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July 3, 2006

River of Life

I drift with the current. A still, smooth surface reflects the side of the canyon, lit orange by a hidden, setting sun. My wide-brimmed hat is held down at the sides like a bonnet by the straps of the kayak helmet that covers it. An osprey soars above, with a fish in its talons, and lands in a nest atop a tall pine.

My paddle dips into the water as my mind dips into stillness. And the river flows on; a surging current not now visible because undisturbed by rocks. Ahead I see the others, perched on the side of a yellow, rubber raft.

Later, I am on a raft paddling slowly and I see the little six-year-old boy looking up at me in awe: I am a man and one day he will be like me. I turn and smile at him, remembering my own son so far away, and want to be present for this little child.

We pull the rafts onto a sandy beach and Barry, or Swami Potidas, sets off to hide the chemical toilet behind bushes. Long shadows are being cast across the valley and my body is warm and gently aching from the rapids. A cool breeze blows through. The river-guides unpack the food and begin to cook dinner; vegetarian, organic, and healthy.

I cannot pee. I cannot pee in front of people. I walk along the river and stand on a rock, but nothing comes. I think that they are watching me and wondering why I am not peeing. Then I imagine that I am a king and that they are my subjects: they marvel at my not peeing, they honor and cherish me even more as I stand looking out at the river not peeing; for all I do in my regal splendor is worthy of acclaim and praise and the love of the devoted inhabitants of my kingdom. And then I pee.

That night we sit around the fire on the beach and two of the teenage girls whisper to me, "Duncan, do something funny!" But I tell them that I have given them all I have, there are no more characters in me; I did stand-up comedy to a large audience, for the first time, the previous night. "Can you be an Indian?" they ask me.

"I don't know much about Native American Indians." I tell them, but decide to try. I disappear into the darkness and return running, knees high, hand clapping over my mouth; a stereotypical Indian. I run back into the darkness before returning, wondering what will happen next.

I sit down cross-legged by the fire and a circle forms around me; more than a dozen people, parents and children. "Who are you?" someone asks; a good question and one to which I would like to know the answer.

"I am Chief Flowing River." I say and begin a question-and-answer session that will last for hours.

"Who am I?" people ask me. I give them names: Little Bear, Hungry Wolf, and Bothersome Beaver.

"Can I change my name?" Barry asks me.

"Of course, Sitting Bottom, you may do this. Which name would you like to take?" I respond.

"Dancing Bottom!" he says.

I begin to laugh, "You had a choice, Dancing Bottom, a choice of any name you wished. You had the opportunity to change your name from Sitting Bottom to anything at all, and you chose to keep the Bottom part of your name!" Barry is laughing uncontrollably and Joyce is hugging him.

"He's embarrassed." She explains. "It's very rare for him to be embarrassed, but he is now." I feel honored to have embarrassed the great Dancing Bottom.

A thirteen-year-old girl, lost in belief, asks me, "One day, will there be boxes which you stare at, which have pictures on them?" She seems to have moved into the past and is asking me about television.

I begin to shake and moan. My eyes roll up in their sockets and my body rocks. I am lost in a trance as I communicate with the ancient ones — the ancestors. And then I become very still and peaceful, look at her and say, "Yes."

I tell them about how I learned from my forbears. I sat around a fire just like this one with them and I would ask them questions, just like the ones that are being asked of me now. They would respond, "grunt", "snort", "growl", and "burp" in quick succession. And as I turned my head to imbibe their wisdom, I would acknowledge with, "hmm", "I see", "yes", and "right".

The next day, we float in the water, by the rafts, carried by our life-jackets, cooled under the California sun, and safely guided by a current towards the sea. Our heavy supply boat is man-handled as it lurches over rapids, weighted with food and water. We are funneled, crazily paddling, through twisting water that folds over itself, so keen it's unsure of which way to travel. And the kayaks slide through too; someone flips and slips out, surfacing safely but more experienced, and gleefully happy.

We land on a beach and eat avocado and sprouts in nine-grain bread on bright, hot sand against river-smoothed, granite canyon walls before setting off to the waterfall. I take the six-year-old-boy in my care: a father for an afternoon; his mother has a break. We hike along undulating footpaths, over gnarled roots, bridges, and along steep canyon ledges.

A channel comes upon us, cut deep in the granite with clear, icy water flowing powerfully through it. The guides tie a rope upstream and I wade through pulling myself along with little arms around my neck. How my heart aches to think that once those were my little arms, but that there was no neck to hold onto, no strength to protect and guide me.

At the waterfall, I press against the black rock and edge behind the falling water as it pounds on my crown incessantly. Oh I must tense against this pounding, I think; but I realize that tensing will not help. And in the center of the fall, sitting on a ledge, I look out through a curtain above the plunge-pool, and I wave at the others standing on the rocks and pebbles beyond.

That evening, I pass Jennifer and Scott, warmly glowing in deck chairs by a tributary. "What are you doing?" I ask.

"Listening to the river." Jennifer tells me.

"Well, when you've finished listening, tell it to pipe down, its incessant chatter is bothering me." I say jokingly.

I wade out into the flow to navigate up through the boulders and find Barry and the others; they have gone ahead on one of his pre-dinner adventures. My foot slips and a rock tears one of my toe-nails off. I yelp and run back to Jennifer for a comforting hug, an ackowledgement that I am hurt, and then I continue contently on the adventure.

When I return, Jennifer tells me, "That big rock in the river spoke to me."

"It did?" I ask, "What did it say?"

"It told me that it was travelling very quickly." She says, "It didn't make any sense; I couldn't understand it. Then I realized that the earth is hurtling through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour."

I respond, "I totally believe you. But do you realize that if you told most people what you just told me, they would think that you were insane?"

"I know. But it did talk to me. I felt it when I put my hands on it." She says. I think about how it seems that rocks and trees and streams are less aware than humans and wonder if perhaps this is not true, that perhaps the human mind is obscuring the universal awareness, an awareness which simpler things take for granted and blissfully enjoy. But surely it is better to be as aware as a rock but at the same time to have a human mind; surely. Why else would I have chosen to become a human.

We jump from rocks into icy cold and crystal clear water. We brave powerful rapids. We eat and sleep under the stars. We talk and laugh. We spend time alone, drifting. After five days, I am changed. I have become a river of life which flows through the world. I have seen bears and eagles and I have watched fish. I have remembered that I am a part of nature, that I deserve to flow smoothly and continuously towards my sea. I have learned to enjoy myself, slowly.

We clean and pack-up the rafts, throwing water at each other, screaming and shouting and splashing. And then we drive for forty-five minutes back to where we started.

Barry and Joyce Vissell lead this white-water rafting trip down the Klamath River in California each summer. Visit their website for more information: sharedheart.org

"Duncan, you write with such tenderness, such love. Your heart is very open and I love you." — Carol


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