I stepped into the raft, balancing myself and finding a place near the front, or so I thought. One by one, the other five fully helmeted, paddle clad people climbed in after me and our guide looked us over.
“I bet we look like an unlikely crew,” I thought.
Three men, all strong and capable looking, and three women, each with slightly uncertain looks in our eyes.
Don’t get me wrong.
I was ridiculously excited about battling the white water rapids.
Daniel and I had each been here before, the US white water rafting olympic training ground, but never together, and we knew that one day we wanted to do this, together.
But even while the excitement was high, there was a teeny tiny question mark in a dusty corner of my mind.
Was I really strong enough to be an asset here?
And what if the boat flipped?
You know, the scenario they talk about in the warm up talk, describing what to do if you come up under the boat and need to get out fast?
But I smiled, wedged my foot under the support brace and gripped my paddle firmly. We would get this. I looked over, and could see the delight glittering from my hubby’s eyes.
He simply could not wait.
But the guide paused. He looked us over.
“Bummer,” I thought, “he looks too cautious. Maybe he will try to guide us over the calmest places.”
Which, in spite of my fears, isn’t what I really wanted.
“So what kind of ride do you want?” he had asked.
“Wild!” Daniel quickly answered. I nodded, mostly meaning it.
“Just shy of a concussion!” the tall guy shouted who had never before been over white water rapids.
He was big. Tall. The kind of man you would want on your side. A law student, we later learned, eager to fight crime and injury and make the world a better place… He wanted a challenge.
“Let’s switch the two of you on the middle row,” the guide decided after a trial strokes of our paddles. The lady with the big guy couldn’t figure out how to hold hers. She held a baseball grip instead of hand over the T. I cringed. She would need to know how to use the thing when we faced the real deal.
But in a few moments, and after a bit more instruction, we must have passed the test. The guide stood up and walked to where Daniel and I were, and we were suddenly in the back.
They call this “Big Water.”
It’s when they open all the pumps on this white water course. What before were placid rapids turn into fuming, foaming waters. You have to be at least 16 to even be allowed out on this, I later learned. But there were lots of other boats out here, so it was all cool.
And our guide had never had a raft flip on Big Water.
So how bad could it really be?
“Three forward,” the guide commanded and our paddles dipped deep.
I worked to match my strokes to Daniel’s. Ahead were the first rapids, and they looked easy. The kind I would inner tube over. In a few moments, we shot over them, with just a small spray hitting us in the face, and suddenly we were looking at white foam and churning whirlpools.
The guide yelled something, but I couldn’t hear him over the roar,
even though he was right behind me.
Then we hit it.
I hadn’t seen it coming.
You couldn’t see it, the rock under the water, but it caught the raft.
All I knew was that the impact launched the guide suddenly off his seat and across my lap. In a split second the raft leaned heavily to the left, and catapulted us all out into the swirling mass.
I felt people under me, a leg kicking, water swirling in my face.
My first thought was, “Where are the kids?” and then remembered they were safe at home with their grandmother.
The water pulled and tore at me, pushing me down the rapids.
“Stay calm,” I told my panicking self as I fought to get a mouth full of air.
“Let your feet float, lay on your back, swim to the side,” they had instructed.
But the water kept crashing over my face. The lifejacket seemed waterlogged,
and I had to fight to keep my face up, out of the water.
I was alone.
I grabbed a glimpse of the guide behind us, trying to get back to the raft. I couldn’t see Daniel at all, but I wasn’t worried. He would be fine.
But where was Gretta?
My sister, the one who also has lost a brother to drowning. I caught a glimpse of her, and her strong boyfriend confidently holding onto her lifejacket.
I knew she was in good hands.
“Just get to the side,” I told myself.
But the water grabbed at me, trying to keep me in the current.
The concrete side, though just a few feet away, looked tantalizingly calm.
I pushed past the current and in a few moments threw my hands up onto the concrete and curled my fingers over the ledge, pulling myself out. Daniel swam up a few seconds later, and crawled out, smiling widely and his face mirroring the exhilaration he was feeling.
Within a few minutes, our guide had four of his six passengers back in his raft, and we waited for Gretta and Merlin. The raft hugged the side of the waterway, where the water played and lapped calmly at the concrete side. Our eyes scanned the bend, around which the water must have carried the two. I learned later that Merlin had pushed Gretta out and got swept further down the rapids. But soon they came, dripping and ready to climb back in. I’ll admit. I was a bit traumatized.
