Impulse is a dangerous thing and especially so when you are trying to impress one of your children. Doubly so when it’s one of your girl children. To put it mildly, my daughter Allison hurt my feelings and my capitulation was an attempt to regain what was left of my dignity. What she said was, “I didn’t ask you to go because I really didn’t think you’d be able to do it,” but what I heard was, “You’re too weak and feeble to do anything like float down a river with me, old man. I’ll just ask someone who is stronger and more capable.” She had ground salt into the open wound that was my rapidly deflating ego.
“No, I really want to go,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. Even as the words parted my lips, my mind was looking for a compromise, a way out. The audible click I heard was the sword of Damocles breaking free from its secured position. Had I really just verbally committed to floating 50 miles of the most remote river in the lower 48 – the Owyhee – with my daughter? Yes, I had. I was terrified even before I learned that someone had died on the river that spring and well before I would see the flotsam and jetsam of a shattered drift boat being held by the pressure of what amounts to two full grown cows pressing it against an imposing rock wall.
All I knew at that moment was what Allison had told me in the past, that there are no roads in or out and that you must leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but all of your bodily secretions out with you. I was worried (and a little grossed out by it), but it was still months away and a lot could happen between then and now.
A long drive and an uncomfortable first night and I suddenly found myself sitting on a bright red, inflatable kayak, with a bright yellow helmet, a bright red life vest and clutching a bright yellow paddle. The fact that everything was brightly colored should have been my first clue that things don’t always go as planned. If they did, everyone would be dressed in drab outdoorsy fabric like the kind you see the urban Eddie Bauer types wearing and the kayaks would sport more natural colors to blend in with the environment. What I should have realized is that in a rapid it’s really hard to differentiate between a rock and a dead body unless the body is tightly wrapped in some form of unnatural, neon pigmentation. Had I only known.
I kept up a cheerful countenance as I floated a little ways from the group, getting the feel of the kayak under me.
The teen girls (it was a father/daughter trip) all listened intently as Emma and my daughter (a third year guide) talked about boat safety and how to paddle. Boat safety, shmoat safety. I grew up around the water and paddling would come naturally to me. A duck didn’t need to learn to swim did it? Besides, I own a drift boat. How hard could it be? Yeah, it’s not the same.
I watched as the kids paddled off downstream and turned to catch up with them. I put a paddle in the water and pulled. My kayak spun wildly. I plied the other end of the paddle to slow down the spin. It didn’t help. I firmly plunged my paddle into the water on the port side and it slowed to a stop. I slowly centered myself and pointed the bow downstream. I dipped a blade into the water and slowly pulled. The kayak began turning to the right. I quickly jammed the opposite blade into the water and pulled and it spun wildly again. This was not going as planned. I smiled, with an ease I wasn’t feeling. Inside I was like, “Uh oh, this is going to end badly.” It was all coming true.
I knew I was going to die on the river. I also knew it was going to be hard on Allison to have to pull her dad’s brightly festooned, but lifeless body out of a rapid, but I didn’t care. She had asked me to go and it would serve her right for goading me into coming on this trip.
Dream Crusher asked a number of times if I was doing okay as we drove to Horseshoe Bend where the trip would begin.
“Yes, I’m fine, why do you keep asking?” I stared straight ahead.
“Look at me.” I turned my eyes towards her, but not my head. “Okay, I’m looking. I’m fine, really.” I bared my teeth in a feeble smile.
“Then why are there beads of sweat on your upper lip?”
I yawned and dragged my arm as carefree as I could muster across my lip. “By the way,” I said, “did I tell you that I want my ashes sprinkled on the Clearwater?”
“Just stop,” she replied. “I knew it. I knew that’s what you were thinking about. Just stop it right now.”
“What? I’m just making conversation. Oh, and the passwords to the online accounts are in the cupboard and makesuretogiveChristianmybaseballglove.” I raced to finish this last line as she reached for the knob on the radio to turn up the volume.
“I have to do something to drown you out,” she said as she spun the knob. It was an unfortunate turn of phrase and she turned to look out the window without another word. I felt my lip. It was wet again.
