“‘I’m afraid’ is always what stands between us and the page. When people talk about ‘discipline,’ they are really talking about how do you get past ‘I’m afraid.’”
-The Right to Write, page 89
My mother tells me she had me swimming when I was six months old, but I suspect there’s something more to it. I’ve always been drawn to water. As a child my parents took my brother and me to a huge Army Corps of Engineers reservoir near their home, and we would wade through shin-deep muck or jump off rocks into the deep green abyss. The depths were frightening. I imagined giant fish or the extended twigs from submerged trees swishing past treading feet. I was scared by what I couldn’t see, and water hid a world I didn’t understand, but I was drawn just the same, and I submerged myself in that murky mystery as often as I could.
As I grew taller and the world expanded, my attention to water developed. I’d join friends and set canoes on the meandering sensibilities of Appalachia’s gentle streams. Suspended over deep, reflective riverbeds, diffused sunlight playing on leafy banks, we would watch the rhythmic beat of a great blue heron’s wings over the glassy shine. The meditation was broken only by sounds from the gentle strokes of our paddles and the hollow resonance of clunking aluminum underfoot. There were smells of loam and maple and honeysuckle caried by the wind.
There’s a place near my parents’ house where we used to carry giant inner tubes along an old railroad track to a deep, motionless window-clear spring. Where the spring emerged from the riverbank leaves, we released ourselves to the current’s gentle whims. Time stood still.
As our world grew, a rocky perch far above the meanders offered perspective. Looking down from sandstone cliffs we recognized the river for its parts. We saw that the fish fed the eagle, that the eagle discarded parts for the otter. We saw that the forest filtered rain and that the river delivered fertile soils to its banks. We saw that for the balance to remain we must protect the parts and pieces that make the river whole.
It took time for the lessons to sink in, but we eventually saw our friendship as a reflection of the river. We recognized our bond for its parts, and we realized we must protect the parts and pieces to maintain the bond over the minutes and miles that life placed between us. One of the pieces of that friendship we chose to protect was the river. It was our temple. It was our classroom. It was our bond.
My own meandering path eventually led west where I continued to be drawn to water. Along the rugged spine of the Rocky Mountains, my attraction evolved. Western rivers are wild, remote and untamed, an arena in which I continued to test my fears. An old girlfriend taught me how to navigate rivers in a hard-shell kayak, and I rapidly excelled, working my way from wide, gentle streams to some of the West’s most challenging whitewater torrents.
It was mid-June in Central Idaho, about two weeks after my departure from Colorado, and the rivers were swollen with near-record levels of icy runoff from vast fields of snow tucked high in the state’s craggy peaks. It was beautiful-but-cool, a piercing azure ceiling overhead, and I joined two men from Sun Valley to travel north into the mountains to test our fears on a stream none of us had tested before.
The creek we sought was obscure. Nestled in the Salmon River Mountains near the ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza, it was in a valley filled with piles of rock-pile tailings left in the wake of a huge gold dredge owned by potato magnate J.R. Simplot. It was also an area home to a huge open-pit gold mine about five miles up a tributary called Jordan Creek. In 1997, after a mere two years of operation, the Grouse Creek Gold Mine closed. It was supposed to be a state-of-the-art paragon of how large-scale, modern-day mining could be done in harmony with the environment. At the mine’s dedication on August 12, 1995, in front of four-hundred and fifty Idaho residents, Hecla Chief Executive Art Brown called the mine an “environmentally safe, efficient mine.”
That was then.
A few years later cyanide and heavy metals were discovered in the creek downstream of the mine’s five-hundred million gallon tailings pond, which was below an enormous rust-colored gash in the side of a mountain. The curious part of the Grouse Creek story was that the state of Idaho has declared the entire Yankee Fork of the Salmon River Valley downstream a state park. “The Land of the Yankee Fork State Park brings to life Idaho’s frontier mining history,” the state promotional literature read. And, indeed, it did. Idaho’s frontier mining history was still flowing in the area’s streams, cyanide and toxic metals poisoning the endangered salmon that returned there every summer from the Pacific Ocean to spawn.
