The floating life

The floating life

Going with the flow sounds nice, until the river tries to kill you.
Meg Barnhouse


We thought it would be fun to go on a family tubing outing. I pictured us lazily trailing our fingers in the river, soaking up fresh air, dappled sunlight, silky green water.

My first surprise was when I found out that the two western North Carolina rivers I thought of for tubing don’t have water all the time. It's not that sometimes there is rain and sometimes there is drought. I mean that Duke Energy Company opens the gates on the dam some days, and you have to call the tubing place around ten on the day you want to go to find out whether there will be water. You have to be in the river by one because there won't be enough water after that.

We called around ten. There was going to be water. We left plenty of time to get there, but some friends wanted to come, and we needed to stop for suntan lotion. The place was only five miles from the turn-off, but it was a winding five miles where, if you pushed over 35 miles an hour, you were taking your life in your hands. We ran for the campground office as soon as we got there. The woman behind the counter seemed calm but her husband was making big “hurry up” gestures with his arms and shouting, “Come on! Let’s go! Let’s get in the bus now!”

We ran for the bus and he floored it around the road’s curves with the six of us and six of another family, grandmother, mama, daddy, grandfather, two little kids, maybe 8 and 9 years old. Screeching to a stop by a rickety railing by some steps leading down to the river, he ran around the back of the truck and pulled the bungee cord off of twelve big yellow plastic donuts. “If you make it through this part, you’ll have no trouble after this!” he said, a little too cheerfully. “Keep the little ones in front of you. That way if they get in trouble you can be right there.”

We nodded, and he dropped us into the water. It was rough whitewater sliding over big smooth rocks, which we cleared, and we were all OK on the other side of them. We got ready to relax and go with the flow.

The current was swift, and the lightweight kids were swept away fast out of sight. At the next rapids I got dumped out. My tube was so tightly inflated and the current was so fast that it was hard to get back up on it. With my friend’s help I finally managed, heart beating wildly, sending up thanks for the weights I’d worked with at the gym over the past months and for her lifeguard training and lifeguard nature. I gave up going with the flow, kicking my feet to get to the middle of the river because the flow kept taking me toward the bank into eddies under low-hanging trees. That sounds lovely, except the branches were covered with spiders. I don’t mind spiders one at a time, but in a herd they get to me.

I alternated between kicking to try to control where I was and telling myself to surrender to the experience. People are always telling me to take it easy, be a feather on the breath of God, not try to control things so much. Maybe, I had the brief thought, if I surrendered, the river would respond from its best self and give me a nice ride. After going with the flow into a submerged tree, getting caught in its branches, and managing to kick off from it without getting a foot caught, I decided I was through with surrendering. I was going to steer as hard as I could.

I had lost sight of my friend when the river took her around one side of a long island and my son, his girlfriend, and me down the other. The river was very shallow at this point, and rocky. One big smooth rock caught my tube and flipped me out into the water, so I tried to stand up. It should have been easy enough; the water was less than knee deep, but the current kept sweeping my feet out from under me. It ripped the tube out of my hands. Suddenly I remembered a paddler friend saying, “When you lose control, just point your feet downstream and go.” So I did. I became a human raft, bouncing and scraping over the rocks, crashing into my son, his friend, and my tube under a tree on a shallow beach. We rested a while. Surely it wouldn’t be too much longer to the place where we could get out.

Finally we caught sight of my friend downriver, and she was shaken up. She’d come upon the little girl from the other family caught in a sucking swirl of water that was bouncing her tube around amongst some rocks, threatening to upend her, not letting her go. My friend, the lifeguard, made her way over to the girl. While freeing her, she was herself jammed by the swirl headfirst into some submerged rocks. It was a pure World Wrestling Federation pile-drive from the river. She’d managed to get back on the yellow tube, only to be swept a few moments later into a submerged tree, dumped again, and made to fight through the branches against the strong current to find the surface. It sounded like the river was trying to kill her.

We all made it back to the campground, relieved that everyone in both families was alive, mad at the tubing man for acting like this stretch of the river was no big deal. I was bruised dark purple and scraped raw for a week. My friend was fine until the second day, when her neck seized up and would not move for a week.

My picture of tubing as a lazy float is in shreds. My trust in the guy at the journey’s edge who speaks reassurances is gone. Whatever faith I had in sweet surrender to the Flow is on hiatus. Who says you have to be reverent about the flow, anyway? Why should I trust it? Do I just surrender to every flow that comes along? I'm not an easy-flowing person. I don't like being introduced to a branch full of spiders. That's going to make me kick. Am I unspiritual? Heck no. You know why? I’m part of this flow. My kicking is part of what happened at the river that day.

May I have the wisdom to know when to steer, when to glide, and when to kick like hell to change my situation.

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