As my kayak spun in the water and I got further and further from the group, Allison paddled up to me and said, “Umm, Dad, one of the other guides told me to tell you that your paddle is backwards.”
“Oh, yeah?” I responded. “That’s how we do it in Alaska. Makes it more streamline.”
“Suit yourself.” She shrugged and paddled off. When I was sure she wasn’t looking I flipped my paddle over and paddled after her, still looking for all the world like an inebriated walrus, but more of an I’ve had one too many drinks kind of walrus and not a college student on a Friday night kind of walrus.
For the first few hours we did nothing but paddle in flat, barely passable water which caused our kayaks to come to a skidding halt often enough that my abs quickly cramped in their attempt to free my kayak from the resting part of Newton’s law of motion. Apparently one must “oochie – scooch,” which involves thrusting yourself backwards and forwards in an effort to get the rock to loosen its grip on your kayak. The ever helpful river guides would shout this and other helpful hints at you as they “encouraged” you to “soldier” on. “You can rest when you’re dead.” “Only 48 more miles to go.”
Dying in a river is apparently a real thing and wearing a tightly wrapped and zipped Coast Guard approved flotation device does nothing to ensure that you won’t get your foot wedged between rocks and drown. For the first few hours it was drilled into our heads what do do if (should have said, when) we were to fall out in a rapid. The most important thing you can do is get into River Position! This involves getting your feet pointed down river and and up off the river bottom, flailing your arms and keeping your eyes down river to see what’s ahead. And one must never, ever stand up. I was told that dads always try to stand up and that a lot of dads die. Yeah, not this dad. I was not going to give the river the satisfaction.
A short while later we entered into our first rapid and I immediately flipped, but came up in the most acute river position in the history of man, with my knees up and feet pointing downstream. My posterior bounced off every rock on the way down. There was no way I was going to be foot entrapped. Butt entrapped, maybe, but not foot. All the guides were yelling at me at once to the point where all I heard was a cacophony of “Let go of the kayak! Get your feet up! River position! Keep your head up! Breathe! Swim! Don’t swim! Feet up! Let go of the paddle! Hang onto the paddle! River position!” I did it all at once. Allison told me later that I had scared her because I came up wide eyed and gasping. Well, if you know OBryans, we have nothing BUT wide eyes, and the gasping part was because I was drowning and was moments away from death. Yeah, fear like that happens when someone is scared out of their freaking mind that they are going to get their foot trapped and be sucked under only to rise again either on the last day or when their bloated body gets so buoyant that the river gives them up like some grotesque party balloon escaped from the pudgy hand of a toddler. I was terrified. I was also shaking and embarrassed.
I dog paddled to river right (that’s river guide speak for the side of the river I’m always not next to) and dragged the upper half of my body onto a mossy rock, my useless legs dangling behind me in the diminishing current. My eyes focused as my cheek rested against the slime and I watched every single teenage girl float through the class 10 rapid
as if they were sitting on a cloud, riding a spring zephyr wind. One of their kayaks scraped over my semi-lifeless body. “Oops, sorry. Hehe.” I turned my head away.
“Are you okay?” Allison asked as she rushed over to me in her kayak as if it obeyed her every wish. She was looking a little wide eyed herself. “Go on without me. Leave me here to die,” I managed to say. She patted my back and told me in low tones that if I didn’t get back into the kayak in less than a minute she really was going to leave me right where I was. I dragged myself onto my kayak and let Allison pull me along. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and I could feel my legs beginning to redden and burn. It was yet another indignity on the first day of the last week of my life and I hadn’t even made it to the first camp and I still hadn’t used the facilities in the woods. It was going to be a long week.
One thing I realized on day one is that a river produces an exorbitant amount of sand. It’s everywhere and in everything and finds its way into every crack and crevice. If you’re lucky you can keep it out of your food and, thankfully, I was able to keep it off my camera equipment. AND it was hot – 118 at one camp.
