The River’s Mask
Every river wears a mask. The surface hides much of what lies beneath, though experience teaches us to read it, at least a little. If you are lucky, you survive the experiences.
If you are very lucky, along the way you learn a thing or two about yourself.
My first stream-based learning experience came when I was about six. Happily, this was a discovery mostly about my own limits, without danger to more than my dignity or reference to the mysteries of deep water. Deep mud, on the other hand, was definitely involved.
My brothers and I were the youngest of a string of cousins, and I was the youngest of us all. So it was inevitable that with a half a dozen kids running around a mountain meadow like a gang of mountain goats, I was the least adept at any of the skills the others displayed, including jumping over things.
A little creek wound through the meadow, and from a distance it was clear and beautiful. We children saw it as a plaything. I was to learn of its dark underbelly. With all the older kids jumping back and forth across the creek, in my 6-year-old arrogance I shouted, “Watch me jump!” and leapt…to about the middle of the stream. Which proved, on closer contact, to have a bottom made of muck. Deep muck.
My oldest cousins helped me out of the stream, dripping with black mud, and led me off to get clean clothes. On that day, I stowed two bits of information in my little head: I saw that streams weren’t always what they seem—and I couldn’t jump (I still can’t).
The next rivers I remember standing out were glacial melt-streams. I stood with my brothers on the banks of the White River and listened to the boulders rolled by the rushing waters pouring off the glaciers of Mt. Rainier, and I needed no experimentation to know I should stay well out of that water. I have never needed to test the premise that wading in white water is a bad idea, and glacial run-off and even better thing to avoid.
Over the years, I learned to see when a stream was just a stream, and when it was a river, masking a deadly depth or force. I got the most vital, and dangerous, lesson in my last year of college. We students all grew itchy as the Spokane winter yielded too slowly to spring. So even though it was raining (again!), when a couple of friends proposed we rent a canoe and run the Little Spokane River, it sounded like a good plan. I’d been messing around in canoes since I was a kid, so I figured I knew what I was doing. Of course, our family canoe had stayed firmly on lakes and the in-shore waters of Puget Sound. I’d never run a river in my life. But the “Little Spokane” sounded innocuous, and it looked innocent. Smooth and flat and innocent.
It turned out the innocents were in the canoe, for a while. We shoved off and tried to ignore the drizzle, excited to be off campus and doing something different. But it didn’t take us long to realize that the “little” river was larger, deeper, and above all faster than we’d anticipated. It didn’t take long after that to realize that I knew nothing about river canoeing, the other woman knew nothing about canoeing at all, and the guy, who was the only one who’d been on moving water, didn’t know enough to compensate for a couple of novices. In other words, we were in over our heads.
Within ten or fifteen minutes that had ceased to be a metaphor. We lost control on a bend, caught the edge of the canoe under a snag, and capsized. The good news was that we were all wearing PFDs, we managed to hang onto the canoe and two paddles, and though we lost one paddle, no one drowned. Oddly, I don’t remember what we did after that. We must have finished our trip to the second vehicle, having learned a little bit more about the face beneath the river’s mask. I certainly never again looked at smooth, deep water with the same naiveté.
Similar river lessons awaited me a decade later when my husband and I took a belated honeymoon to New Zealand. We spent a month hiking the South Island, largely on the west (wet) side, so we met a lot of rivers. After a few days, we learned to stomp right through without bothering to change shoes. Endless crossings made it necessary, and chill, often fast, water made the boots essential in any case.
On our last river crossing on the last day of our last hike, a day before flying home, we learned a last (though fortunately not final) lesson about where and how to cross. After hiking down a river for two days, crossing and re-crossing multiple times per mile, we had gotten pretty good at spotting the best places to cross.
Or so we thought. In fact, we’d merely gotten good at plowing straight through a broad, shallow, and fairly tame stream. When we reached the final crossing—the larger river our feeder stream flowed into—we stood and stared at it for a while. This river looked like a cross between those glacial streams of my childhood at Mt. Rainier, and the sleek and deceptive Little Spokane. Some places it ran fast. Some spots looked slower, but deeper.
We proceeded to pick what looked like a good spot to cross, but was, in fact, one of the worst (as we really should have known). New Zealand rivers, once off the steep slopes of the mountains, are wide and braided, which is the only reason many are fordable at all. We crossed the first and second strands easily, and then tackled the largest channel. Stepping off the end of our gravel bar, arms linked (we weren’t completely stupid), we discovered just how much water ran under the mask.
If I were writing this as fiction, I would have gone downstream, floating atop my pack (or beneath it, depending on whether I was writing comedy or tragedy) until I washed out into Lake Wanaka, or if it was a thriller, passed a desperate night clinging to a tree limb somewhere.
In fact, I merely went, between one step and the next, from thigh-deep to belly-deep, began to float, and was with some difficulty pulled back against the tug of the river by my husband, still on higher ground. Retreating to our gravel bar, we waited for our pulses to slow, then went in search of what we knew to be a better crossing: not the smooth, slow-looking water, but the broad, swift, shallow(er) riffle, where speed and waves looked more frightening, but the power was less.
In the years since my lessons in seeing beneath the river’s mask began, I have grown in my love of the beauty of the mountain meadow stream, the power of the glacial run-off and the joy of the tumbling cascade. But I never forget to look beneath the mask before I wet a toe.
©Rebecca M. Douglass, 2016
|An alpine stream, with a gravel, not mud, bottom.|