Guide Talk: The Anatomy of a Flip

River Guide Talk: The Anatomy of a Flip

Sometimes boats flip, and if they do, you’ll never forget the ride…

The wave began to break as we rode up towards the crest. The pulsing and crashing was not in our favor. I yelled “high side,” in an attempt to encourage us all to gain the leverage that might stabilize the boat. Though we heartily climbed, there was no stopping the wave.  The river had us flagged that day, and we were going over. The boat’s bow rose and I looked up at it—chocolate water and blue sky mixing as I felt the river pull me from behind. Then, I was in the dark.

The rapid’s roar was muted from the inside. Churning, powerful water swept me from my fierce grip on the boat’s oars. There is a curious peace inside the loudness of a rapid. I swam underwater jumping jacks, trying for the sky, but knew it was mostly waiting; mostly pause without breath, eyes open with nothing but bubbles in my eyes, ears, nose, the soft place between my toes, and in my dancing long braid.

My tight-fitting PFD yearned (as I did) for the river’s surface, and after a time spent tumbling through light and dark, up we went. I reached the air and took a deep, grateful breath. The sounds of the world returned—the shouts of friends coming to our rescue. I took a moment to gauge my place in the water. I was in the tail-waves of the rapid, through the bulk of it, but not yet to the calm. Conscious timing as I breathed in the troughs and held at the crests helped ease my heart’s rapid thumping as I rode the few remaining, and mercifully softer waves.

My boat’s two guests had been joking and holding tight mere seconds before the flip. They were swiftly and safely picked up by the boat in front of mine. They had been through something intense, and had come out unscathed.

Each night by the campfire they retold the story. They felt they’d survived a truly great and unexpected adventure.

As I recall visiting that place permeated by bubbles and waiting, I’m reminded of how I’d always been told there were two kinds of river guides: Those who will flip, and those who will flip again.  While I don’t hope to be there again, I’m grateful for having visited that fleeting seam of water and earth, heart and sky.  Once to the surface, I knew I was alive – and it was good.


Photo: Jeffe Aronson