Here in Montana, the temps have topped seventy degrees, and we’re on the back end of spring runoff. This is a time of joyful sacrifice for us Montanans. Winter’s cache of precious snow funnels down mountain draws, babbling all her secrets into spring streams. If we’re lucky, we’ll have enough moisture to keep summer fires at bay. These hidden waterways zigzag through thickets, playing tag with the forest. Their refreshing touch awakens berry bushes, which will turn snowmelt and sun into August fruit. Rivulets pool in the plateaus. Streams become creeks, creeks join rivers. In town, our Clark Fork River swells in a muddy rise. Spring fishing surrenders to the slurry for a while. No use casting a fly, anyway, not until after the tube hatch (flotillas of sun-burnt floaters lazing the days away in their inner-tubes). This is the between time, the waiting hour, unless – of course – you go rafting.
Spring runoff attracts adventure rafters like Salmon Flies pull trout to the surface. Rafters need not be out to catch a fish, mind you. The water is challenge enough. As rivers rise, so does the force of all that water. Underneath the speedy swell hides a myriad of dangers, both seen and unseen. Where a slight hump appears on the surface, a sunken boulder the size of a Volkswagen could be pushing the water up and over (I know one spot where I can dunk my head under and hear boulders thudding down the riverbed, like muffled thunder.) More visible – but no less dangerous — are giant cottonwoods felled by hungry beavers. These trees act like a sieve, siphoning everything under water-logged trunks and into tangles of immersed branches. They can suck anything under. Beneath deceptively smooth spots in the river, underwater whirlpools can catch you unaware. Like underwater tornadoes, whirlpools yank everything into their murky holes. That’s why, this time of year, I stay close to the shore. That’s why some people don’t.
Some brave souls gush at the idea of riding that wild water. One summer, many years ago, my husband Frank ventured onto a local stretch of river known as Alberton Gorge. In late summer, the gorge provides sport for dogs, kiddies, and all manner of summer sprites. During spring runoff, however, one crucial juncture asks each boater to measure their courage for the day. Where the mountainsides draw together and narrow the river’s breadth by half, a tall haystack rock squats between the flow. There are three reasons this matters:
The narrow channel creates a super-swift underwater current, which any good guide can float you above in a class 3 adrenaline rush of whitewater hustle. That’s fun for some, except for number two.
Squeezed by the gorge, all that water has to go somewhere. Spring run off creates enough momentum to lift the river up and over the haystack rock. On the other side of this batholith, the current plunges with all the wild gravity of a wilderness waterfall. Force alone can bore out the riverbed below. You’ve got a Montana black hole, also known as a “boat eater.”
Like it splits the river, the haystack rock splits your chances of getting through the gorge still in your boat. As waves roll back onto themselves at the foot of the rock, in a vertical whirlpool, the edges of this wonky current can snag an edge or oar. Even the best guide has felt their aft tugged into current. Oars go flying as the boat yanks backwards, sideways, and upside down, all at the same time. Hence, the required conference before Frank’s group headed into the gorge…
“Guys,” the guide grunts in his best this-is-serious-stuff tone. “How are you feeling today?”
Frank thought his question weird, since the sky was blue and the water perfect, but no one answered.
“We’ve got a decision to make,” the guide says.
The group of six looks around at each other, anticipating a man-up moment. The guide drops an oar into the last calm water they’ll see for a while. He raises his free hand and points down river.
“Up there, we’ve got a moment of decision. There’s a tight rise with a big rock waitin’ for us. We can eddy out now and portage this puppy trailside, no harm done.”
He lifts his shoulders and raises his eyebrows, wiping his face clean of any judgment and giving his clients an out, like a good guide should.
“Or?” one rider with trendy sunglasses goads. Eyes dart back to the guide.
“Or,” the guide pauses. ”We can deep throat that sucker and find out why they call it the Alberton Gorge.”
A robust round of “hell yeah’s” circles among the men. With only two minutes between them and the rock, discussion ensues. Some grouse over having to haul the raft up steep trail. Others express everyone’s desire to meet the challenge. After all, wasn’t that what they came for? Everyone offers the guide their approving nod. In enthusiastic response, he grabs both oars with a ruddy grip and points the raft downstream. A smile widens underneath the bent brim of his weathered cowboy hat.
“Here’s the thing,” he says. “If we’re gonna do this, we got to do it full force. There’s no halfway with this.”
Everyone’s lips purse in agreement.
“Last week, I steered a boat of football players through this hole, and we all went swimming.”
Silence, then the familiar rrrriipppp of tightening straps on lifejackets. The guide continues, stiffening the oars to create a little drag and buy extra training time.
