When Mother Earth Hands You Your Ass

April 27, 2020

There are many life metaphors and sayings that reference rivers and water. “Go with the flow.” “It felt like I was swimming upstream.” “Don’t drift away.” “Still waters run deep.” The list goes on.

Professional river guides drift a lot. Most of our time on a raft is spent between rapids, literally going with the flow. Then there is the time spent sitting around a fire or on a beach. Conversations ebb and flow (see!) between who can skip a rock the furthest to how you make really good lasagna with a camp kitchen in the middle of nowhere to if there is another planet like Earth in the universe.

Often at the trip’s launch point, before the guests arrive, guides talk about the last adventure or the one just ahead. We compare notes on the rapids, decide on upcoming river camp spots, and confirm the order of that day’s flotilla. At this point, none of us know exactly how the upcoming trip is going to go, as river forces have a whole lot of say in what lies ahead. This realization sometimes leads to reflections on the mythical river gods, who hold our fortunes in their hands.

In a recent conversation, I was reminded of how and why these gods work. You are sitting around before the trip officially starts, waiting for clients to show up. A guide starts talking about all the good runs he or she has had that season. The other guides in the circle make corner-eye contact and give all-knowing, imperceptive nods to each other, around the talker. Fate has been tempted, and now everyone is going to have to keep a closer eye on the one who forgot to pay homage to the river gods. Humility and respect are keys to appeasing this deity. Talking about how good you are is not the best idea, as it ignores that river gods have a say in every trip. A reminder of this always comes quick. Given the misguided comment, there is a good chance that the guide and his or her crew will end up in the water, courtesy of a spiritual swat.

With river gods the opposite also holds true. If you take time during a long calm to appreciate the wilderness around you, then there is a good chance you will be treated to amazing wildlife or a stunning sunset further downriver. If you quietly and humbly leave the canyon without any trace of your group being there, then you get to come back to pristine settings.

This yin and yang or karma relationship is regularly contemplated and regarded in the form of a simple saying: “Respect the river gods.” Those who properly act on this relationship feel the kinship and are blessed by nature’s bounty. Those who ignore or accidentally forget the homage are handed their ass — and then usually don’t disregard it again.

A guide mentor and good friend of mine, Dana Kimball, recently shared his thoughts on river gods and nature:

“The river and Mother Earth are always in charge. The river gods seem to keep us both safe and humble as long as we always show respect. The same is true with this unseen virus. I believe it is a wake-up call that humans need to understand. Our actions have consequences and we need to change our habits. We are not invincible, but we can still rise up to challenges we never thought we’d have to deal with.”

There are several habits or offerings whitewater guides use to show their respect to the river gods, to honor the physical and spiritual connection between a human and the waterway. Splashing water on the back of your neck above a big rapid is one. The cold water is at once a reminder to focus and a way to feel the river. Asking people to tighten up their lifejackets is another. This act shows respect for life and the power of nature. Simply closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, visualizing the run, listening to the river rumble, and silently asking for safe passage is another. Guides know that not honoring the stunning force of a river can be deadly.

There are essentially three parts to any guide’s day: the calm, the storm, and the reflection. The calm is described above. The storm is when you are deep into a rapid, eyes bulging, limbs flailing, waves crashing, rocks dead ahead, and the tail run of the whitewater too far ahead to even contemplate. In the storm, all can go well and everyone survives, with high fives all around upon entering the calm below. Or it can not go well. This may be due to not paying homage to the river gods, to making a bad paddle command or oar pull at just the wrong time, or because sometimes things just don’t go as you planned. Regardless, you reflect on what went wrong and figure out what you need to do differently on the next trip. This, along with deep appreciation for the beauty and the people around you, is the reflection.

As Dana puts it, “We are not invincible —our actions have consequences. And we can rise up to the challenges.” For generations, we largely went with nature’s flow. We paid our respects, at the least by not trammeling what sustained us. Then we went through some crazy rapids, including many storms we ourselves caused, but we found periodic calms thereafter. However, the reflection seemingly was never enough. How can we tell? Our ass has really been handed to us this time.

It is now time to rise up, to be honest in our assessment of this river we are on. We got here by closing our eyes to the crashing waves, by personally and collectively not acknowledging the mistakes we made, and by not reflecting enough on the damage we did — and are doing. It is time to rise up to the challenge of our own making.

So let’s rise up. Let’s talk about what lies ahead. Let’s plan how to run the best trip possible, together. Let’s recognize our mistakes. Let’s remind one another to pay homage to Mother Earth by reducing our impact and leaving less of a trace — and by no longer tempting her force and our fate by abusing her. Let’s start by reflecting on our role — yours and mine — in the virus’ creation and devastation. Right now, contemplate what you can do differently today in order to make better what lies just around the bend. Then tighten up your life jacket and give it your respectful all.


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