Lessons Learned From the River

“What are the chances we’ll get dumped?” I asked Bob, the owner of Sylvania Outfitters in Watersmeet, Michigan.

“Let’s just say you shouldn’t worry about fixing your hair tomorrow,” he replied.

The following day my husband, brother, and sister-in-law joined me for a three-hour kayak trip down the middle branch of The Ontonagon River. The scenic river winds through undeveloped forested land in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a four-hour drive from Wisconsin Dells. I had come prepared with a hat, dry bag, and cookies, but I hadn’t been prepared for the lessons I was about to learn.

Eli, Bob’s son, hefted our kayaks onto a trailer, and we climbed into his Suburban for the fifteen-minute drive. “You’ll go over 12 rapids,” he began, “and there are a lot of rocks.” I leaned in to hear him better. After a scary class-4 white-water rafting adventure years ago, I had learned to ask for specifics. 

“What are the rapids rated?” I asked.

“Two and a half,” he answered. 

We traveled down Old Highway 2, then on rural gravel roads that had impressive views of virgin forests. Our “put-in” was at a small wayside near Burned Dam falls. Loggers had built a wooden dam to help move logs downstream. It ran from 1892 to 1895 but was destroyed a few years later by forest fires. “Look at the waterfall just upstream,” Eli said, “while I unload the kayaks.”

The waterfall was impressive. I imagined myself daydreaming, kayaking along and coming upon this waterfall. If a person didn’t bail out in time, they’d be at risk for their life. Lesson one: be prepared so you don’t encounter surprises. In the case of kayaking unfamiliar waters, either hire an outfitter to shuttle you and tell you about river conditions, or do research on your own.

“When you get to the long rapids,” Eli said, after we’d returned to the kayaks, “you’ll be 2/3 of the way of what should be a three-hour trip. I’ll be waiting for you by the bridge, the only sign of civilization you’ll see.”

“We won’t even see a hunting shack?” I asked.

“This is wilderness,” Eli replied.

He helped us carry our kayaks to the river’s shore. We weren’t far from the waterfall and the sound of rushing water let me know we’d need to navigate rapids soon. I was the second kayak to launch and tried to fight the current to wait for the others, but it overwhelmed me. My inept paddling spun me around so I hit the rapids backward. I immediately hit a boulder which made my kayak slurp in water. I leaned and prevented it from capsizing, but I was still riding the rapids backwards. This was not a great way to start a three-hour ride. 

I made it to quiet water, where I spun back around and paddled toward a bay. After getting out, I baled water, and was reminded of another lesson in life: we’re going to fail, but we simply need to learn from our mistakes and battle on.

I set off, paying attention to steering toward the deepest channels without the ripples that meant shallow water and rocks. I settled into a pleasant rhythm, imagining myself as Lewis or Clark, navigating an unknown stream with no idea what was around the bend.

A bald eagle suddenly soared over our heads. It flew just above the river, probably hoping to snatch a trout. A barred owl called in the distance. Seconds later, I spotted it and its fledged youngster. I soaked in the call of chickadees, flashes of kingfishers and cedar waxwings, and the purple, reds, and yellows of summer wildflowers.

Soon the sound of rushing water made me turn my attention to navigation again. Earlier in the month, friends and I had kayaked a stretch of The Wisconsin River near Mazomanie. It had some rapids that were more like ledges which I’d never experienced before. These rapids were what I call “thread the needle” rapids. A large rock, mostly hidden underwater, suddenly appeared, and I was too slow to steer away from it, so I bumped into it. Hard. Seconds later, my sister-in-law screamed.

Heart pounding, I looked back. She’d fallen in. My brother, trying to fight the current and hang back to check on her, ended up dumping too. My sister-in-law was okay, but my brother had scraped up his arm and legs on rocks. He floated downstream hanging onto his swamped kayak.

Once we met in a quiet bay, my husband helped my brother dump the water out of his kayak. He commented on not being able to control the craft in the strong current. Isn’t that also true of life? My brother and I hadn’t been able to control the colon cancer that took our father at an early age, or the later loss of our mother and step-father. As much as we might like to, we can’t control many of the rapids we encounter. We have to ride them out as best we can.

  By the time we spotted Eli at the bridge, we had had a few more spills, were achy, and ready to seek the comfort of a hot shower and dinner. And isn’t that also an excellent lesson of life? We’d put in the effort, paddled our way downstream, and now it was time to savor life’s pleasures. Well-earned lessons from the river.

2 Replies to “Lessons Learned From the River”

Wow, Amy, it sounds as if you had quite an adventure! I used to shoot rapids in a canoe. It’s exhilarating! Thanks for sharing.

Hi Sue,
My husband and I did class 4-5 rapids once. Never again. 🙂
Thanks for reading.

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