by Adam Bunting
Adam Bunting is a guest blogger and principal of Champlain Valley Union High School. You can find him on Twitter @abuntcvu. All photography in this post is courtesy of Adam Bunting.
I was almost 40 years old, and thought I had aged out of nearly catastrophic errors in judgement. As it turns out, hubris and impulsivity are lifelong partners lying in wait.
The morning of our second day on the float down the Deschutes was marked with tension. The Whitehorse rapids lay between us and the remainder of our trip. Like picking a line down a particularly challenging ski slope, you have to hit the right water at the right time or risk a pinned or flipped raft. Ejection is another risk, and while the Deschutes is relatively safe, there have been fatalities over the years.
We rowed our rafts into the pull-off above the rapids and jumped on the western terrain befitting a Mars mission. Crunching up the bank, my friend Ryan described an incident during his first year fishing in Colorado; this incident involved a failure to understand that poison ivy can grow on riverbanks and a subsequent week-long stay in a hospital with infusions of steroids to combat a full-body rash.
At the cliffs overlooking the class three rapids, we watched two boats outside of our party shoot the right center line. What we learned: The rower would need to anticipate a spin after the drop, hit a gap between two rocks, and then follow a straight line the rest of the way.
Dan and Brock, both experienced guides, would run the oars. The rest of us would hang on, four to a raft. While I was just getting to know Brock through Ryan, Dan had been a best friend in our childhood circles since fourth grade. Two years older, he was perpetually in the older brother role and thus you could feel the intensity rippling off him as he reviewed the safety instructions: “If you get dumped, feet first. Don’t try to swim. Float in your vest and guide yourself to an eddy. Think sledding. This is dangerous, guys. One raft at a time. Others ready in a help position if something goes wrong.”
Dan’s raft went first. On it were Dave, Colin, and Mark: Dave because he was to be married in Washington in less than a week; Colin because he was the least experienced and also a new father; and Mark because, well, he balanced the other two. Dan hit the opening run, hit the spin perfectly, and was through the rapids in under a minute.
They pulled over and watched us from a distance of a few hundred yards. Brock took a deep breath. “Here we go, boys!”
We hit the first drop, bounced into a rock, and spun to the far right. Low hanging branches rushed towards us. I was seated on the rear of the raft, which whipped closest to the shore. I ducked a branch, slid toward the water, and hung on with a grip reminiscent of the only mechanical bull ride I experienced years earlier in a dive bar in Albany. We rebounded to center stream; Brock rowed wildly, but with power, and we were finally through.
Sometimes I laugh with a mild hysteria when on roller coaster rides or when scared. I couldn’t stop chucking until we pulled our raft alongside Dan’s.
We ground ashore on a pebble beach with one final pull of the oars—the relief measured in millimeters as our shoulders relaxed in the safety of the riverbank. We began to unload the raft, enjoying the camaraderie and present moment of this simple routine: toss the watertight duffles to shore, grab the coolers, lash the oars, stack the rods against a nearby tree, pitch the tents, spot a cook site, pull off sodden neoprene socks, set up lights and head lamps, and figure out where the latrine is (actually, that usually happens first).
We landed earlier than usual given the harrowing rapids and planned to fish a bit more once we unpacked. The fishing soon turned to sitting with our feet in the water; it was mid-afternoon and the temperatures were in the mid to high 90s. A couple of years later on a subsequent trip, I would learn to relish that relative cool in comparison to the 100-degree hot winds of Lake Powell. Those winds called to mind scenes out of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Dave and I were the only ones to make a feeble attempt at scouting fishing holes, but soon found ourselves pulled by the gravity of the group banter.
Having gone through middle school and high school—and the obligatory partying in college—watching each other awkwardly (and probably belatedly) find our adult selves, there were few stories unturned and untold: the time when Dave was pulled over with ferrets running loose in his jeep, or Colin’s ill fated first college interview; there was Dan’s British girlfriend who called him Don, and Mark’s infatuation with red Kool-Aid; there was the terrible and probably deadly home brew Ryan tried to distill in his backyard. So it went, on and on. And when we weren’t telling stories, we were talking about the river, the canyon walls, the arid landscape, and how hot it was. Strangely, we rarely talked about fishing. Instead, we argued about how long it would take to climb to the rock spire just beyond the canyon wall or if you could actually swim across the river and how far down on the other shore the current would take you.
