I have this strange habit of whenever I am faced with a challenging situation, I imagine that in a past life I was an expert at whatever I am doing, and I channel that calm expertise. So when I found myself on an inflatable raft, smashing headfirst into the angry swells of the mighty Rangitata River, I decided that I had been a Viking warrior in a past life, and with a series of Norse-sounding vicious grunts I paddled like hell.
I paddled as if our rubber raft was a wooden ship on a stormy night sea, and our laid-back kiwi guide had been replaced with a big-bearded, horny-helmeted guy yelling commands at me. It was this visualization that carried me safely through the Class 5 Rapids without having to take a swim in the frothy waters.
Lee wasn’t so lucky. When going over a particularly thrashing wave, his corner of the boat heaved and the rafter in front of him, an engineer from Colorado, did a back-somersault into the river. The last part of his body to fly out of the boat was his right foot, which caught Lee square on the nose and pulled him into the swirling rapids as well. It happened so fast I didn’t even see it, I just shook the water out of my eyes to see a dramatically less populated boat! When the two of them scrambled back aboard after their little swim, Lee was bleeding from the nose but otherwise in good spirits. It takes more than a kick to the face to phase that bad boy.
I thought I would be more scared than I was. I was scared, at first, when we approached the first rapid. My stomach was clenched up tight and my cold clammy hands gripped my paddle for dear life. I shut my eyes and held my breath and plunged in. It was wet, it was cold. It was like being thrown in the spin cycle of Poseidon’s washing machine. But when I came out the other end, blinking and gasping, my first thought was… “That wasn’t so bad. Actually, it was kind of AWESOME!”
When I look back the rest of the journey it is all a blur, two and a half hours of splashing through the rapids, cruising swiftly and smoothly through the flat stretches in between, and stopping to admire the epic Middle Earth scenery. The moments I will remember, the seconds when I felt most alive and totally engaged, were the precious few minutes when we were really in the thick of it, getting our asses kicked by the white water.
Maybe it was my inner Viking warrior, or something else, but in those moments when I should have felt scared out of my mind, I felt at peace. I let my body rise and fall with the rhythmic motion of the water, I trusted in the river to pull us through. Instead of invoking terror, the whitewater gave me a rockin-rollin thrill, a beautiful joyous rush that I have never felt before. The rapids were a challenge that required my utmost concentration on the present moment, and therefore served as a kind of meditation. In the swirling world of chaos, I found an eye of calm. There is no room for worrying about the little things when you are heading straight for a waterfall. There is no thinking, just doing. Paddle. Stop. Forwards. Lean Left. Lean Right. Get Down… SSSPPPLLOOOOOSSSHHH!!!!!!
I could get addicted to that.
Perhaps this is the first of many future extreme adventures. But at this point, this warrior is weary and deserving of sleep. I hope I dream sweet whitewater dreams.