It happened four years ago when my husband and I decided to celebrate our anniversary by whitewater rafting in the Menominee River.
“Dig in!” The command came from James, our whitewater rafting guide. Our inflatable rubber boat was nearing Hell’s Hole, a Class IV rapids with a five-foot drop.
The Menominee River had swollen after recent rains and James’s six inexperienced rafters needed all the direction he could give if we were to survive Hell’s Hole. We wore helmets, life jackets, and we had our toes jammed under the air tube in front of us. Pinning our feet would hopefully help keep us inside the 16-foot rubber raft.
With the looming rapids, I went back in time to my husband first mentioning the trip. “It’ll be an anniversary we won’t forget,” Frank had said to plead his case. I’d recently read an Ernest Hemingway quote about the horrors of a half-lived life. I kept listening. After all, I didn’t want to live only half of a life. “We could also spend the night in a yurt.” I studied the photo of the dome-shaped shelter resembling one used by Central Asian nomads centuries ago. Its skylight for star gazing won me over. I was onboard.
Turns out it rained that night preventing any star gazing. Also, the yurt’s lack of an indoor bathroom necessitating hiking through the dark woods in the middle of the night squashed some of the yurt’s allure. Compared to what loomed ahead now though, trekking through strange woods seemed tame.
James, 180 pounds of pure muscle, exuded confidence. He trained us in commands and safety. If we did fall out, we should assume a reclining position with our feet raised so they wouldn’t become wedged under rocks. He also showed us the easiest way to get someone back inside the rubber raft which involved the rescuer squatting by the raft’s side, grabbing the victim by the lifejacket’s shoulder straps, and throwing themselves back so the victim lands on top. James might have noticed our horrified faces because he lightened the mood.
“There’ll be a photographer taking your picture,” he concluded, “so if we survive Hell’s Hole, be sure to smile.”
Survival was all I thought of now as James, his voice urgent, commanded, “Dig in! Harder!”
I dug in. My husband did, too, but the young woman next to me panicked at the rapids ahead of us and only screamed. Her boyfriend appeared frozen in terror. Miraculously, though, the guide did the work of four people and we rode ‘er out. We did it!
“Great job!” James called. “Smile for the camera!”
I stopped paddling and smiled.
“Dig in!” The frantic command spoken seconds before we hit a second drop was too late. After the drop we bounced. Hard. The young woman’s feet slipped out and she became airborne. She slammed into my husband and they both fell in the river. I was also launched. Amazingly, before I had time to panic, James grabbed the back of my lifejacket and yanked me back down.
The woman who had fallen in screamed that she’d hit her leg on a rock. My husband’s head went underwater and he gulped in water. Moments later he surfaced and gasped for breath. Bodies and paddles seemed to bob all around me.
James steered toward the woman first, pulled her in, and then expertly steered toward Frank. Thinking James needed to keep paddling, I positioned myself for the rescue. With adrenaline surging through my veins, I faced a soaking wet Frank who weighed nearly a hundred pounds more than me. “I can pull you in!”
But James set down the paddle, positioned himself by the side of the raft, grabbed Frank by the handles on the lifejacket and, in one strong movement, hauled him in.
With everyone back in the raft, James commanded, “Head to that bay.” Once we were in quiet water, James held the raft and the six of us shakily got out. The young woman assessed her leg. Not broken, but badly bruised. Frank’s breathing, to our relief, had returned to normal.
James announced that he’d positioned a second raft on land half a mile upstream. “Does anyone want to go again?”
No one did, but Frank suggested we book another trip the following day. No one was going to accuse us of living half a life. The next morning we managed to “dig in” and survive the rapids.
During stressful times, I often think of those two simple yet powerful words; they help me cope. Dig In, I tell myself. And then I do.