This past week our family took another summer pilgrimage to a northwest mountainous location. Our goal was to gain some rest, some altitude and perspective on life as we know it. Our playground was the Glacier National Park region of northwest Montana. This is one of the most magnificent areas of the country I've ever witnessed. We scheduled several activities that let us get in touch with the land, air, trees, and water. Most of our activities had an element of potential danger so we were under the good care of several guides along the way. Early in the week we were guided up the winding path of the mountain landscape in a 30's style open-top red bus. Later in the week we took a full trip down the middle fork river along the park with our white-water rafting guide. We ended the week with two guides who took us on the 50mph+ zip lines through the forest, and finally a guided tour 70 feet in the air among the forest treetops along narrow suspension bridges.
Every time I meet the power of nature I am reminded of the memorable journies we've made along the rivers here in southern Washington, Oregon and Montana. I learned some important lessons on that first journey down the White Salmon river a few years ago.
A Personal Journey, with some friends
Several years ago our family made our semi-annual trip to the mountains. We wanted to add to the adventure by making our first white water rafting trip. We made plans for the trip early in the week and later after making the reservations, we saw the pictures of the rafts going down the route we would be taking. My wife and I wondered what we had gotten ourselves into.
We were both apprehensive and a bit nervous about our trip that morning. I looked again at the pictures, trying not to mention anything to my kids, especially my daughter who tends to be the most cautious of our bunch. She was convinced from the literature that this would be a "family friendly" event. I was thinking Grizzly Adams family maybe, but not this suburban clan.
We drove across the Oregon/Wash. border, back into Washington and were met with some of the most beautiful scenery in the NW. As we drove through the countryside, in view to the north was Mt. Adams and to the south Mt. Hood. In between were lush meadows and rivers. But we had one river on our mind, the White Salmon was before us. It was not just a destination, but a journey for journey sake.
At the rafting base we checked in and anxiously awaited our group to get together for basic training. We donned our wet suits, jackets and booties. We got our life vests and helmets. At this point everyone was dressed in black and blue. I had a hard time spotting my family since we all looked like a cross between darth vader and the smurfs. My wife and I observed that at this point we were all equals. No matter where we had all come from, most of us were here for the first time and we wanted to challenge ourselves. Like the half-shekel atonements from each Israelite, we were all equal before our Creator.
The River Whisperer
It was time for training and we all gathered outside, sitting on bleachers with a raft before us. Ben, a skinny man who barely filled out his wet suit stood before us, his long hair blowing in the wind beside his trimmed beard. He was an energetic man in his early thirties. His explanations met our eyes us with a brilliant stare. He could have easily casted the lead role in any "J.C. Superstar" production. He told us with great caution that several of us may choose to take the risk of going over the 12 foot Husum falls near the end of the journey. He said that he wanted to walk around those falls, but some may want to go over. His warnings were stern because he had seen many hurt going over those falls, and he wanted to walk around them.
Ben taught us about the raft we would be in, and how to use it so we would stay safe. He showed us how to brace our legs to stay in the boat when it was tossed about, and how to jump down and become part of the raft as it went through rough waters. We were taught the signals for how and when to row. Through this I realized that each member of the raft was vitally important. The guide was there to steer and call out what to do, but he was dependent on the skills of the people up front.
Six rafts would set out together on that day's journey. There were six separate guides ready to lead their crews. Ben took his list and named out families, putting them in their respective rafts. Our names came up last, and to our delight, Ben would be our guide.
We gathered up together for a departing photo. None of us had an inkling of what was before us, but we knew that we had an experienced hand to show us the way. We turned from our photographed place and started our journey toward the river bank. The river was audible, but a daunting reality set in as we saw the descent to where the river flowed. It seemed like 200 hundred stairs, steep and winding as they dipped below the safety of our instructional raft. To the side as I descended, I saw long parallel poles pointing down toward the water like parallel bars into an abyss. Is this how they launch people into the river I ask myself? No, this must be how they lower the rafts. With the descent my dread of the unknown becomes ever more daunting. My youngest son trots down the steps with no fear to behold.
Near the bottom of the stairs I finally spot the six rafts, tied to the river bank waiting for their masters. Ben guides us to our boat and starts asking who would be in the back, middle, and the front where all the water comes. My youngest son wants to be in the front. My heart tells me to be in the middle since that is where I always want to settle myself, but I choose to sit in the front with my son so I can experience the unknown with him. As we all sit in the raft in our designated positions, Ben gives us more instruction. With paddles in hand he teaches us the calls he will make from the back. We have to all work together and be strong paddlers to do well on our journey. On each side, right and left need to work in synchronization to keep the raft stable. We learn the back stroke and the forward stroke. We learn when to work with each other, and when to work opposite each other. All along the confidence and reassuring nature of Ben is there to encourage us and put a healthy fear of the river in us.
Lech Lecha - Departing from Yourself
Ben takes his place in the back of the raft, with his two special long paddles in hand. He adjusts his helmet, brushing his long hair to the side to be ready for the journey. He tightens our life vests and pushes off from the shore. We test our newly learned skills. All Forward. All Back. Left back, Right forward. Stop.
I look back up the stream and see the glistening of sunlight off the rushing waters. Above me are the huge walls of the forest surrounding the life giving waters. It was a perspective I had never had before, having been only ever a dry shore goer. It was time to start our journey.
... to be continued ...