The River of Life

By Lisa Campion

A couple of summers ago my husband and I went white water rafting up in Maine. Not only was it amazing fun, but I have also found that it is a great metaphor for life.

We were going to raft the Penobscot river up in Millinocket and we were doing a run called “Double Trouble.”  It was two class five rapids, then two class fours and some class threes. Lunch.  And then repeat.

For those of you who have never been white water rafting (Get off your butt and go!) a class five is the highest you can safely raft on.  It’s pretty intense. On the bus on the way up to the drop point, I was scoping out everyone. You know, paying attention to what was going on around me. There were a couple of families, some college kids and a pack of boy scouts, etc.

One group really interested me. I got to chatting with them on the bus and figured out they were all in the coast guard. Their specialty was water search and rescue and they were on this trip as a team building exercise. Despite the fact that they looked a little hung over, they were cool.

“Hunny,” I said to my hubby. “Let’s get in the boat with the five guys from the coast guard.”  And so we did. No flies on me, baby.

Our river guide was a young gal and a real water rat. She taught us the basic commands, when we should paddle, when we should stop and what we should do if we should happen to fall out of the boat.

“There are two ways to get down the river. You can go in the boat, or you can go out of the boat. But you are going down the river!”  She told us that if we fell out of the boat, we needed to keep our feet and heads up.

“Point your feet downstream and keep them up high. The only real danger is if you get your foot stuck in a rock and then you can drown. If you get a chance to catch a breath do it, cuz the rapids will push you back in the water very quickly. Just breath when you get a chance and keep your feet up.”

She told us it was very important not to fight the river. “If you hold unto something like the side of the boat or a rock, you will just get smashed around. The key is to relax and go with the flow. You will end up in the same pool that the boat is going to sooner or later.”

Sage advice.

She was cocky and young as hell but she seemed very confident and professional. I had total faith in her.

“The worst thing that will happen is that whole boat could flip over.  But that won’t happen on my watch!  We are going over a couple of waterfalls and it’s really important to do exactly as I say or there is a strong possibility of total tippage.  If that happens, don’t hold onto the boat, just float downstream.”  Yikes.

They let us in the water at the hydro dam. The dam releases extra water into the river and the walls of the river are steep cliffs at that point, making a gorge full of rushing water. Lots of rafts where getting in there. All along the cliffs were EMT’s with backboards and life jackets. There were a couple of ambulances parked next to the buses.


We got in the boat with the coast guard guys, wearing our helmets and wetsuit jackets.

Five seconds latter we are roaring down this class five rapid. My butt was affixed to the boat like Velcro and my feet were wedged in somewhere. It was like riding a bucking bronco.

Thirty seconds into the rapid my husband fell out of the boat!  One minute he was there, the next, he was swimming with the fishes. We were bucking along in the boat, it’s a total thrill ride, I was laughing my head off, and shivering with fear and excitement. I could see Kai’s red helmet popping up here and there next to us.   When we got through the main part of the rapid it mellowed out for about two seconds before the next class five rapid was on us.

“Get him back in the boat!” the guide shouted and those coast guard guys went “hut, hut, hut” and they had him back in the boat like they were pros. Which, they were.  I was very grateful that we had them and not the giggly college girls who tipped their boat.

The next rapid was even more fun with a huge (seemed to me) waterfall in it.  Yee haa!

Then we got to Chester the Molester, an upflow in the river where the boat spins around and around and this water wells up from the river bottom and invades your bathing suit. It was a very odd feeling indeed, like a great out door enema.  Yikes!  We survived Chester and completed a couple more rapids.

On the way, we saw a couple of boats flip.  One poor lady fell out of her boat and was really getting beat up by the river. She did not heed the advice about letting go and letting the rapid take her. First she held into the boat and smashed into every rock on the way down. Then she held into a big rock while the power of the river mashed her against this rock again and again. She would not let go. Finally someone got to her and had to talk her off the rock, she was bleeding everywhere and had lost most of her bathing suit the poor thing.   The EMT’s took her away to get help.

