At the Oars: Notes on Uncomfortable Moments in Nature

Cece at the oars in a rapid! Yikes...

Cece at the oars in a rapid! Yikes…Photo courtesy of Robyn Thomas

Let me just start by saying, it wasn’t that intense. It usually isn’t. This time, it was in a rocky Class 3 rapid on the San Juan River. Overall, this river is super mellow and relaxing but when the time came to go through the most questionable rapid, I happened to be on the least maneuverable boat: a catamaran river raft.

Before the rapid, we pulled all the boats out and our whole group walked ahead to scout and to choose the best route through the rocks. One of our smaller rafts made it through with no problem and then it was the cat’s turn. Our fate was quickly sealed as we went reeling toward the largest rock and slid right up onto it like an orca whale showing off at a Sea World show. I sat there, surely looking slightly alarmed, as Pam got out to try and push us off the rock. Ryan, Alex’s cousin was still at the oars for a moment before handing them over to me and jumping off to push.

“Pam? Pam?” I called, looking over my shoulder for her. “Don’t you think you should be doing this or something?”

Now I was definitely alarmed. I had no idea what I would do if they succeeded in muscling us off the rock. I had kind of steered this monstrous boat on really calm water in the previous days, but there was actually whitewater here…and rocks. So I just sat there holding the oars. I waited to hear the awful sound of us sliding off the rock, which would mean I might have to do something. Yikes! Then the sound came: the scraping of raft rubber on the gritty rock, the slap of the boat onto the water, and the scramble of feet on the running boards as Pam and Ryan hopped back in.

I slid over onto the running board as Ryan took the captain’s seat. I saw the oar being pulled back toward my head and flattened myself on the running board to avoid getting clobbered with the oar.

As we pulled the boats to shore to wait for the rest of the group Pam, with her usual enthusiasm, pumped up my confidence by making me feel like I was really cool by ‘handling the oars’ in the rapid. I laughed at my fear and my clumsy maneuvers, and I recognized the naïve feeling of learning a new skill in nature.

What was familiar to me was that bumbling that happens as you try to pretend like you know what you’re doing. You feel kind of dumb and uncomfortable, but eventually you get better and then something new comes along that makes you feel that way. When I was 18 I went off to Yellowstone to live and work for the summer. I didn’t really know how to set up a tent, how to pack a backpacking pack, how to filter water, how to cook yummy dinners in the backcountry. Now, those things are like second nature to me, but being at the oars in a mellow rapid? I’ll definitely be bumbling.


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