We had just barely started down the course and the first real rapid got us.
Like really got us. And we were in for hours of this?
“Are you ok?” I asked Gretta. She nodded and smiled, but her eyes didn’t look quite so assuring.
The irony of it struck me.
Why would two sisters, whose only brother lost his life in white foaming waters, choose to go white water rafting?
Why on earth would we put ourselves in the position to have to fight the angry foaming water?
Our seating was all rearranged now, any careful placing was lost as waterlogged people had slopped back into the raft. Daniel and I were now at the front of the boat, not the back.
The raft shot out into the middle of the course, the calm open space where the rapids were left far behind. We laughed and chatted and found out how the unexpected dumping had hit each of us. And then our raft went up the long conveyor belt, and headed back to the beginning of the course, where we had been high and dry, just a few minutes before.
We were heading right back to the site of our dumping. Heart thumping, I followed the guide’s instructions to paddle towards the foam.
“Oh God!” the lawyer quivered.
The roar surrounded us; Daniel and I were first into it. And we shot past it, up over the raging white water and on to the next. We all cheered, we had conquered what had conquered us last time. It was thrilling.
Then they opened up the channel, where the boulders squeeze tight and the water pulls deep and sprays high. Here the adventurous kayakers hang out, dancing and flipping and playing in the powerful water. Our raft entered the channel and I felt us get pulled into the fast current. Ahead the waters merged and a wave three feet high reached for us.
“Paddle hard,” he yelled from the back and we dug in. We hit it a little to the side, and the raft dipped and leaned hard. My body collided with Daniel’s. “Lean LEFT!” the guide shouted. “Which left?!” the lawyer moaned.
But we all leaned hard and the raft righted itself. People standing by the side of the course cheered. Usually a rafting trip includes four trips through the rapids, two through the first stretch and two through the channel. But as we came around after the second time in channel, our guide said, “I think we have time for another.”
So we plunged down again, muscles straining and eyes glued to the water. Our guide directed us nose straight onto a rock and we spun around, our tail now the head.
“Keep spinning!” an onlooker yelled, smiling. This was all play to them, these techniques each with names and practiced many times. We shot down a deep fall backwards. I smiled, it was almost easier going backwards, not seeing how big it was till we were past it.
We sucked into a side eddy, and got lodged on a rock. A boat behind us flipped. Three staff members ran, throwing tow lines to the swimmers. We waited it out, ready to pull a swimmer in, if any came down the big rapids.
“I wouldn’t want to have to swim down that,” I thought as I watched the water leap down and churn angrily. But no swimmers appeared, and we pushed off the rock and in seconds were out on the calm water again.
“Hey, the channel is still open!” our guide shouted when the ride should have been over. “Wanna go?” We all cheered and paddled toward it, the fourth and last time.
The water raged, and as we shot down into the biggest rapid, something in me snapped. I raged with it, I dug my paddle into the foam and I roared back. No one could hear my war cry over the noise, but it was a God moment for me.
I wasn’t gonna let the water, and all it has torn from me, be a conquering fear.
I would fight back, and win.
We ripped through the sticky spot and cheered.
I lifted my paddle toward heaven and roared triumphantly.
That last round was a second bonus.
The guide didn’t have to do it.
God didn’t have to do it.
But there was that moment, that war yell,
that “I will be with you in the deepest waters,” from God.
“Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My tears have been my food day and night,
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.”
(Pieces from Psalm 42)
This morning is normal life again.
The children are sleeping in.
Daniel has gone off to work, our coffee mugs emptied.
I have a few muscles squeaking from the strain of yesterday’s adventure.
But would I turn around and do it again today, if I could? Of course.
Would I remember the terror of that first dumping, the struggle to keep my face above the water, the exhaustion after climbing out? Most certainly.
But today, God calls me to look my fears straight in the eye.
Not to dodge them.
Not to run from them.
Not to hide.
He is that kind guide, choosing to take me out of my comfort zone,
into the deepest rapids, to feel the foam on my face.
He gives me a paddle, a promise, and a strong husband on my side.
And he gives me a war cry, in that moment of terror.
He is there.
And He is proud. (All the images in this post are of the Lempa River, where my brother left this world behind and entered Heaven’s gates. I will forever miss him, and his presence in my life now, but daily God uses his death to change who I am, and to see life through new eyes. And some day, the tears of now will be gems of gold, for the lessons we learned through them.)