The section of whitewater we sought was on the Yankee Fork of the Salmon River. For forty miles or more it meanders alongside a well-maintained dirt road, but there’s a short section at Five Mile Creek where it drops into a steep, tight gorge for two miles. The section of river is short, but it’s tangled full of house-size boulders and drops with a high-mountain stream’s characteristic steep gradient. I’d hiked the gorge a few summers before when it was no longer swollen with runoff. It was August, and I’d jumped off a small ledge into a shallow pool to discover a massive chinook salmon clinging to the final threads of her remarkable existence, a life that began in those very waters. I knelt in the pool to watch her, her scales falling away, her jaw opening, then closing and opening again.
The big fish don’t return to the mountain waters of Central Idaho in the storied numbers they once did, eight dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers downstream blocking their nine-hundred-mile migrations to and from the sea. But there she was, returned from a journey that took her as far away as Japan and Alaska, and I watched her for a long time and contemplated the completed cycle of life. “In this, her death, she has survived,” I later wrote in a journal.
Anyway, I always wanted to see what the canyon below Five Mile Creek looked like during spring runoff. The three of us walked with nervous energy along the bank of the first series of rapids and agreed they were navigable. We floated the first half mile of steep sloping ledges, portaged some wood and a waterfall, and then arrived at a dramatic series of rapids where a landslide filled the river with sharp, angled rocks, the river tumbling over and through great tangles of debris.
Only two of us elected to run the rapid, the third declaring it unsafe. He set up on the right bank half-way through the mess with a safety rope in hand should anything go wrong.
The deafening roar of the river drown our voices, and there was nervous energy between my riverbound companion and I as we prepared to release ourselves to the current. We snapped neoprene spray skirts around the plastic combing of the cockpit rims of our kayaks, then discussed the rapid, which we couldn’t see from they eddy where we waited. I agreed to give my companion a twenty-second head start to get underway before following. He issued a few grunts to energize himself, took a few paddle strokes and was gone. And there I sat in the calm of the pool listening to the roar of the nearby river, feeling reflective, feeling excited, feeling frightened.
But that’s what I arrived for. The fear energized me. I remembered the first time I kayaked an expert-level rapid years before. As I approached the ominous horizontal line of the horizon, little spates of foam flipping into the air from below, I was so stricken with fear that my bladder failed, and warm urine trickled into the seat of my boat making my butt itch.
The strange thing was, I wasn’t paralyzed by it. It was bladder-releasing fear but not paralyzing fear. There’s a fine line, I supposed, but I never crossed it. I had never been unable to act, or react, because of fear. My bladder, on the other hand, had failed on rivers several times.
Resigned to my decision to run the scary rapid–and having spent a half-hour memorizing it–I dug my paddle without further thought into the water and let the current take over. Kayaking difficult rivers was akin to my early experiences jumping off of high cliffs into the deep green waters of my childhood. I’d stare at the distance, entranced by the task, but when I finally decided to jump, I did so without thinking, placing faith in my prior assessment. Once I jumped, instinct took over. Fear was present, but it ebbed to the back of my mind. It was a strange kind of involuntary control over emotion.
That’s what I did when I dug my paddle into the water and released myself to the current. I placed faith in my prior assessment and let instinct and intuition take over. As I melted through the first series of ledges, I looked up to get my bearings. Things weren’t going well. My friend was fighting against some rocks on the far side of the river, far off our intended course. It was only the beginning of a long and complex rapid, and it wasn’t a place where I was able to help. I was on-line, and so remained focused on my own survival, trusting instincts and reflexes I’d trusted before. I slipped through a slot, moved left and soared over a dangerous reef of rocks, melting through a final frothy wave and pulled into the calm of a pool behind a large rock. I worked to collect myself, steadying my heaving breaths, and anticipated my friend’s arrival.
He didn’t arrive. Minutes passed, and, still, he didn’t arrive. I began to consider climbing onto shore to peek upstream when a flash of yellow from the hull of his kayak appeared. Upside down, he dropped over the rapid’s final ledge onto the shallow reef of rocks, where his head made a jarring impact. He was feebly trying to right his upside-down boat, but the river had a different plan. He was pushed into a pile of rocks to which neither of us paid attention during our pre-run preparations. Water poured through the loose jumble of stones, and his upside-down boat wedged firmly in a crevice. The pressure from the water lodged him there, and the dire situation quickly became apparent. In kayaking parlance, the pile of rocks is called a sieve, and the predicament often proves fatal. Both the man on shore and I recognized the ominous circumstances immediately.
