Issue Three, Nonfiction

River Riding

By Ina Pockrass

“Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire.”

Jorge Luis Borges


In the mid-1980s, after my second year of law school, I was working as a Summer Associate in a law firm, hoping to be offered permanent employment after graduation.  As a perk, they took us by luxury bus from San Francisco to the American River for an afternoon of inner tubing, bonding and beer.  Instructions were limited: “When you get to the rapids, make sure you go down feet first.”  No life vests were provided.

The first hour, the river was as easy as a Ferris wheel at a summer fair.  Then we entered a long, swift patch that exceeded my skill level.  I paddled with my short arms as fast as I could in the white water, trying to steer my feet to the front of the inner tube, but the river had other plans.  The current turned me sideways, broadsiding me with waves.  I was pushed underwater, separated from my inner tube, flailing furiously like a bug flipped on its back.  I couldn’t breathe and panic set in.  Just then, my sciatic nerve made a perfect connection with one rock, then another, and another.  Sharp, needle-like pain began radiating down my left leg to my baby toe.  By the time I was able to right myself, I had lost my composure and my sandals.

I was also embarrassed.  I wanted these people to hire me for a litigation job, and was worried I’d be perceived as weak, thin-skinned.

My concerns were justified.  As the pain reached close to excruciating, my colleagues found my ordeal increasingly amusing, some doubled over with laughter as they pointed to my drenched hair, smeared mascara, telling me I needed to “shake it off”, “plow forward.” I nervously wiped tears, took a deep breath.

I didn’t plow far.  The next set of rapids dunked me so quickly I didn’t have time to close my mouth, and swallowed enough of the American River to remember that my life was worth more than this job.  I told my co-workers I wasn’t going on, that I’d wait on the riverbank.  They left me alone, injured, shaky, soaking wet.

Unsure when (or if) they’d return, I decided to try to walk to find a payphone to call my then husband to pick me up.  I walked barefoot for what felt like an hour on a mix of hot pavement and gravel, each limping step sending electrifying pain along the nerves of my leg to my lower back.  He answered, but said it wasn’t convenient to come and get me.  I walked back to the river.

I had years of physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, cortisone shots, and painkillers to manage the physical consequences of this little outing, plus a few sessions with a therapist to work through the psychological effects.  So, it took a lot for me to agree, some twenty years later, to an adventurous family vacation in Costa Rica with my new husband and two teenagers that included a white water rafting day through the jungle, down the mighty Pacuare River.

“Sweet!” my fifteen-year-old son cheered when we caught our first glimpse of the Pacuare, with its wide sandy beach and benevolent looking water.  My heart rate only slightly elevated as we secured valuables on the tourist bus and gathered to receive gear and instructions.  This is going to be different, I kept telling myself.  You’ll be in a raft, not an inner tube.  You’ve got all day. You’re with a man now who is your true partner.

Each person got a paddle with a plastic, soft-edged “T” at one end, a life vest, and helmet.  I wore quick-dry shorts and a T-shirt, and leather-palmed gloves used for kayaking Kootenay Lake, which my husband insisted I bring.  After everyone was outfitted, the owner of the rafting company offered final words before launch: “We are going to do everything we can to ensure your safety, but if you have doubts about going down this river, please step to the side now.”

I inhaled, held my breath.  “Once you start down this river,” he continued, “you cannot get off.  The end is eighteen miles downstream and there are very steep canyons.”

The memory of the American River came flooding back, and I realized that, unlike twenty years ago, I wouldn’t be able to seek safety on the riverbank.  Exhale. I would have to consciously choose to go down this river, the Pacuare, in what now looked like an over-filled balloon with dental floss for ropes.  I saw my family’s excited faces, and decided to go for it.

I felt good about the initial configuration of the boat: in front, my husband and Fito, a nature guide, both experienced boatmen.  My son and daughter were next in line.  I was behind my son on the left side of the boat, next to a tall woman who was alone on the trip, and behind me was Fernando, our confident Costa Rican guide with glistening musculature and a large nose ring.

The first half hour on the Pacuare was idyllic, Morpho butterflies with iridescent blue wings as big as a robin’s, waterfalls pouring through holes in rock faces hundreds of feet high, delicately foaming river water warm as a bath, swirling like the top of a perfectly pulled cappuccino.  Bright red and orange bromeliads dangled from canyon walls, birds that looked like they belonged in a Sci-fi fantasy dove for fish in front of our raft.  At an especially calm part in the river, Fernando had us practice falling out of the boat; we pulled each other back in by the straps of our life vests.  I get to overcome my fear of white water rafting in this beautiful place, I thought.

We navigated the first sets of Class III and IV rapids well.  Fernando shouted a fair number of “get downs”, the maneuver we practiced where everyone leaves their post immediately to squat in the center of the raft, holding tight to one of the ropes attached to the boat, and, with the other hand, to the “T” end of our paddles.  During these “get downs,” I wanted to avoid seeing what was coming, so I tightly squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath.

After conquering a set of rapids, we’d clink our paddles together in the air like champagne glasses held high in victory after battle.  Fernando grasped the back of my vest when we encountered a rapid, and I felt almost comfortable doing this thing I’d avoided for more than twenty years.  My son patted me on the knee, pride showing in his eyes: “See Mom, it’s actually fun!”

Perhaps the past doesn’t equal the future.

We stopped for lunch at the 10-mile mark, about half way.  The guides flipped two rafts over on the beach and set up a camping kitchen and buffet table.  Out came flowered table cloths, a small propane stove to warm corn tortillas, trays of thinly-sliced watermelon and papaya, sandwich meat, salsa, chips, even M&Ms. We feasted as if Kings and Queens at a banquet.

