Wisdom from Whitewater


Last week I met up with my family in Maine. The kids had been at a sailing camp. Now camp was over, my work was over, and we could all have some fun. Dad made plans for the whole family to go whitewater rafting on the Kennebunk River, so on Monday morning we got up before 5 and drove to the base lodge of the North Country Rivers rafting company.

Whitewater rafting requires a great deal of preparatory effort. You get loaded up with uncomfortable gear (a helmet, a lifejacket, a paddle, and if you’re wise, extra clothes so you don’t go hypothermic in that chilly Maine river). Then you take a long, bumpy bus ride sweating in all that extra clothes, wondering if this is really going to be fun enough to be worth all the trouble. If you’ve gone whitewater rafting before (I have, in Costa Rica), and you are the adventuresome sort, then you know that it is. But, if you are a first-timer, you may have your doubts. My kids had their doubts, and I got some pushback. After all, they had no idea what they were in for, and it was 70 degrees out—they thought I was insane for advising wet suits. So they bargained me down to windbreakers and booties provided by the company and grumbled about the early hour, long car ride, long bus ride, uncomfortable clothes, and a few other things I’ve decided to forget about.

One of the guides gave us a preparatory talk on the bus ride up. He was an excellent orator—turns out he’s a Maine State Senator and whitewater rafting is his weekend gig. (I was impressed. Not all senators pad their meager salaries with graft! Some actually work for extra cash!) But what was really impressive was the glib way he tossed off major life lessons under the guise of whitewater raft safety.

I had just wrestled my kids into windbreakers they were sure they didn’t need. (Later, they admitted they were glad for them, and probably should have taken me up on the wet suits too!) But at the moment they were still grumbling, so I resisted pointing out that everything the senator/guide said could apply to far more than whitewater rafting and they should really pay attention to this font of wisdom.

But since this is my blog, I totally get to point that all out right here, right now. And so I give you the Maine State Senator/Whitewater Rafting Guide’s Rules for Safety (and Wisdom).

The senator/guide introduced his safety talk by explaining that at least a few of us would get tossed from the raft. When this happened, it was our job was to get back to the raft. Because when you are riding rapids, the safest place is in the raft.

First Rule: If you fall out, don’t freak out.

Freaking out doesn’t help anyone. It doesn’t help you, and it doesn’t help the people trying to help you. As long as you are conscious, you need to remain calm, find the raft, and point yourself in the right direction. If you possibly can, start swimming towards the raft.

This is not the moment to take things personally. It is not the moment to beat yourself up, start crying, consider the unfairness of it all, or review your life choices. The river did not have it out for you. It did not single you out for this soaking because you deserved it, or are in some way special, or are a particular brand of loser—this is just what happens when you go rafting. Now deal with it without all the drama. If you start screaming, you will definitely get a mouth full of water.


Rule #2: Don’t be fussy. Don’t be proud. Accept any hand being offered.

You cannot get back in the raft on your own. It is moving, you are moving, the water is moving, and there are lots of rocks. You need help and things are about to get intimate. Whomever is on the boat, whether you know them or not, is exactly the person you need right now. They are going to reach down, grab your lifejacket and haul for all they are worth, and you will land right on top of them, your full body pressed on top of their body. You will be close enough to kiss each other. Probably best if you don’t, but as the senator/guide said, “You will be staring each other in the face. It’s okay to give each other a little pat on the shoulder—you just had a moment.”


Rule #3: If lots of people go over, as soon as you are hauled back in the boat, immediately reach down and start helping the people still in the water. If you are not helpful, the guide may throw you back in, because he doesn’t need unhelpful people in his raft.

I’m pretty sure the part about being thrown back in was a joke, but the point was that if you are in a position to rescue, even if you just got rescued yourself, stick out your hand immediately and start helping.

Our raft was heavy on children. We had four (our two kids and two others who were with their dad) and four adults: our guide Dana, my husband, the other dad, and me. Dana was one of the most experienced guides, and so no one went swimming unintentionally. However, when we got to a section that was “just” Class 2 rapids, he suggested that we all go overboard (he would, of course, remain with the raft), and drift down-river buoyed by our lifejackets. This way we would know what to do if someone fell out in an uncontrolled situation. Everyone took him up on that suggestion, and we all bailed overboard.

After Class 4 rapids, Class 2 looked easy peasy lemon-squeezey from the boat. But when you’re in them, bobbing along like a cork, you suddenly realize those waves are pretty big, and you have less than a second between them to catch your breath. Plus, you have to be watching for rocks, maintaining your position (nose and toes skyward—as if you are sitting in a La-Z-Boy chair), which gets kind of hard on your abs. So when Dana, our guide, called us back to the raft, I was happy to be the first to swim over.

The next person to arrive was one of the children. Not one of mine. The boy looked trepidatious—his dad wasn’t in the boat yet, the guide was busy steering, and this crazy-looking lady he didn’t know was reaching over the side for him. Mom that I am, I had no trouble grabbing that kid by the lapels and hucking him in on top of me. Then I grabbed some more kids and somehow everyone ended up back in and we went on our way. It was only later, when my daughter said, “Mommy, what happened to your leg?” that I realized I had scraped up my knee and shin pretty badly doing the planned “rescues”.

At this point the metaphors are obvious—you don’t need me to spell out that the river equals life, and the various bumps are illness, addiction, pick your life-challenge. So I’m not going to go into all that.

But there was one other life lesson that our senator/guide told us on the bus ride, not directly related to whitewater rafting safety. And this one was so good that I just couldn’t help discussing it my daughter.

Actually, it was a “love story” according to the senator/guide. It was exactly the sort of thing I’ve lately wanted to tell my pre-teen beauty-queen daughter, and perhaps, dear reader, it is the sort of thing you’d want your daughter to hear, too. So, I will paraphrase his love story here, (though probably with less charm and wit).

This story happened back before the senator/guide was a senator. He was a young man, rafting the river with his buddies, starting a river-rafting business, and looking for love in all the wrong places. He managed to get a woman to come out on the river with him. It was April, and as a result the water was still quite cold. She made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that she did NOT want to end up in that cold water. So, of course, the Universe being what it is, she did end up in that cold water. And on the bus ride back to base, she also made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that the senator/guide was NOT allowed to sit next to her anymore.

Back at the base, they dealt with the gear, and then started up a volleyball game. At some point the senator/guide heard the smack of two women running straight into each other. “You could not mistake that sound,” he said. The women fell, landing in mud, and while the one he’d started the day with got up and angrily stormed off, the other (who was not the woman he’d started the day with) smeared the mud across her face like war paint and kept playing. At that moment he realized she was the woman he would marry. And he did, and they now have two kids and live happily ever after.

Lesson obvious, right?