Life is a River

Life is a River
Wyatt paddling the Main Salmon

Life is an adventure, a journey with no map. The only way is forward. Life is an exploratory river trip.

Too many times we stand aside
And let the waters slip away
Till what we put off till tomorrow
Has now become today
So don't you sit upon the shoreline
And say you're satisfied
Choose to chance the rapids
And dare to dance the tide

- from The River by Garth Brooks

Recently a colleague whom I have a lot of respect for did something I greatly admire. She is leaving a very interesting job on a good team, a role she is very good at, for a less demanding job with another company so she can prioritize her family, and find a better balance in life. Her decision got me thinking about this challenge, especially since she and I frequently share our sometimes frustrating and almost always entertaining stories of the bizarre situations arising from this imperfect balance.

The Point of No Return

Exploring new rivers is something I grew up doing with my dad. He loves exploring just about anywhere, but rivers hold a very special allure. One of the fascinations in the whitewater paddling community is finding a river nobody else has done before, a first descent. I tend not to get as wrapped up over finding something nobody else has done before, but I do enjoy padding new rivers.

Whether a true first descent or just a personal first descent, the process of discovery and exploration still remains. Especially with whitewater rivers, the feeling of sitting in your boat right above a big rapid you have never run is unparalleled. You are looking over your shoulder at the horizon line with the mist rising. The roar is deafening. Your stomach feels like you gulped down an entire flock of butterflies.

At this moment, I move my attention to my body, sense how the water and my boat are interacting. I exhale a slow deep breath, and correct my posture, straightening my spine to dial in my form for proper technique.

Then, I take a deliberate stroke to propel my bow into the current. Right before the bow reaches the current, I sweep my gaze and my attention downstream to where I need to put the boat next.

This moment of commitment, pulling out into the current, focusing on what is ahead, this is the point of no return. Although not quite in the gnar of what is to come, there is no going back, either.

From here everything is execution. The only way to emerge and continue on the journey is to deliberately move downstream using the knowledge, skills, and equipment you have in this moment. In the middle of the gnar, while doing the thing, so often this is described and viewed as the obstacle to be overcome.

Wyatt and I doing the thing

The Doing of the Thing

...the last bad one above me - the Bad Rapid - Lava Cliff - that I had been looking for, nearly a thousand miles - I thought: once past there my reward will begin, but now everything ahead seems kind of empty and I find I have already had my reward, in the doing of the thing.

Buzz Holstrom, an unassuming gas station attendant from Coquille, Oregon, penned these words in his journal after running the last and largest of the rapids on the first solo descent of the Grand Canyon in 1937 in a homemade wooden boat. Buzz never looked for attention or admiration for his river running skills, which were extremely exceptional. Rather, Buzz derived his reward from the doing of the thing.

The river is not something to be conquered. Rather, it is a companion on the journey. If you have the skill and equipment, the river shows you the way as you move downstream. Sometimes the route is revealed only moments before it must be executed precisely. Much of the time it is revealed with plenty of time to easily execute. Either way, the only way to emerge upright and intact on the other side is making the best decisions possible using the skills and tools at your disposal in the moment.

Joel Bertrand going full send...

Challenges arising in this journey called life, while unarguably stressful, are unavoidable. Challenges will always present themselves. Without the flatwater between rapids, without reprieve in between, challenges are overwhelming. However, if presented at a somewhat manageable cadence, challenges are a useful and productive part of life. The journey of life, just like a river, if the rapids and challenges come too fast, become overwhelming, are no longer productive, and lead to poor outcomes.

The pandemic, for nearly all of us, has introduced a degree of uncertainty into our journey unprecedented in most of our lives. Especially for those of us with families, the situation is exacerbated. The normal challenges presented by work are now in the context of working from home, rolling school closures, and a constantly changing viral threat. All of this layered on top of the cadence of work challenges is exhausting at best.

The Skill of Knowing When to Chose Another Path

An essential skill of whitewater paddling is knowing when to walk around a rapid. There are times when looking at a rapid, it just does not feel right. This even includes rapids previously run. There are some days it just does not feel right. Knowing how to recognize this, knowing when to put pride and ego aside, knowing when to choose the alternative path, knowing when to walk around a rapid is an essential skill.

To send or not to send...that is the question.

This is why I have such admiration for what my colleague has chosen to do. She looked at what was downstream and decided it is not the right path for her right now, and chose another. This is not an easy decision. It requires tremendous humility. This deserves tremendous respect.

I strongly suspect there will be a time in her life where the balance will swing the other direction...when she will have more time and desire to focus on her career. When this time comes, the rest of us should recognize how valuable she is because she is able to understand how to make difficult decisions and do the right things for the right reasons. She knows what matters. The rest of us can learn from her.

Pontification on the John Day River in Oregon