The first present my husband ever gave me was a red life jacket. It was my twentieth birthday, and because he had overlooked wrapping paper, he presented it to me half-disguised in a soft camouflage rifle case that belonged to his friend. At the time, I was just barely becoming accustomed to calling him my “boyfriend.”
The life jacket was significant in that he made a living, during his college summers, of guiding whitewater rafting trips for tourists–tourists who wore large, awkward orange life jackets, not at all as sporty or as professional-looking as this red one. Now I would look like I belonged on the river. With him.
I had always respected and loved the water, had grown up waterskiing in lakes and bodysurfing in the ocean and learning strokes in pools. I had waded rivers with a fly fishing rod. And I had been a tourist a couple times on the kind of whitewater trip that my “boyfriend” guided: the splashy, family-friendly kind. As I pulled that red life jacket from its too-small makeshift gift wrap, I decided I should add rafting to my water repertoire. If I was going to date him, it seemed I needed to prove I could do it.
But the truth is that it all terrified me. Even while floating the eight mile stretch of river that he ran twice a day every day all summer, with wee kids as young as five or six in his boat, I clenched my fists and my teeth, convinced I should’ve called my mother beforehand to tell her I loved her. (I’m only very slightly joking.)
That was all nine years ago now, and the river has become part of my life in a way I couldn’t have imagined then, on my twentieth birthday. It quite literally provides a good part of our livelihood. And I still clench my fists a little in the midst of those familiar rapids.
The river is also where I can (figuratively) find my husband when I’m looking for him. That is why I left with him last week on a 5-day wilderness river trip in Idaho. I was the only woman in a party of nine otherwise river-rugged boaters. We packed our gear while it snowed. We packed dry suits so that, if we fell into the freezing river while navigating one of the rapids, we wouldn’t immediately become hypothermic. We packed a small barrel of whiskey for camp. I packed a small discreet bag that included my expensive facial moisturizer and beta-hydroxy pads, so I could maintain my nightly complexion regimen. I also packed Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, from which I removed the dust jacket in the hopes that I could conceal from these eight men that I was reading leisurely about “Women, Work and the Will to Lead” in the middle of the woods.
I was scared. The water would be big and cold, and we would be out in the remote wilderness, far from modern safety nets like hospitals and ambulances. And my husband knew I was scared. So on day two, as we came around a bend and into a stretch of Class II whitewater, the smallest named rapids on the trip, he stood from his seat at the oars, motioned for me to take his place. I protested, but I knew the look on his face: he was not going to sit back down. So I took up the oars–something I had done before in flat, lazy water, but not in properly named and classified rapids. I strained against the push of the water and the awkwardness of the long, heavy oars. My husband coached me through each maneuver, each necessary angle, each hazard to avoid, each move toward or away from this or that feature in the river.
I found out that he is a good, patient teacher, an empowering teacher. I also found out that I am somewhat more capable than I had originally thought in the realm of running whitewater. Around the campfire that night, with our feet buried in river sand, the guys on our trip (gratuitously, but nonetheless) commented on the quality of the lines I took through those very smallest of rapids. I won’t deny that I swooned at their compliments. But mostly I was glad to have participated more fully than before in my husband’s life.