So much is written about the importance of letting go and yes, letting go is one way to move forward in life. But holding on has value too. Like poker players who know when to ‘fold em’ or walk away, there are times we need to ‘hold em’ and hang on.
Before Bill and I were married, we made a list of possible future adventures and discussed a whitewater rafting trip. I imagined a fun half-day trip, comparable to a mild amusement ride, not the 280-mile bumper boat journey through the Grand Canyon that Bill suggested. I was reluctant, especially after reading the trip waiver forms, until Bill hinted that he might ask me to marry him if he found a diamond and some gold in the canyon.
I’m not a big gambler, but the prize was too tempting. I went ‘all in’.
Before the trip, I purchased a fake diamond at Bernie’s Rock Shop and tucked it safely in my backpack. I planned to place my ‘jewel’ on some rock in the canyon and say to Bill, “Would you believe this? Look what I found!” I would wait for the right moment.
On the first day of our journey, Bill and I flew to Las Vegas and from there, hopped on a small, single-engine plane for a roller coaster flight to Marble Canyon and Lee’s Ferry. Gum chewing kept my nausea under control. Bill made use of the air sickness bag.
Once on solid ground, seated comfortably in the lodge at the river’s ‘put in’ point, Bill recovered quickly. Together with eighteen fellow travelers and six boatmen: five men and one woman, we sat and listened as Matt, our trip leader, drilled us with safety instructions.
“Listen carefully. What I have to say is important,” Matt said. “An experienced boatman will be in charge of each of the six rubber rafts in our party. You will not paddle. The river is too dangerous. Your job will be to remember two things. First, understand that your life jacket is your best friend and make sure it's fastened securely whenever you are in the raft or near the river. Second, always hold on to the attached rope that runs tightly around the outside of your raft. Never let go unless your raft turns completely upside down. You don’t want to fall in this river. The water is 44 degrees. Hypothermia can set in quickly.”
After hearing this, I wanted to say, "Ah...sir, can I have my money back now? I think I should go home," but I didn't want to look like a coward. I took a deep breath and headed for the river.
Fortunately, the first several miles were gentle. The boatmen’s confidence and sense of humor were good medicine for me. I found pleasure in the changing terrain of interesting rocks and scruffy shrubbery as the river carved deeper into the canyon. I spotted some goats near the shore, then a beaver, then a lizard on a rock. I was 'into' it.
Daniel, our boatman assigned to us that day, initiated water fights with the other rafts in our party. This exercise may have been an enjoyable and subtle form of safety training as we mastered the art of filling bailing pails and throwing out water. We whooped and hollered, delighted with the instant relief of frigid spray on our hot and sunbaked bodies in the 115º F heat.
As the trip progressed and the rapids grew larger, I kept my rope firm in hand.
Ninety miles into the trip, I stopped shouting, “Yahoo! Ride em’ cowboy!” after Hermit Rapid’s fifteen foot waves crashed down on us. Two different times, I lost hold of the safety rope and was thrown into the center of the raft, not the river.
At mile marker 98.2 we camped just above Crystal Rapid, the rapid most feared by our boatmen and considered most dangerous. Bill and I walked along the shoreline and eavesdropped as the boatmen assessed the rapid and the large, half-submerged boulders in the river. As with jump rope, we learned we must enter the rapids at the right time and in the right place or there would be consequences.
Katherine, one on my fellow travelers, a kind and perceptive psychologist, sensed my concern and suggested I visualize myself as a strong and confident woman. I imagined I was Meryl Streep in the movie, “The River Wild”. Her character had been blond and ponytailed like me, and she too, wore a cap. I did my best to visualize. I really did, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to shake the image of water going over my head.
The morning of our launch into Crystal, I put on my rain gear because the sky threatened a cold, wet run. Hyperventilating, I boarded our river craft, grabbed the safety rope with both hands and repeated, I can do this. I am strong.
Bill and I watched the other rafts as they entered Crystal ahead of us. One by one, each boatman avoided the holes, boulders and crushing waves. Just beyond Crystal, the rafts pulled over in the eddy below and waited for us.
Our boatman on this day was Meagan. I watched as she headed us in backwards for optimal rowing leverage. Too scared to watch, I shut my eyes. Only seconds later, I heard Bill say, “We are going in too high,” and opened my eyes as our raft lifted into the air. Suspended in midair on the high side of the raft, water rushing over my head, I could still see light above me. My muscles strained as my body hung from the rope.
As suddenly as the raft lifted, it crashed back down, right side up. Meaghan, was missing. Her oars, still firmly tied on, bounced uselessly. Bill was in the river, glasses missing, bobbing up and down, disappearing, surfacing, gasping for air.
Ryan, one of the teenage boys who had been on board, was also in the river. He swirled in circles, desperately fighting to keep his head above water. He screamed, “We’re all going to die!” Ryan’s brother, Jeff, was the only person left in the raft with me.
Emergency whistles blowing, the boatmen on shore shouted, “We’ve got swimmers!”
I finally saw Don, the last in the raft to be accounted for, wrestling in the river’s current only a few feet away. A strong swimmer and scuba diving treasure hunter by profession, he managed to pull himself back into the raft, grab the oars and steer us close enough to Ryan so that Jeff could grip his hand and pull him to safety. Don turned the raft toward Bill, but we were too late. Bill had been swept further away.
The rest of the rafts, now back on the river, raced toward Bill. In seconds, Daniel’s raft closed in on him, the occupants grabbed him by his shoulder and yelled, “We’ve got him!”
I heard a roar up ahead and my relief turned to fear. Our raft, flooded with frigid water, manned by an inexperienced boatman, might not survive another set of rapids. The boys and I bailed as fast as we could.
As the rapid ahead roared louder, Don kept a firm grasp on the oars and inched us closer to the river bank where limbs of a tree hung mercifully low over the water. As soon as we were close enough, we reached out, each finding a branch to hold on to and helped Don steady the raft until the others pulled in behind us. Bill was helped into our raft and Meagan, who I was happy to see had been rescued, returned to take over the oars. Though shaken and weary, we were told we needed to get going in order to find a campsite before dark.
Twenty-four wild miles later, our flotilla finally found a suitable refuge on the sandy shore of Mile 122.6. Craig, the boatman, who manned the baggage and supply raft, announced to everyone, “We have done our ABC’s. We are Alive Below Crystal!”
Still wet and shivering, Bill and I changed into warm, dry clothes and found a sheltered rock ledge where we could sit, decompress and settle our nerves. Energy spent, neither of us had much to say. We sat in silence, holding hands, each with our own thoughts. Mine turned to the rapids we had run during the day: Crystal, Ruby, and Sapphire.
Bill interrupted my thinking and said, “Just a minute, I’ll be right back.” He climbed down from the ledge, headed for our tent, and returned with a little buckskin pouch. “I brought you something. I’ve been waiting for just the right moment to give it to you.” I loosened the drawstrings on the little pouch and reaching inside, discovered a diamond and five dollar gold coin.
“Will you marry me?’ he asked. I reached into my pocket and smiled. Fake diamond in hand, I answered, “Yes.”
Like poker players who know when to ‘fold em’ or walk away,
there are times we need to ‘hold em’ and hang on.
What do you need to hold on to?