I don’t remember the first night of the trip other than we ate and slept and that sand bugs tried to invade every one of my facial orifices (orifi?) Even though it was smoldering, I chose to keep a buff over my face so they wouldn’t have the joy of a good night’s sleep in one of my facial crevices. I really only remember having one thought and that was that I have six days left and I am not going to make it.
The only way I can describe the feeling is remembering being a kid and thinking that there were six long days until Christmas and wondering if it would ever get here and how on earth could anyone ever wait that long? And then it was here and you got to open presents. It was like that, only some freakishly hellish version where you’re always waiting and there are never any presents, only a never ending feeling of despair and misery until the river either takes you or vomits you out on “Christmas” day after it beats you and chokes you and teaches you a lesson you’ll never forget. This was day one.
The first rapid of the second day was called Read it and Weep and I approached it with caution, which I learned later is not how you approach a rapid designed to make you cry. It sensed my trepidation and I heard it giggle just before it lured me into a false sense of security and sucked me into a sink hole the size of ten commercial washing machines and I nearly drowned again. I wept silently, secure in the fact that no one could differentiate between my tears of sorrow and the river’s tears of mirth. On the second rapid I flipped again. And on the third rapid… I flipped. It is generally understood that if someone goes down for the third time they are not coming back up. Thankfully, I had my bright yellow life jacket to keep my flailing body from giving up the ghost.
I am an athletic guy. I played NCAA baseball. I am a good golfer. I can juggle. I win at Pickleball (when I am playing Dream Crusher) most of the time. I have a few slight of hand tricks. My hand eye coordination is excellent for a man my age, but for the love of God and all that is holy, I could not make my kayak do what it was born and bred to do. It was engineered to be a kayak, but it was more like an unruly toddler that, no matter how hard I tried to reason with it, would do the exact opposite of what it was told. I was sure I had gotten a defective one (or a possessed one) and I was equally sure that it was actively trying to kill me. I would see a rock some way down the rapid that I knew was a bad idea, yet no matter how hard I tried to avoid it with back strokes and front strokes and side strokes and high siding and panicking, the kayak was attracted to it like it was a positive magnet and the kayak a negative. A rock meant one of two things: getting stuck or flipping, and neither were a good option.
Thankfully, there is flat calm at the end of every rapid. It’s a time to either catch your breath and thank the Lord that what about happened to you didn’t happen or to shout with joy at your besting of the accursed white water. At the end of every flat calm there is a rapid. As I floated quietly along and heard the tell-tale whisper of an approaching rapid I would turn my face to the sky and whisper, “Please, God. NO!” I was miserable and tired and scared. Then we reached the Weeping Wall and a miracle happened.
I dragged my dry bag and my poop tube (yes, everyone had one), aptly called “Bad Disneyland,” up to the place Allison had designated as our place of rest for the night and collapsed onto the ground in a stupor. After a while my wits returned and I realized that gnats were rapidly accumulating on the many cuts my legs had incurred. I felt like a water buffalo that was too far gone to care about the insects sucking the life out of him and I just let them feast. Something may as well benefit from my misery.
I looked at my foot and wondered where a good spot would be for a bullet to go through without causing too much damage. I didn’t bother searching for my revolver because I didn’t have it with me. I didn’t even bring a knife (what kind of idiot doesn’t bring a knife or a revolver on a survival trip?) and I didn’t think a sharp stick would cause enough damage to get me airlifted out. Besides, I didn’t have a knife to sharpen a stick and it probably wouldn’t have done enough damage anyway. It would get mildly infected, but not infected enough to get me a helicopter ride out and it would just add to the pain I was already feeling. Besides, Allison would make me row out with an infection. I wondered what injury WOULD get me airlifted out? There was a large rock sitting next to me and my eyes gleamed at the thought of bringing it down on top of my metatarsals, cracking them into little pieces. That would surely do it. I reached for it, fell over and collapsed into a heap, too exhausted to lift it.
