“Let’s paddle Rainie!” my brother, Noah, suggested as we floated the Rogue River in Oregon one August afternoon. On commercial trips, the Class V Rainie Falls gets portaged, but this was a private trip–just my brother, his fellow river guides, and a few friends.
“C’mon, Em, you can just do the middle chute–I’ll do the main one!”
Comforted by the idea that my challenge was the lesser of two, I agreed. We scouted the rapid and portaged all the other boats, leaving two blue duckies–inflatable kayaks–above the falls.
The other guides lined up on the far shore with throw bags, just in case. Then my brother and I scrambled back up the rocks and got in our boats.
Whenever I am in the wilderness with my younger but bigger brother, a part of me feels like we are back in the crabgrass yard in Queens where we played as kids, exploring a 10-by-10-foot square of weeds we called The Mound. Decades and miles had turned the yard into the forest, the mound into the falls. We were straddling the age of 30, but it was like we were in single digits again.
“You go first, Em!” said Noah. “Then I can help you, if you swim. Don’t forget to paddle! It keeps you in the boat.”
My brother is not afraid to swim big rapids, but I am. But I am also of the Annie Oakley school of adventure–anything you can do, I can at least, kind of, try.
I climbed into the boat, pulled into the current and caught the green tongue that led toward the falls. I paddled hard, but the current pulled harder. There was a gathering, a tightening, as before any explosion involving a human body. The fear started in my groin and moved up my spine to quicken my heart, lump in my throat, sharpen my senses.
I couldn’t turn back if I wanted to. What was going to happen was going to happen, but hadn’t happened yet.
It seemed like the right moment, so I offered up a prayer, “Dear God, please see me and my brother safely over this waterfall.”
But I felt no glow, took no comfort, got no answer. I then comprehended, as I never had before, that no one was listening. No God or Great Spirit or Mother Earth was watching me omnisciently, with me omnipresently, controlling my path through the water omnipotently. My thoughts were just electrical impulses moving through a gray jelly encased in breakable bone, my bond with my brother just the execution of genetic code. The river was just water falling over rocks, in accordance with the laws of gravity.
The river had no will of its own. It didn’t particularly want to kill me. It wasn’t there to teach me anything, or even give me a ride. It didn’t care if I lived or died. It was just there.
The sunlight sparkled on the horizon of the green tongue. It curved over the falls’ edge like the infinity pool at a fancy hotel. There was a loudening roar, first just ahead, then all around.
I felt a spike of elation even greater than the fear. Eureka! I knew something for sure. There was no God, no reason to pray, no one listening. I was alone in my brain, alone in the universe, alone on the green tongue.
I could count the boat lengths to the edge.
Now I saw everything, not just the edge of the falls but the whole sky and the river ahead, curving around the next bend. I saw the trees on the banks and the open faces of the spectators, waiting with their throw bags and lifelines. I saw flecks of minerals sparkling in rocks and piles of dead tree branches from when the river swelled.
What if this was the last thing I ever saw? What if after the river took me, it kept me?
When I was young and too scared to kiss boys, I noticed that at a certain point desire overcame fear. The fear never went away and it was always a cold feeling, but desire, aflame, could burn it off like sunlight put to fog. And now, about to fall, about to swim, about to live or about to die, I felt how much greater was my desire to experience this than my fear of what would happen if I did.
I quickened my pace, and began to paddle in earnest, wanting to go over the falls with some momentum. I looked straight ahead, where two rocks marked the entrance like a gate.
Me and you, river, I thought now. Or maybe there is no me, or you.
Something flickered in my peripheral vision. I looked to the rock at the right of the precipice, and there, folding up its wings, was a great blue heron.
In the space of the next stroke, a second heron alighted, next to the first. They stood sentinel, watching the edge.
Please see me and my brother safely over the falls.
The nose of the blue boat made its last upside-down V, and then it was poised over air. I flew free, falling, trying to paddle, catching foam, pawing air. They’re called falls because they fall, I thought gleefully, What a ride! What a ride!
I landed at the bottom, still in the boat, and dug my paddle in, hard, ahead of me, pulling to complete the journey out of the rapid. And that’s when the hole sucked me down.
I lost the boat but held on to the paddle, churning through cold black. It was the same sound as the waves at the beach my dad hurled me into, shouting, “Blow out!”
I wasn’t afraid, in the hole in the river, but I was blind and breathless. Then I popped up, sputtering, got a big breath, heard a shout. “Swim it out!” yelled one of the guides on bank. “You’re fine!”
Before I could tell him I was fine, totally fine, the hole sucked me down again. It’s called getting re-circulated, but I didn’t know that. They said it went on for a minute, but I didn’t know that, either. It was a directionless swirling, and then it was over. I was moving, and there was an opening inside of my ears.
I broke through the surface and there was my boat. I climbed in and paddled ashore to relief, cheers, and rueful head shakes.
We gave my brother the okay sign, and over the main falls he went. He got sucked down in the same hole, and the long minute repeated itself, torture from the shore.
“He’s fine,” muttered the others. “He’ll come up.”
Months later, on a city bus in San Francisco, my brother told me he touched the bottom of the river. “But that’s okay,” he said. “Now I know it’s there.”
Now and then, the bird appears to me, especially when I ask for guidance. I live on a houseboat down by the docks, and I pace them on bad nights. One such night I prayed, and then I heard the rustle. There, picking at the trash in the city marina, was the bird again. He looked right at me with his big, weird eye and his punk-rock head feather, then lifted off and flew in a long, straight line, under the gangplank and out of sight. Maybe the heron is nearby at other times, and I just don’t notice.
I am nothing like a heron. The only thing we have in common is that we were both on the edge of that waterfall that day when I asked for someone, anyone, to watch over us.
I thought the answer was there was no answer. But someone was watching. Not God, but a bird–two.
Photo byNathan LeClair
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