the water passes over and through an obstacle and a mighty rapid is formed. The guide shares her theory about successfully maneuvering through a rapid. 25% is entry, 25% is skill, 25% is the river’s will, and 25% is luck. In her mind, there is a 50/50 chance of making it through a rapid unscathed. With these odds, you fret about the terrifying and exhilarating experience of addressing these roaring monsters that await you downstream. Ms. Oakley instructs you to execute a 45 degree angle to ferry across the current, choose your entry into the rapid, keep your craft straight when the waves surge with the flow, and keep faith in your paddle stroke. Then her eyes glow with passion as she reminds you to never give up even when you think you have been beaten. She assures you that the last push of water may release you from the grips of defeat. With that she lets you loose in a recirculating eddy to apply the tips of engagement.
As you enter the flow and attempt to stand on your board, you realize it is a little shakier than you had anticipated. Your legs find a new balance, using muscles you have never engaged before, dealing with the unstable environment of the water swirling around you. You hear your guide cautioning you to keep your paddle in the water at all times, and this helps steady your teetering confidence. Your flailing paddle keeps you upright one second, while the next you are submerged in an icy cold embrace. The startling chill takes your breath away as your lifeline floats you near your board, which is dancing upon the surface. With your paddle in one hand, you reach toward the handle and attempt to pull yourself up on your board. There is nothing graceful about this maneuver as you grip, pull, push, kick, slither your way out of the water, and flop your extremities back onto your craft. Drenched to your core you humbly acclimate to the flow. Your guide decides you are all ready to start the adventure downstream. You do not know what is in store as you embark upon this journey, but you keep an open mind and zest for the unfamiliar.
Your guide explains that around the next bend is the first riffle you will encounter on your voyage. She recommends dropping to your knees though the first set of rapids and hitting the waves straight with the bow of your board. You are filled with anticipation and question your ability to make it through the raging waters. She encourages you to continue breathing as the speed of the river accelerates faster than the heart pounding in your chest. The roar becomes more deafening than a freight train; frothy water drenches and consumes your board from every direction, and time slows down. You keep your eyes on the rising waves before you and brace your paddle to keep you upright. In a matter of seconds, you have made it through to the other side still right side up and let out a holler in celebration. You gather with your fellow comrades to share tales of the wild ride, wide grins all around.
You have a moment of reprieve as you regain your feet beneath you and relax into the flow. The water is smooth sailing as it careens down multiple bends in the river. You are able to counteract the various boils and whirlpools filling deep voids within the depths of the channel through which you float. You are skimming the surface with effortless paddle strokes as you engage your core with the flow. The beauty surrounding you polishes your character as it has done for eons of time. The canyon walls etch their history, the blue heron follows you to the next rock just out of reach, the water churns, other birds sing, and the wind begins to whisper sweet nothings into your face. Everything seems right in the world as you commune with your environment and become one with the flow. You have found your groove, relaxing into the swift volume of moving water with ease and grace.
As you round the next bend those sweet nothings turn into a ferocious blast. The wind raises its fury to let her presence be known. There is no use cursing the gusts that slice through your bones. Now it is time to stand and face the depths of your grit. You put your head down, keep your paddle in the water, and continue to pick your way downstream. The wind’s force blows you back upstream, making each motion vital to attain forward momentum. You make peace with the elements as you unify your force with nature, one paddle stroke at a time. The up-canyon breeze nearly knocks you off your board as it turns you sideways. You return to your knees and per your guide’s bellows, stab your paddle in the water so the current can assist with your progression. You relax into submission as you wait out the assault and continue downstream against all odds. In good time, the wind lets up and releases the pressure within your mind.
Annie collects your group and explains that the next feature is one of the bigger challenges on this section of the river. She says, “Some stop and scout the rapid, tentatively plotting a course of action only to have the best laid plans change mid-rapid; others read and run the river. Either way, there is a state of mind one must achieve to face what is downstream. There is a “Zen moment” where the mind becomes a blank slate and melts into the flow, leaving one’s destiny up to fate.” With that your guide fearlessly takes on the raging wild. Now you are ready for the seething torrents below you. You are standing up as you enter the first wave, breathing with each paddle stroke. You are beyond fear of the unknown, fully present with the curling waves ahead while the adrenaline pumps through your veins. In the heat of battle, your board jigs while you jag right into the water at the base of a wave. You are sent to the bottom of the river before you resurface to take a full breath of life-giving oxygen. In the midst of the chaos, you remember to keep your feet downstream and your paddle in your hand as you collect your composure. When you grab for your board it turns over, making it near impossible to get back on. You resist the struggle, relax into your fate, and bob through the peaks and valleys of the wave train.
Toward the end of your scuffle with the flow, the current presents an eddy, making it possible to escape the grip of its wet talons. You are able to finally swim to the handle on one side and flip your craft upright, then pull yourself back onto your board. The mighty Colorado has humbled you and brought you to your knees; you take deep breaths to make up for the loss of air within its cooling kiss. Waterlogged and chilled to the bone you take a moment to lie on your board and reset your resolve. You now know the power and the strength of the river first hand. Given your close encounter with this unharnessed force of nature, you give thanks to the Creator for being able to live another day. The sun shines upon your face and warms the wet layers of your body, mind, and spirit.
Your guide comes over and asks if you are okay. Even though you have been shaken to your core, you have never felt better. You feel alive. The water has a way of cleansing the overzealous spirit into an awe-inspired awakening. The river is much bigger than you can conceive and you are a minute particle witnessing its power. You realize there is no taming this beast or getting a handle on properly picking your line through it; you leave mastery for another day. The more you surrender your agenda beyond all thought, the more you find a zone where humility and full participation meet. You have learned about going with the flow. You return a smile to your guide, tapping the top of your head in response to her question, and continue downstream.
When you look at your friends, you realize that the river has changed you all. Some are wide-eyed, some quiet, some are soaked and grinning from ear to ear, yet all understand the power of the Colorado. This tributary has woven tighter bonds among you and your comrades as the shared experiences of drifting and surfing sheer chaos replays in your minds. Laughter and words of encouragement fill the air as everyone recounts their journey through the river’s jaws of death. Past a few more bends downriver, your guide points to a beach on the bank and you follow her lead. You cross the flow and enter the calm eddy on the other side, and discover that you have reached your destination and are safely back on dry land. As you disembark from your first voyage, you detach your leash, pull your board onto the beach, your paddle in hand, and raise your voice in gratitude to the canyon walls. As you celebrate victory with your friends you give your guide a big lifejacket hug. The river has not been conquered, it can never be conquered! But you have survived its many temperaments and found a new passion along the way.