This was a father/daughter trip and every evening our enthusiastic, cheerful, and omni- competent trip leader, Aaron, would gather us around so we could talk about the highs and lows of the day. I dragged myself to the circle of humans and tried to think of the highs from the day and all I could think of was, “Well, I didn’t die…. yet.” That was my inner thought. My outer words were, “Hey, I got to spend quality time with my daughter.” Inner thought, “It’s her fault that I’m out here.” Outer words, “Golly, this is a beautiful place.” Inner thought, “God forsaken, more like it.” I went on like this for a few more minutes, babbling, then lapsed into silence. My inner mind was pacing like a caged ferret looking for a way out, but I was mute. I don’t remember what anyone else said. I just kept smiling and nodding vigorously when people’s lips stopped moving. I was sure I was going to die, so what did it matter what any of these people said? I would just be a bad memory to them as they recounted the tale of the uncoordinated old guy with the bad facial hair who couldn’t get his kayak to work and the river ate him. Good thing we couldn’t find his body because that would have been so gross to have to see his bloated whiteness the entire rest of the trip.
On the third day I awoke sore and defeated. However, unbeknownst to me, three things were happening in the universe. Thing one, my good friend, Matt, was praying for me on the exact morning of my crisis. I know this because I got a voice message after I got off the river that said: “I don’t know why I’m praying for you, but you’ve been on my mind all morning.” The date and time was the morning of the Weeping Wall. Thing two, Dream Crusher was also praying for me. She knew this was going to be tough on me (she had no idea at the time how tough) and so she prayed for me without ceasing. It is hard to pray for someone when you are getting no feedback on their well-being, but she did. Thing three: God was listening.
The Weeping Wall is a sheer, vertical rock face, 200 feet high that is as dry as a bone until it reaches about 40 feet from the base of the cliff. It’s at this point the water runs out the side of the cliff like so many shower nozzles and it is thick with greenery. It’s an oasis, cold and refreshing, and it’s here that we filled our water bags called ticks (yes, they look
like bloated ticks) and bathed our hot (as in hot from the sun, not as in “Your bod is so hot!”) and stinking bodies. The water was amazingly clean and revitalizing. Even though it was morning, the air was already turning warm and the water felt good. I leaned into the mossy wall and let the water run over my head and tried to get the day to come out of my mind. A glimmer of hope lit. Live in the moment. The kayak doesn’t exist. The river doesn’t exist. Only now exists. I had been praying seemingly without ceasing the entire morning and I tried to physically relax and not think about anything but this moment. It could last forever if I wanted it to. It didn’t work. I opened my eyes. The river and the kayak were still there. I sighed, pushed myself out of the water and slipped my way back down to where my plastic coffin was tied.
I strapped my gear onto the kayak and climbed into it. It squeaked with my weight and I felt the familiar sore spots as they settled and rested on the hot plastic. I pushed off and glided in an uncontrolled arc into the calm water.
The sprites were gliding and giggling over the water on their plastic clouds. I knew that at the end of this calm water was not calm water and I bowed my head in weakness and fear.
“Perfect Love casts out fear.” “My power is made perfect in weakness.” “When I am weak then I am strong.”
As I sat there with my head bowed asking for help, the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair came to mind. The World’s Fair? Really? After all my fervent prayer, that’s all I get? Who, but a select number of Canadians, even remembers the Vancouver World’s Fair? Well, probably no one outside of Canada, except me. It was then I realized why God had prompted this memory. I had experienced a significant moment of fear and weakness there that I had always regretted and it wasn’t until I had kids that I had gotten over it completely. It is a very odd statement to say that thoughts of the 1986 World’s Fair comforted me, but they did.
Even though I was 23, the very age where you’re supposed to love jumping off cliffs wearing nothing more than a squirrel suit, I didn’t. I still looked both ways before crossing the street and I always wore my seat belt (even before it was cool) and I certainly wasn’t going to ride my new mountain bike downhill on a gravel road. Think of the road rash. But here I was heading to a Young Life club in Canada to be their summer photographer. Not an extreme sport, but we would be out of radio contact and that was scary enough. Not everyone was a photographer back then and the profession was still cool enough to give me some panache and the fellow staffers I had met up with were pretty cool.
