There were ten of us perched around the edge of the raft: me, my wife, her family, our river guide. We’d all signed up for an afternoon adventure in the form of whitewater rafting down the American River—some exercise, a bit of a rush, all followed by the reward of an extended float down the lazy river.
And then perhaps five minutes in, things took a turn. The raft swung into a mid-sized vortex and our guide shouted for us to paddle hard and pull the boat around a large flat rock rising up on our right. So we paddled hard. We paddled quite hard. We paddled plenty hard.
We paddled hard. We paddled quite hard. We paddled plenty hard.
But as we curved around the bend, the river got the best of us and our raft ended up parked on this rising rock, listening to the sound of water slapping up against the side of the boat.
No problem, our guide shouted. We just needed to all move to one side of the boat and bounce, together. And we’d pop free and go sailing down and through the churn.
Bounce. Easy. Bounce, bounce. A little harder. Bounce –! and the boat flipped. And I mean completely flipped, flying out from under us, on to who knows where, leaving me, my wife, and her family scattered around the drink.
And I have to admit, even though we were going rafting down a big wet river, taking a full dunk like this was a scenario I had never really considered.
I remember my head going underwater. I remember popping up and shouting, in what I like to think was a sign of solid life priorities, “Where’s my wife?!” She was about 40 yards downstream, it turned out. The guide was already back on board and hard at work, one by one yanking us into the middle of the boat where we sat for a moment or two, shaken and a little bit freaked out, before sort of squishing our way over to our posts on the edge.
As we started moving back down the river, the change in the way we paddled was obvious. Heading toward a rock wall at the next turn, we dug in, I mean really dug in, together, fierce, fighting with the water, paddling like it mattered, because it did matter, and because we knew in our soaked bones what was at stake. The wall came close but we didn’t let the boat hit, and instead we flew on past. It was fantastic.
And here are a couple of things I took away from that glorious soak, which I still count as one of my favorite days to-date: that having something at stake, and everyone knowing what’s at stake, can make the journey not just more successful, but also a hell of a lot more fun. And that you don’t always get to decide how hard “hard work” is. You may think you’re working plenty hard. But sometimes it’s up to the river. The river tells you how hard you need to paddle. And when the river’s got your attention—when it tells you and your crewmates to dig in, and you listen—sometimes you fly.