Our guide shook her head and said that you can get really hurt if you don’t respect the river and just let go.  “Resistance to the river always hurts! Who is going to win that fight?”

Once we were past the rapids we went through a lovely calm stretch of water.

“Hop out of the boat and get a tow,” the guide recommended. People jumped out and held onto the ropes of the boat. The current was so strong, there was no need to paddle in this part of the river.  I hesitated, it was kind of cold and the water was so clear you could see logs preserved under the water form the time when they used to float timber down the river.

“You should get in,” Kai said, “We’ll only ever be in THIS river, exactly as it is right now this one time.”  So I did and it was great. It’s very peaceful there, you can see eagles in the trees along the river and Mount Katahdin loomed over you as the river winds around it.

We got to our lunch spot, had a lovely lunch and then did the whole thing over again. This time, a couple of the coast guard guys fell out of the boat and hauled each other back in, but they looked like they were just doing it for kicks.  When we got back to the bus, our guide smiled at us and told us she was barely nineteen years old and this had only been her second run down the river as a guide. “The first time I did it was last weekend and I totally screwed up. The boat flipped in the first rapid and it all went downhill from there!”

Zoinks! Or as my son says, facepalm!

The reason I am telling you this story, apart for it’s entertainment value, is that I think this is an excellent analogy for life.   I don’t know about you guys, but right now my life feels like a river full of rapids that and I have no real control. The river is going where it is going and we are all along for the ride.

You can go down the river, in the boat or out of the boat, but you are going down the river.  I liked the part about relaxing and keeping your head up the river will dump you in the same pool as the boat.  Breathing is important, when we get a chance, take a deep breath!

Isn’t this just like life?

It’s always interesting to me to see how some people handle the thrill of that crazy, wild magick feeling of the rapids. It’s like riding a roller coaster. Who laughs and who screams in terror?  What do we do in the face of chaos and feeling out of control? Do we relax and respect the power of the river?  Or do we cling onto something solid and get beat up in the process?

There is always a debate in my mind about how much control we have here down on planet earth.  I can argue both sides of the fence.  Lot’s of people think that everything here is scripted down to the tee and there is nothing left to chance. Everything is “meant to be.” I guess I don’t see it that way. I think there is lot more chaos and randomness here then we want to believe. Just like the chaos of the rapids that are contained (mostly) within the banks of the river.

After all, what would be the point of having the wonderful gift of free will if we couldn’t actually choose?  I see it more like we have this awesome thing called Free Will and then we get to respond to the wild magick chaos and randomness that we get down here. Your Soul says, “Ok, lets see how you deal with the thrill of the whitewater.  Can you relax when the rapid calms and the river is easy?”

I think sometimes the “meant to be” philosophy is a cop out. When we don’t want to take responsibility for the tough choices in our lives, we put everything in God’s hands and hope he knows what the heck he is doing, cuz we sure don’t.

On the other hand, I have tons of faith that even if I don’t see the pattern, there is one in the wild magick of chaos. I trust that it is the right river at the right time, right now, even if I can’t see why or where it is going.  When we step back far enough and look at things from the soul’s perspective, any experience you chose to have in the river of life is something to learn from.

So maybe life is a river and we don’t know were we are going or where it will take us, but we can choose how we will respond to it in each moment. My choice was to stay in the boat, while my husband chose to experiment with the out-of-the-boat option.  I paid attention and followed the signs that lead me to get in the boat with the coast guard guys. (duh!)  And how funny is it that I had total faith in my guide and indeed she totally rocked!  But I was sure glad I didn’t know till the end that it was only her second run.

I only know that it feels like whitewater now (Where are those coast guard guys when you need them?) and it’s definitely of the class five, molester variety. But hey, if I can relax and unclench a little bit, I can see the beauty and the thrill in the chaos.

Whose is ready to ride with me?  Come on, let’s go!