“Right now, fifteen feet of river is running over a ten foot tall rock underneath. You can’t see it, but it’s there. It’s a bearcat rise, but what goes up must come down, and there’s a steep drop on the other side. It’s a mess, a wet, rough, and rowdy mess. If we’re gonna get through it, we gotta dive.”
Eyes dash among the crew.
“That’s right,” the guide answers. “I said dive. We got to punch this raft deep into that water. When I say ‘go,’ you’re gonna have to lean into this baby with everything you’ve got. You gotta punch into that wave, ‘specially you guys up front. Push her nose down, then push some more. We had all better be under water, or that wave will flip us over.”
The guide pauses, putting a silent exclamation point on his instructions. Everyone tests their lungs with a gulp of air. As the guide lifts his oars to set the raft going again.
“When we pop up,” he continues between committed pushes into the current, “we’ll be on the other side.”
Frank grips the side rope at the front where he sits. Across from him, the other point man stretches his legs taunt to wedge himself solid into the sides of the raft. Granite walls rise up. The air cools. Shadows blanket the water, making it harder to read the river. The sound of rapids bounces all around, like a natural echo chamber. Frank smells green moss as they pass rocky banks dampened by a constant spray coming off the speedy edges. The boat traces the river’s edge as they make the final turn. Then, Frank sees it. Not so much the wave as the fountain it spews five feet into the air, as if a geyser decided to burst from the middle of the Clark Fork. The guide pushes one oar and pulls the other, steering straight for the geyser.
“Get ready!” he yells over the white water’s rumble. More hands clench more rope. Everyone leans forward, mustering guts and momentum. The fountain of foam gets bigger, closer to eight feet high now. Frank eyes the current, following surface rivulets as they stretch long and thin in submission to the flow. He braces. Wait for it, he says to himself. “Wait for it,” the guide bellars. The river feels anxious, too, yanking them from side to side, even as they float faster. Frank balances his weight between push and pull, trying to move with the water. Out the side of his eye, a wet shine on one oar flickers then disappears. The raft lunges. Frank leans in. The nose of the raft lifts, as if arguing with everything the guide just said. Frank squints. The geyser spray sparkles in cold pelts.
“Go!” the guide blares.
The boat rolls forward, high-centers for a half second, then tilts into a downward fall. Frank thrusts his body over the nose. Whitewater is everywhere. He closes his eyes. He sucks air. Behind him – he hopes – the crew has got his back tight. Then, they hit wet thunder. Under water, inside the whirlpool, liquid static fills his ears. He forces his eyes open. They sting from the shock of cold and sand. They’re still sinking. They go deeper. A swampy green engulfs tiny shards of sunlight. He’s in a black hole.
Seconds later, the light turns bright again. He feels less weight but more wet as the air lifts the river’s weight. He opens his mouth. Droplets blink from his eyes. As he gasps for more air – consciously this time — he looks around. Heads, their bodies disappeared under water, float alongside him. They rise in unison, even as they slow into calmer waters. With the raft still half-sunk, one man curses his lost sunglasses. The guide tamps down his cowboy hat.
What does rafting have to do with losing weight? I’ve encountered daunting obstacles along my 100 pounds journey. Just like in spring runoff, some hazards hide underneath the current of my conscience. When I realize I’m about to be siphoned under by another craving, or caught in a whirlpool of frustration, I wish I had a guide to teach me how to punch through the moment. Either that, or permission to leave off my struggle and hope for calmer water on the other side.
I get conflicted inside, like I’m trapped in the vortex of a boat-eater. I’ve lost pounds then gained them back over weeks of sinking depression. I’m still here, though. I’m beginning to believe my hurdles cannot be cleared by floating over the top (ignoring them), ditching out to the side (avoiding them), or hoping I’d remember how to swim if my plans got turned upside down (wishing them away). Nope. I must punch into them. I must learn to lean. When I sink into their source and become willing to get lost and disoriented in my swampy darkness, then I come face to face with my demons. I peer into that black hole. It’s scary to punch into the white water of life, but so far I’ve popped out on the other side, every time.
It’s scary to lean into the white water of my life, but so far I’ve popped out on the other side, every time.
Where’s the Vision Board for this post?
Well, I knew this day would come. My favorite picture editor is obsolete. I’m spending some time learning a new editor. So, hopefully more Vision Boards will be up coming, as soon as I learn the ropes on this new program. Meanwhile, you can enjoy more Vision Boards at pinterest.com/100Pounds/lose-100-pounds-in-1-year/
Shelby is on her most revealing and thrilling adventure yet: to find out what it’s like to lose 100 pounds in 1 year. She began on Thanksgiving 2011. Will she make it? Find out by joining Shelby on this journey, not only of the body, but of the soul and mind. Shelby lives in Missoula, Montana where she works out at The Women’s Club Health and Fitness Center. She also writes a blog about what it means to be true to ourselves at RadicallyAuthentic.wordpress.com.