Almost as quickly as they’d set up lunch, our guides packed up camp, and we put back on our gear, the inside of our life vests dried by the equatorial sun.  Our boat was the second of six.  We shifted the configuration from the morning.  My daughter moved to the front, and Fito moved back a row.  While Fernando was still behind me, this new weight distribution felt less stable.

My body was busy digesting lunch, the scenery still mesmerizing.  We navigated our first Class III rapid easily.  Then we entered a long Class IV called “Indigestion”, in honor of its proximity to the lunch spot. Fernando yelled “Get down!”  Inhale. Squeeze eyes shut. Take position.

I thought I had a vice grip on a rope attached to the boat.  We were bumping along as if riding an electronic bucking bronco stuck on high when I realized I was no longer inside the boat.  Eyes open.  I was underneath, staring at the powder blue bottom of the raft, and we were heading down the Pacuare together. My last rational thought was to try to find a safety strap to grab, but the raft moved out of view into a blur of agitated water. I couldn’t tell if up was down or down was up but could feel copious quantities of adrenaline coursing through my body.  I was holding my breath.

I closed my eyes.  Time stopped.  I heard Fernando’s comforting voice repeating in my head like a mantra: “If you fall in, relax.  Just relax! Just relax. Relax.”  As if instantly absorbed in meditation I felt transcended, so unconnected to my body a fire alarm couldn’t rouse me.  I heard no rushing water, no heartbeat.  I felt no fear, had no awareness my life was in danger.  My environment felt like a soft cloud in a dream state, perfectly enveloping, like there was no separation between that River and me.  A long tunnel with shimmering streaks of light beckoned. I was neither fighting to live nor succumbing to death. I had no sense of the passage of time.

*                      *                    *

“Where’s Ina? Where’s Ina?” Fernando blew the “man overboard” whistle drawing the safety kayakers to look for me.  There was no sign of me for more than a minute.

Next I knew I was violently thrust from the depths to the surface, gasping for breath.  I was now fully conscious of my life-threatening predicament and somehow still holding my paddle. I felt the raw power of the Pacuare, the total insignificance of my little body to it, how this river made the American River of twenty years ago look like a babbling brook.  I urgently wanted to get back into a raft, any raft.

I heard Fernando shout my name and saw him trying to steer our raft toward me, both of us still moving down river at pace. The river was a raging torrent; huge grey boulders barreled by. I stayed focused on Fernando, willing my paddle to connect with his outstretched hand.  He managed to grab my paddle and then me by the shoulders of my life vest, tossing me in the boat in a single swift motion, like a salmon at the end of fishing line.

Finally back in the boat, I coughed hard, my lungs and stomach heavy with water.  I lost my lunch.  I was shaken to the core, but miraculously, unharmed.  I took a series of long, slow breaths and was overcome by the simple joy of being in my body, able to feel how air comes in through the nostrils, flows down to the lungs, the belly, and out.  I noticed my daughter’s brightly colored string bracelets that looked like works of fine art, felt the sensation of my husband’s hand on my arm as if he’d never touched me before. I looked down at my own hands with wonder, as if realizing for the first time how remarkable human hands are, noticing these feats of engineering still gripping my paddle, the paddling gloves no doubt responsible for keeping with me the paddle that saved my life.

“Thank you for coming back,” my paddling-glove-remembering husband whispered; his eyes welled with tears. My daughter embraced me tightly: “You did it Mom! You did it!”  There was no job to be awarded or withheld, no one to impress with my fearless nature: only my family’s gratitude that I’d made it back alive.

The boat behind ours saw what happened: our raft had hit a rough spot, folded in on itself like a spring-loaded tortilla, then snapped open, ejecting me like a missile several feet into the air, dropping me into the water a couple of feet behind our boat.  Fernando hadn’t been able to hold onto me: he needed both hands to keep his grip on a strap attached to the raft, his body propelled parallel to the river, like a flag in a stiff wind.

Fernando reminded us that we still had more water to navigate, but he reassured us that “Indigestion” was the worst we’d encounter.  He gave me the option of sitting out the next few sets of rapids, but I decided to keep paddling, to keep my body doing the thing that bodies do in rafts on rivers.  I felt compelled to finish what I’d started.

When we landed a couple of hours later, there were hot showers, cold beer and soda, a slide show of the day’s action I couldn’t watch, and the merciful return of my normal breathing pattern. I drank a Coke that tasted like ambrosia, each carbonated bubble a new marvel in my mouth.  I opened a bag of potato chips whose smell intoxicated me like a lotus, each greasy, crunchy bite a delight on my tongue. I had let myself become one with the Pacuare, and the Pacuare gave me back.

As I sat at a blue plastic table covered in a tablecloth with frayed edges, I noticed a dead butterfly on the ground.  It was lying on its side, yellow and black wings, antennae stacked perfectly atop each other, no outward sign of struggle.  I wondered how it felt in the moments before death, had it fought or let go?  I wondered what would have happened had I struggled against the Pacuare, as I had against the American River.

I felt a tear slide slowly down my right cheek and got up from the table to check out the wares of the locals.  There were T-shirts for sale.  Mine, for which I happily plunked down $20 US said: “You only live once.  Challenge Yourself.”

About the Author

Ina Pockrass is a retired attorney and eco-entrepreneur who writes, grows food, and volunteers with organizations aligned with her passions. She’s a transplanted American who lives in Sunshine Bay with her husband and llamas, and hopes one day to have a dog and grandchildren.