River lessons

“Do people ever die in the river?” the small voice asked as we cruised past the roiling, rain-swollen river.

The silence hung thick as I struggled for an answer. Let’s just say if parenthood was a game of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” I’d have gone home a long time ago with a consolation toaster and a year supply of Armor All. Granted, there was a time I could dish out the answers as soon as they were fired: “Where was I before I was born?” (outer space); “Were do ants live?” (in your pants, only kidding.)

But lately, my son had become increasingly aware of his own mortality not to mention my fallibility. As a result, the questions were getting tougher and tougher, and I found myself increasingly referring him to his father or trying to stumble my way through the pre-Cambrian period or square roots.

Not to pigeonhole myself, but science has never been my forte. But suddenly, something as simple as life and death also seemed extremely difficult to tackle. See, while I prided myself on being forthright with my children, I also did not believe in scaring them needlessly. We already spent way too much time worrying about monsters in the closet and getting sucked down the bathtub drain. Plus, seeing as how I planned to raise them in Durango, I strove to foster a healthy love of the river and all outdoors.

Alas, I am an honest person, almost to a fault (OK, some may dispute this, like my mother who thinks I make this stuff up.) As such, I answered as truthfully as possible while still managing to be evasive on the gory details.

“Yes, it does happen, but not very often,” I said, deciding to skip the “you have a better chance of getting killed crossing the street” disclaimer.

Not only is “killed crossing the street” one of the most tired clichés in all of motherdom, but I wasn’t so sure it applied in this case. See, as tragically coincidental as it may be, around the same time we were having our little discussion, the Upper Animas was claiming its first fatality in two years, a 35-year-old mother of three from Texas. The tragedy hit even closer to home when I realized that the day before the death, I had unknowingly passed the victim and her family on the river trail. I was getting off the river while she, in full safety regalia, headed out en route to her on-river swim test. The taking-off group bid the putting-on one good luck, and we went our separate ways.

Furthering the irony, I had also been reminded that day how quickly one’s fate can change on the river. OK, so the town run is a far cry from 10 Mile on the Upper Animas, but terror knows no boundaries. Anyway, there I was feeling confident (also known as low-water laziness) when I suddenly found myself hopelessly breached on a heretofore unknown rock. Of course, the worst part was I was in about half a foot of water. As such, it was pretty much impossible to pull off a roll without incurring massive facial and ego-damage. For several agonizing seconds (which seemed like years), I floundered like a fish out of water until I was finally freed by my frantic flailing. As luck would have it, and much to the disappointment of my cohorts who watched with great pleasure, I did not have to swim across a rocky cheese-grater in 6 inches of water that day. While thankful for the face-saving (literally) reprieve, I was even more grateful for the wake-up call the river afforded me.

See, there’s nothing like a good spanking to humble oneself to the powers that be and remind oneself that there’s more wup-ass where that came from. Most of the time, we get away with a little slap on the wrist (don’t even get me started on tubers without life jackets or shoes) and go on our merry way, hopefully a little wiser for the drubbing. Other times, however, we are not so lucky. There’s the “I saw God” times, and the even more horrifying “bright light at the end of the tunnel” times. Knock on wood, but thus far, I’ve only had a few glimpses of God outside a church (quit laughing, I go to weddings occasionally) and hope to only see the bright light at a ripe old age – and in my sleep.

Of course, there’s no explaining “times” like the sad events that have unfolded during this summer’s extended runoff, including a slew of river deaths among seemingly well-prepared and equipped river runners. Sure, sometimes maybe they “died doing what they loved” or “knew what they were getting into.” And yes, people need to know that the river, like any force of nature that is becoming ever more accessible, has consequences. But it still doesn’t help settle that ever present question of “why?”

So, as I continue to field the increasingly tough questions in years to come, I can only try to keep that pervasive three-letter word at bay. Because, all the experience and speculating in the word can’t answer why. And the only one who really knows is the river, and it ain’t talking.

– Missy Votel

 

 

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March 10, 2022
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