Adopted by the river.

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.



9 thoughts on “Adopted by the river.

  1. I grew up in Southern California, tried surfing for a couple of years (failed miserably) + now am married to a Canadian who loves the rivers + lakes. Funny, being out in the wide open ocean never scared me, but I’m still not familiar with the language of rivers + they freak me out!!!! We’ve been Stand Up Paddle Boarding when it’s warm out + I hope to gain more confidence! Thanks for this post!

    • Thanks, Shelli! I so relate to what you’ve said. So interesting how people who love water are attracted to each other, and how complicated it can be when those bodies of water are so different from each other. Luckily Stand Up Paddle Boarding is about as close to an ocean sport as you can get in the river– good luck with it!

  2. I love this — both the idea of you becoming empowered by finding strength (and lack of fear) where you didn’t know you had it and the idea that you get to see a new side to your husband. And I also love the part of him being your teacher — and a good one, at that. I find the same thing when DH teaches me something about a language. He is patient and kind and I can see why other people think he’s so good at what he does. And I wish I could get closer to it the way you can by taking a river trip with your husband. So important to be nudged out of comfort zones and see the world from his POV — think of how much this has changed in the last almost decade (!). xo

    • Yes. SO much has changed in an almost-decade, in both of us. He admitted to me on this trip that, on that first trip (the one you’ve read about), he actually didn’t know as much as he thought he did, didn’t know as much as he does now. It was also enlightening to watch the way the rest of his employees, also on the trip with us, respected his judgement and looked to him for leadership at certain pivotal moments. There’s something very powerful about seeing this person I know so well through the eyes of other people who also know him very well in an entirely different context.

      Perhaps you could… study an ancient Latin dictionary with your DH?!


      • HA! No way. I think him helping me with German is enough. But I did go watch him lecture once and it was…hot. I mean, the way he listened to the students and then the way they responded to him — lovely to see. So amazing to see him outside our relationship.
        And also it’s so interesting to see them evolve in their work — of course DH didn’t know as much then. But in our youth we think we know more than we actually do…


  3. this is a gorgeous post and I was so happy to wake up to it. i love the contrast of you and your wedding planning letter pressed self and the wild currents of your hearty husband and the river. what is really wonderful about a partner, is a partner who pushes you to extend yourself beyond what you thought you could ever do, who makes your brave and courageous.

    • Thanks, BeZ. So agreed. I read your comment to the man himself, and he was quite flattered as well. It is a secret pleasure of mine to hear my husband remark on a particularly creative invitation design or well-styled table, just as I’m sure it means something to him to see me on the oars of his boat.

  4. This post makes me both cringe at the thought of how cold the water must have been and admire your courage. I love that you took your moisturizer. Perfect!

    • Thanks, FP. The water was indeed SO cold! At one point I decided I needed a little bath and jumped into the river at camp, just up to my waist, and immediately stopped breathing.

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