On the river there was never any doubt that we might die in the next rapid. But the fact is, river deaths are rare. Death by hiking is much more popular. People fall from cliffs or die of thirst with some regularity in Grand Canyon. Or they suffer a heart attack when flipped into 50-degree Colorado River water. It looks like death by drowning but isn’t. Those who die in the river seldom drown.
I’ve spent unwanted time in the river at least three times. The first was a run through House Rock rapid, my maiden voyage in my own boat. I was on a private trip in November. We were all wet-suited up and the light was closing down and the cold was coming. My boat was a 12-foot rubber Apache, and my passenger was an irrepressible young woman named Delia who insisted on riding with me for the month we were on the river together. She had plenty of choices and I was the only novice, and I thank her every time I think of her, which is often. I dumped her in the first major rapid of our journey, and dumped her again at Lava Falls, the last. Both times we just held onto the upside-down boat, got to shore, dusted ourselves off, and with the help of our friends righted the boat and climbed in again. There’s little comfort in stopping to think about what’s just happened, because rapids keep coming and coming when you’re headed downstream, and you’ve got no choice but to negotiate the next stretch as best you can. And it focuses you to pay attention to water. It’s like writing in that way, totally absorbing and time-defying. A cold swim in a swift river can put you in a trance.
Twenty-five years later, I got to meet the innards of the river again. But unlike the first two baptisms, where I was rolled from side to side and up and around and didn’t spend memorable time under the water’s surface, my swim through Bedrock rapid pinned me to the underside. My boat rolled up onto a large chunk of pink granite in the middle of the river, and did not flip but ejected me. I still have a scar on my foot to prove it. I didn’t know anything for what seemed like a very long time, then my mind woke up just enough to understand the weight and color of something on top of my head. It was, I realized, the river.
I was underwater for no more than a minute, but a minute, as you can imagine, is a certain kind of forever. The current that held me down felt like a pair of liquid arms. I began to feel my lungs aching and I noticed the darkness of the water above me and realized I would have to work, to “bestir myself,” to get to air. Such a simple thing, breathing. Such an essential part of each living moment. I kicked and rose, kicked again and rose. The water paled. I saw light coming through the liquid canopy above me, and oddly, that was the moment I became not afraid but resigned to death. I thought, what an end to a life. What a waste, to die in this river. Instead of increasing my will to live, I was touched with realism as I approached the surface. The surface was still far enough away to be out of reach. I could clearly see the possibility of not being able to reach it. I wanted to reach it, but knew I might not. Sober, was my feeling. Sober, and a little sad. A this-is-it moment without the fuss of great emotion. Great emotion was not part of the ending of my life, apparently. Even as I broke the surface and opened my throat to the air, I felt still and quiet. Joy wasn’t there, nor grief, nor relief. Just the edge of sky, a pale blue line above the canyon wall, like a second river I would someday swim up through.
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