For three summers during my university years I worked at Wilderness Tours Whitewater Rafting. Looking back on it now I realize the truth of all those metaphors about “life as a river.”
Everything I ever really needed to know I learned from the plumes of whitewater of the Ottawa River.
1. Sometimes golden opportunities lie right in front of us, and we don’t even see them. My mother grew up walking distance from those Ottawa River rapids. Her parents warned her and her siblings to “stay away!” For local residents of the time, the rapids represented a fear-inducing hazard to transportation and nothing more. Later, at the age of 16 I drove along the back roads in that area, and I saw a small, hand-painted sign pointing to Wilderness Tours. I had never heard of the fledgling business, and I scoffed at the idea. What kind of wilderness could they tour through here? I wondered. Joe Kowalski saw the opportunity in those rapids, and he created Wilderness tours.
2. We’re all in the same boat, but some people do more work than others. Those rapids are powerful. For the guide to steer the raft properly, and for the boat to navigate the rapid safely, everybody needs to paddle. It’s hard work. Every boat has some keeners who paddle hard and enthusiastically, some who do their part but don’t push themselves too hard, and others who slack off out of laziness or fear. It’s just the way it is. No point in grumbling about it, folks. If you’re one of the paddlers, don’t waste time complaining. Just get to it.
3. Those who paddle the hardest get the most out of the experience. The paddlers sit high in the raft looking downstream. They have the best view of the cascading water and the pines against the skyline. They hear the roar of the water exploding against the rocks. They derive satisfaction from knowing they did their part. They hoot and holler and have a blast. The ones slinking to the bottom of the raft or clinging to the side miss some of the beautiful view and don’t get the same reward out of the experience.
4. Just because some people don’t paddle doesn’t mean we can throw them out of the boat. We take care of each other. That’s just what we do.
5. Life jackets recommended. There are many different kinds of life jackets, and no one agrees on which one is best. Some people might not want to wear one. “Life jackets are for the weak,” they might say. On calm water, life jackets seem cumbersome and unnecessary. But the river is a power greater than ourselves. Even strong swimmers need a little help.
6. Point your feet downstream and enjoy the ride. Sometimes we fall out of the boat. It happens, so we have to deal with adversity. If that happens, point your feet downstream and enjoy the ride. Don’t fight the current. That just makes things worse. Align with the flow.
7. It helps to be in good physical condition. Fitness makes it easier to paddle and easier to recover. Fitness doesn’t make the ride any longer, but it helps you to enjoy it trip fully as long as it lasts.
8. Every trip involves some long stretches of calm water and some rapids. The water is not still for long; rapids await around the bend. The whitewater does not churn for long; tranquil waters await around the bend. Don’t be fooled into thinking either will last. Instead, consider how to respond to each situation. What do you do when the water is calm? Sing, maybe? Tell jokes? Lean back and relax? And how do you face the whitewater? With determination? Hard work? Watching it bravely as it washes over you?
9. It’s not all fun and glamour. You might be fooled into believing that life is just a fun ride for those fit, sun-blessed river guides. But those same river guides who smile on your day, make you laugh and give you an exhilarating ride are in the kitchen early in the morning chopping onions and peeling carrots. At the end of the day they patrol the grounds picking up cigarette butts and litter. Below the surface of all good things lies preparation and some unpleasant grunt work.
10. Even with the cigarette butts and crying onion eyes, life is fun. On the river, dangling your fingers in the water, feeling the sun warm on your face, watching an osprey circles overhead, looking forward with anticipation to the next wild ride, the grunt work is a distant memory.
11. Eventually all things come to an end. The rafts dock on a beach. The teams cheer for a day lived fully. People talk about the memories and the highlights, and then the sun sets and everyone gets ready for the next trip.