I was on the wrong side of the river to help. The man with the rope scrambled down the bank. He moved fast, but there was little he could do. The emergency was in the middle of the river, a place to which neither of us could get to quickly. Time seemed to crawl. Thirty seconds. A minute. Two minutes.
The boat still upside down, half wedged in the sieve along with logs and sticks and other river detritus, I began to feel hope slipping away.
And then his head began to surface, barely at first, lips open in a great gasp for air. His strength clearly gone, he clawed his way to the rocks with his body still dangling dangerously into the rocks. He stayed that way for a long time, lingering on the precarious edge between life and death, and, then, inch by inch, a process that seemed to take minutes, dragged his body up and onto the rocks. He was still in the middle of the river with a foam-spitting rapid rushing by, but he was safe. And, for a long time, nobody moved. The world, it seemed, stopped. Nobody moved for a long, long, long time.
“This was really, really bad,” said the man with the rope while we worked to extricate the boat. Our other friend sat near the riverbank staring blankly at the passing water. The comment was unnecessary. We all knew how close we came to death that day.
Later, on the highway back to town, my mind worked. At what point was enough enough? I loved running rapids like that because it was a pure and inescapable form of meditation. There was nothing else a person could think about when in that white contemplative space, a foamy room of instinctive thoughts and reflexes. And though I felt like my skills had been up to the test that day, anything could go wrong. Sometimes I wondered if I should train myself to back off, but then that meditation I craved would be lost. I wondered if I should continue to drag my friends to places like that, where things could go wrong and I could share in the blame for an ill-advised adventure I alone conceived.
That hadn’t been the first time such an event crossed my life. When I was ten I’d been riding speedy runner sleds after school with a childhood friend, a story I hadn’t considered since discussing it with a woman in Colorado a months before.
On our after-school adventure the two of us found ourselves careening down steep alleys, and at the alleys’ intersections with streets, we carried our momentum across the asphalt and hit the snow of the adjacent alley, continuing in an adventurous white winter blur.
As dusk began to settle over the little Appalachian town, we decided to go one more time. We hiked back up the alley to where it merged with a meadow that overlooked the twinkling lights of the sleepy berg below. The snow was crusted with ice from a rain that soaked in and refroze. After arguing about who would have the honor of leading—important in the world of boys—we set off, me following my friend. I watched as he lay on his sled and slipped into the night. When we approached the edge of the clearing and the alley’s upper extremity, the trees, coal against a slate sky, grew before us: twisted creatures with contorted arms. We flashed through the outstretched pine boughs and accelerated into the cold darkness below.
I watched the ride develop. The wind bit my cheeks as garages, back yards and fences ticked by. I could see my friend not far in front, and I lowered my head to improve my aerodynamics in an attempt to catch up or pass him. I couldn’t see his face when he hit the alley’s intersection with the street, but I like to think our smiles were equally as big at that moment.
But that’s when and how he died. Heart jumping, gut wrenching, flying on the wings of adventure, weightless, sailing through the winter wind with and ear-to-ear grin, he was plucked from the world and cast to the cold, hard asphalt by a passing car. He was broken and snarled in a tangle of twisted steel and splintered wood.
A woman emerged from behind the steering wheel.
“Did I hit your dog?” she asked.
“No. You hit my friend,” I returned and ran to the front of the idling vehicle where I knelt on the asphalt to look into the jaws of a terrible monster.
My memory is mixed with the smell of leaking antifreeze, chirps from the steering wheel woman and visions I wish I could forget. But one image is emblazoned on my brain above others, a vision I’ll be able to call on my life long: a trickle of thick green snot seeped from the dead boy’s nose, which split the space between two big, unblinking brown eyes.
The day’s river events were too close, and I wondered why I continued to flirt with the boundaries of safety—and to drag my friends to those places. I felt an instinctive need to feed an unquenchable thirst for fear. It was a driving force in my life, but something didn’t connect. Something didn’t fit.
Maybe I should hang this sport up, I thought, move on to one where I can be a beginner or intermediate again and feel the total absorption in a safer environment, not drag friends along for activities that could put them in harm’s way.
If nothing else, I certainly didn’t want to be responsible for a friend’s death. That was something I hoped would never happen again.
© Greg Stahl