Last weekend my family rolled into town. A gaggle of nieces and one nephew, my brother and sister-in-law, and my mom and dad, crammed into our small townhouse just long enough to check out our digs and scare the cats. Their collective visit was a rare and splendid occurrence, since it isn't often my family members find themselves on I-80 en route to Yellowstone National Park.
Their arrival was made all the more delightful because it fell on Jubilee Days, a week-long festival of live music and a carnival, a mechanical bull and a rodeo. We listened to an 80's tribute band, feasted on to-go cartons of fish and chips, watched a small boy, wearing chaps and cowboy boots, swinging his miniature Stenson hat, get knocked off the mechanical bull, and then topped the evening off with small towers of Wymoming Black Bear ice cream stacked into cones. The next morning my family departed for a cabin in northwest Wyoming. But not before Micah and I subjected the adults to the story of a young man, a recent college graduate, who wandered off a designated path in Yellowstone and fell into a hot spring.
I assure you we’re not normally in the habit of telling gruesome stories of people being boiled to death. We did it for their own safety. “Do not leave the designated paths. Ever. And do not drive after dark. A park ranger told us it’s extremely dangerous because of the wildlife.” My family heeded the first piece of advice but not the second. I suppose Micah and I also shared this awful tidbit of information because we’ve grown just a little bit cocky in the three years we’ve lived in Wyoming. One buys a can of bear spray and participates in the local “Moose Count Day” and suddenly she think she’s an expert. And then Mother Nature, as if to scold me for getting a little too big for my britches, kicked my ass.
My friend Ruth, whose husband Matt is a river guide on Colorado’s Poudre River, invited me to go rafting with a group of people on Friday. It wasn’t my first run on the Poudre. I’d been two times before. But by Friday morning the rest of the group had backed out because of scheduling conflicts or child care issues. It was just Ruth, Matt, and me in a tiny raft Matt calls the Mini-Me.
Ruth and Matt are bonafide outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to rafting, Matt runs climbing camps and goes caving with his buddies. Ruth runs trail races and is currently on the Tour de Wyoming, biking across large swaths of the state for a total of 358.75 miles. Both Matt and Ruth own snow bikes, which double as their mountain bikes. Hanging out with these two svelte individuals has a way of inspiring one to reach new heights.
“So I was thinking maybe we’d do an eight mile stretch, continuing where we left off last summer,” said Matt.
“That sounds great,” I said, excited for an opportunity to say I’d essentially rafted what any expert guide on the Poudre has rafted.
Matt inflated the bright blue raft. We strapped on our PFD’s (Personal Flotation Devices) and helmets. The previous two times I’d rafted with Matt he’d given an orientation on the do’s and dont’s of rafting. But he skipped it this time. I’d moved into the big leagues. Ruth sat on the front left and I on the front right, with Matt in the rear yelling commands. “Paddle two.” Ruth and I paddled twice, in sync. “Great job, ladies.” My chest inflated ever so slightly with pride.
I marvelled at the beauty of the canyon, the steep cliffs flanking us, and the roar of the class three and four rapids in the distance. We easily navigated through a series of rapids and then floated down stretches of nearly silent river. We got out at one point, our tiny raft waiting for us on the river bank, while we climbed about a hundred feet up the side of a cliff to inspect an abandoned mine. Matt rattled off a series of minerals, among them gold, that men way back when would have been in search of. I imagined these early prospectors dreaming of Edgar Allen Poe’s Eldorado, the land of gold.
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
Back in the Mini-Me we coasted along. Every time I looked up at the sky a warm breeze blew across my face. We came to a class three rapid known as the Horseshoe. As we entered it the right corner of the boat hit a huge boulder. I immediately fell onto Ruth and we toppled over the edge of the raft. When I came up Matt was screaming, “Grab the paddle! Grab the paddle!” But the river was too fast. No matter how hard I tried I couldn’t swim toward him. The pride I’d felt in my chest, not an hour earlier, was replaced with panic. The water was frigid. I tried to keep my eyes on Matt. Save me. Please. Save me, I thought. And just like that Matt grabbed the straps on my PFD and pulled me over the side of the raft.
“Where’s Ruth?” I shouted. “She’s on the bank.” I looked up and saw Ruth sucking water, flailing her arms in the river behind us. “Ruth!,” I screamed. She had nearly made it to the bank before being pulled back into the river. A look of absolute fear came over her already white face. “Grab the paddle!” shouted Matt. She tried several times. And then she had it. Matt and I pulled her back into the boat. Immediately Matt was screaming at us to paddle. We threw our butts back onto the side of the boat and began paddling. “Paddle one...Paddle two...Paddle two.” There was no time to rest or give in to the shock. Thank God that’s over, I thought.
Unbeknownst to me Cardiac Corner was coming, a class four rapid. As we entered it the left side of the boat hit another boulder protuding from the river and suddenly I felt bodies on top of me, then water, then me under the boat. Total darkness. I couldn’t breathe. This is it, I thought. My knee and elbow crunched up against rocks. I felt a surge of pain. Was I drowning? When my head finally came up above water it was like being shocked back to life. I spotted a large yellow raft full of people coming at me and could faintly see the guide’s grim face staring back at me.
I swam as hard as I could toward the bank, using only my arms, for fear of hitting my legs against the rocks. Somehow I grabbed a rock near the bank. It was slimy and the river pulled at the bottom half of my torso, determined to take me down, but if I could have, I swear I would have dug my fingernails into it. I pulled myself onto the rock just as the yellow raft passed me. “Are you alright?” shouted the guide. Stunned, I couldn’t speak. “Are you alright?” he shouted again. I nodded my head yes. A whistle blew in the distance. A man began screaming from his house across the river, trying to tell another raft guide further down the river where I was. I had to scale a cliff and then climbed through brambles and large patches of poison ivy before finally emerging down river. Matt and Ruth were OK. Ruth had a bloodied chin and a banged up knee. Other than my scraped up wedding ring and a bruised elbow I walked away unscathed.
When I told my dad what happened he asked if I had had a near death vision. “No,” I said, surprised by the direction the conversation had taken. He then recounted two stories of near drownings in my family I knew nothing about. The first involved him as a boy at a lake in Iowa. The second involved his grandma as a girl at a lake in Iowa. My great-grandma reported seeing two angels while under water and nearing death. Had I not, that very afternoon, felt myself being pulled toward a tragic fate of my own, I might have found something beautiful in her story.
I’m good at romanticizing these things. The land of gold. Prospectors who double as gallant knights. Angels. Rings of blue and green and orange brought together in a magnificent hot spring. The Mountain West is full of adventures on water, in snow, and through canyons, that often require one pushes past one's fear in search of a beautiful summit or a rush of adrenaline. But fear, I once read, isn't always something we should work to ignore or conquer. In fact, there's a healthy kind of fear. It’s necessary for those times we think, “Huh, something about this doesn’t feel right.” I recall the author telling true stories of people who felt fear but ignored it and consequently put themselves in dangerous and even fatal situations.
Once we emerged from the river, drenched and exhausted, I suddenly remembered a thought I had last summer while rafting on the Poudre. We spotted two people in a Mini-Me being pummeled by the rapids and I thought, I’ll never go on one of those. In fact, I said as much to Micah. But the thought, and fear, faded in the ensuing months. I may have genuinely forgotten, or I may have ignored it as a way to save face. Friday I told Ruth, “I’ll do the big rafts but I’m not going in the Mini-Me again.” This time, I won’t forget. Following my gut instinct is the best life preserver out there.