They all wanted to go see the World’s Fair. “Why not?” I thought. I love to wander through the fair looking at the exhibits and the canned fruits and vegetables. It turned out that none of them were interested in the exhibits and as soon as we pushed through the turnstiles they made a bee line for the roller coaster.
Little beads of sweat trickled down my side. Roller coasters were one thing that I had determined would never be on my bucket list (even if I had known what a bucket list was). They begged me to go and I made a very, very feeble excuse not to. My fear was evident. It was like when someone asked me to do something bad when I was little and all I could think of saying was that my mom didn’t want me to do that. Then I would get punched in the face and left while they went off to steal matches and start fires. My credibility went to zero and my summer, while fun, wasn’t what it could have been. This was a scene that I had relived countless times and it was a regret that haunted me for years. It wasn’t until my kids were old enough to ride roller coasters that it went away.
My kids had a funny way of taking care of many of my fears… they added many others, but at least for me there were many things, like the fear of stinging insects, that went away as I tried to model proper respect for things without fear. I never wanted my kids to be like me, fearing things they shouldn’t. That’s how I found myself sitting in a roller coaster with my two sons waiting for it to kill me. I was strapped in and there was no place to go but up and over. As the coaster lurched and grumbled to the launching point, I quickly made a conscious decision. I made the determination at that moment to enjoy the feeling of abject fear. When the coaster dropped over the edge, I was going to scream like a little girl and enjoy the terror. And I did both. Now, I can’t get enough of roller coasters and will go on any, at any time.
My kayak bobbed unsteadily on the water, threatening any moment to tip me out, but I was no longer paralyzed. My head came up, I thanked God aloud. I smiled and I was ready. I knew there would still be fear, maybe even terror, but I was going to enjoy it. I was going to lean into the fear and enjoy the feeling.
I thanked God as I pushed by Todd, the gate keeper, and into the rapid. I was excited because I had made a conscious decision to enjoy myself. I attacked the rapid with a furor yet unknown to me and the first thing that happened when I hit the primary drop was that I immediately FLIPPED! I’m serious. Right over. I came up, but not wide eyed (except for the normal, O’Bryan type) and I wasn’t afraid. I was exhilarated and not a little mad that I had been dumped out of my toddler. “You just stopped paddling!” screamed Aaron and cheerfully gave me a thumbs up. I stored that bit of information away, got my kayak, kicked it a few times to teach it a lesson, grabbed my camera and started taking pictures of the sprites and their dads as they made their way unscathed through the rapid.
Over the next four days I went down countless rapids and flipped a total of NONE times. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t the most graceful kayaker after the Weeping Wall revelation, but I was a kayaker. I could actively avoid most rocks, but when I didn’t, I learned to use the rock to aid me on my way down the rapid. I was still a walrus, but this one was a teetotaler. Now, maybe I was just becoming better acquainted with the spoiled child that was my kayak or maybe my athletic ability and natural good looks just kicked in or maybe I just got lucky? OR, maybe, just maybe, I needed to learn a lesson. My mind and body have always been good at doing things like this and had I been able to pick up on this from the first stroke of the paddle, I might have had to learn a different lesson, but not as one as impactful as this one was.
What had started out as a complete beat down turned out to be a glorious river trip and every evening from Weeping Wall on, I had nothing but personal highs to talk about. I watched the sun rise from a chalk dome called Chalk Basin, caught an inordinate amount
of smallmouth bass, sat in a hot spring, saw soaring cliffs and deep pools, and throughout the rest of the days had the best time with my daughter. What started out as a bad dream ended up being an amazing trip, one I would do again in a heartbeat.
Some may say, “Well, that’s dumb, why didn’t you just trust God?” I’m really not sure how to answer that, other than to say that I just couldn’t find it within myself to do it. No matter how hard I tried, my strength just wasn’t sufficient. Whether it was fear or unbelief or just not remembering how God has provided for me in the past, I don’t really know, but I do know one thing – that my God is a God of comfort and He will use whatever means He needs to bring us to that place of peace. For some it’s a kind word from a friend, for another it is direct revelation. For me, it was the 1986 Vancouver World’s Fair. Go figure.
The following are some of the players in this drama: