The pull of the soul is like the pull of a river. You can fight the current and get sore, tired and banged up; you can even eddy out for days, weeks, or even a lifetime, but in the end you are still going down the river.
When I was in college my housemate and I signed up with Adventure Outings for a weekend Canoeing trip down the Klamath River. Neither of us had ever canoed before but we loved the idea of it. The thought of being out on the water, camping without having to carry our packs, sleeping under the stars with fifteen or so healthy outdoorsy and potentially cute college students at least half of whom would be guys sounded right up our alley. We signed up and went to the obligatory first meeting where they told us that we would need warm clothes and river shoes and that our lack of experience was welcome.
On the first morning of the weekend trip after unloading the vans our guides sat the group down on the bank of the river to explain a few strategies and safety tips about canoeing. They showed us how to paddle, how to turn, how to eddy out, and most importantly what to do if you fell out. The section of river that we were going down was generally very calm and they assured us there was nothing to worry about. We just had to get into the rhythm with our canoe partner and enjoy the ride. They stressed though that no matter how calm a river appears it is never to be taken lightly. A river is a mighty body of water and the power of nature should not be fought they said. Wise words those were. The power of nature should not be fought.
So my friend and I set off in the sparkling morning sun with eight other canoes pushing gently off the sandy bank and into the beautiful serenity of the river. My heartbeat was quick initially but as we rode along gently in the current I relaxed and we laughed until our stomach ached as we learned how to coordinate our steering with our paddles so that we could eddy out when the guide said to. The cool fresh air, the sun shining down, birds and Manzanita, it was a perfect day.
Camp that night was the best kind of mixture of exhaustion, jokes shared from the river, hunger, and awe. We gathered like wet puppies at the fire and the prospect of a deep deep sleep with the stars blazing in all their glory above was like heaven on earth.
The next morning after a brief review of the plan for our final day on the river we boarded our crafts and set off. We would travel downstream for a couple of hours before eddying out just past the bridge for lunch, soon after that we would pull our canoes out of the river and be back at the vans that would take us home. We had only been on the river for one day and already I felt changed. But that morning I did not know yet that the river still had a lesson for me. It was about to show me something about myself that would be hard for me to see any other way, and would take me many more years to learn.
After a couple of lolling hours in the delicious morning sun as the frigid early morning air softened into a perfumey afternoon, my canoe partner and I having agreed to take it easy so we could soak up the amazing natural world around us, we saw the bridge in the distance the marker that our trip was nearing its end. The guides had instructed us to pass under the bridge and to eddy out on the right bank where we would have our final meal of the trip together.
The bridge was large with several pylons supporting it across the river, and of course where there are pylons in a moving river there is always debris that has become snagged and the water around this debris and these heavy man made intruders is more bumpy and brisk. My canoe mate and I were completely unprepared for this. We aimed the front of our canoe to thread between two sets of pylons on the left side of the bridge but as we drew closer the team leader realized our plan and directed us through yelling and hand signals to change course and go through the pylons on the right, from the side of the river we were on he figured it would be too hard to eddy out right after the bridge. All I can say at this point is we tried. We flailed. The current was faster and our lack of coordinated strokes turned our boat this way and that and as lack of skill would have it we broadsided the first pylon and our boat flipped over and was pinned against the pylon with the rivers current.
My friend and I bobbed to the surface and were instantly relieved to see each other. But within seconds the current tugged us under the rivers surface again. I fought mightily and pulled myself up a second time onto the top of the boat, my arms thrown over its slippery surface in a desperate bear hug. That’s when I realized my friend had not resurfaced. I screamed for her. I couldn’t see her or anyone else from our group. I was alone with the boat, the pylon, and the river and I was quickly sucked down into the cold green water again. I must have struggled three or four more times to pull myself up onto the boat. I was terrified to let go but the river was winning. I was exhausted and I knew then if I kept fighting I was in more danger so I released. Sure enough I went under the boat and popped up on the other side. Still afraid to go with the river I grabbed desperately at the mossy branches wrapped around the pylon and managed to pull myself up to balance precariously on the flotsam tangled around the pylon. Relief and joy rushed through my body…I was going to survive this little fiasco afterall! Then I noticed on the far bank past the bridge our group out of their boats and scanning the river in every direction. They couldn’t see me! Finally one of our poor young leader’s who was beside himself thinking they had lost someone, and that I had possibly drowned, managed to paddle his boat upstream against the current and spotted me there hugging the pylon. Our joy at seeing each other was palpable. In the end I was rope saved from my precarious foothold.
And what had happened to my friend? Well she had done exactly what she was supposed to do; the main instruction that I had forgotten. Let go. Never fight the river. You won’t win. She had gone under the second time and laid back and let the river carry her gently downstream where they had easily plucked her out of the slower waters past the bridge. She had been safely wrapped in a warm towel fifteen minutes before I had even been spotted.
Joseph Campbell talked about mythologies and the Heroes Journey. He said that we all, in our own way, take the heroes journey and that the stories of our own lives are the mythologies of our journey. If we crack them open there is something to be learned from those stories.
What has happened to you in your life that is a mythology of your journey? What can you learn from the mythologies within your own life stories?
Fighting the river is a reoccurring theme in my journey and until cracking it open I never realized it was there to warn me of the dangers and the exhaustion of fighting the mighty river.