I pointed to the shore just before the bend in the river and claimed, “I could make it there.” I was met with a chorus of no ways and your brother probably could, but not you. This last comment was met with the requisite laughter and a barrage of jibes about how great my brother was—another years-long source of humor about how competitive I could be. At 15, the shots would have been painfully close to the mark, but at 40 we all found them funny.
But the jibes did spark a dangerous wondering in my head. Could I actually swim across the river? I mean, the expanse of water couldn’t have been more than 40 meters across. I had been training for triathlons and I was a pretty strong swimmer. It wasn’t far to swim a mile in a workout in a lake or ocean—unnerving maybe, but not difficult. The longer I thought about it, the more sure I became that I could do it. Fresh in my mind were the stories Dan told of his days guiding in Colorado where you had to pass a swift water swimming test. I wanted to know if I could do it. Then an even more dangerous thought entered my head: Well, if I attempted it in a life jacket, I would miss the spot I was aiming for across the river. I thought the life jacket was just an impediment.
All of a sudden, I was shedding my clothes. Then I jumped straight into the Deschutes.
For a guy who lives in the eastern U.S., there’s not much better than jumping in a western trout river. The dry dust on my skin—anathema to any wearer of contact lenses—sloughed off in one refreshingly icy blast.
I felt strong during the first few strokes, pulling myself through the river’s current. I remembered to keep my face deep in the water, turning my head on every stroke so only my right eye and right corner of my mouth split the surface. Five breaths took me to the middle of the river and the fast water. It was here I paused to spot my progress, and in so doing, realized I had just made one of the biggest, most self-indulgent mistakes of my life.
The moment my feet dropped from the top to low water, I was pulled under the surface. I fought my way back up, stuck my face out, sucked in air, and then bobbed under again. Time slowed and some part of my suddenly very detached brain thought so this is how it happens. This is how people die in the Huntington Gorge. I broke the surface again and turned my head back to my friends. I saw Colin sitting in his camping chair, feet in the water. I saw bodies begin to scramble along the bank as they knew I was in trouble. I went down and up again. I looked at the opposite shore. Could I make it? The power of the water felt gravitational and huge and overwhelming. Then the worst thought struck me. Back at home in Vermont, it is the day before my daughter’s tenth birthday. This is what she will carry downstream with her on the anniversary of this day. I felt a bitter disappointment at my own foolishness—the one decision that threatened all future ones to come.
I have no idea how long I was trapped in the up-and-down cycle of the water. I’m sure it felt longer than it was in reality. Then I heard one very loud voice—unmistakably Dan’s. He shouted one word that conveyed belief, pragmatic instruction, urgency, power, and a key to the cage of river and panic: “SWIM!”
My next thought was constructive. Almost with humor, I told myself: Well, if I’m going to die here, I’m going to die trying. And with that simple instruction from Dan, I ripped one arm from the water, pulled and kicked, and freed my other arm. Within three strokes, I felt like I was pulling myself from deep mud. I was floating and swimming freely. In three more strokes, I was in shallow water. One more stroke and I was scraping across the most delicious gravel bottom my feet have ever touched. Lucky. Lucky. Lucky.
With All the Time That Now Remains
I found rest later that night only when I spoke aloud an apology and appreciation to the universe for all that I had nearly lost from arrogance, carelessness, and ingratitude. It was in that reflective space, looking at the night sky through the mesh at the top of my tent, that I began to think about school and kids.
Whether in my role as principal or teacher, how many times, I wondered, have I led a meeting for a student who felt like they were in the fast water looking at both shores, not sure which way to swim?
I began to play out that day on the Deschutes. What if, instead of yelling “SWIM!,” Dan had shouted, “Wait for us! We’re coming to save you?” Despite the best intention from shore, how might have I internalized that message? Would I have heard you can’t make it or you don’t have the power to get out on your own? Would I have survived?
Around how many students had I circled the rafts, promising some type of deliverance from the safety of shore, while perpetuating the gravitational pull of whatever rapid they were in? How often had I disempowered students with the intent to save them? And what did I teach in those moments?
Instead, how might have I conveyed belief in their power? What words, or lack of words, would have provided strength in the self? Words that were active and pragmatic and hopeful. Words that said “SWIM!” Words that said, “You can do this.” All the while, readying the ropes and rafts on shore. And, after all was said and done, how might I have been more curious? How might have I looked for the curve in the canyon walls and riverbed of school structures that created unseen currents for our students?
These questions have been eddying in me for the past six years, and I suppose I write them now only because they feel particularly relevant in August before a return to pandemic schooling.
Will we be tempted to instruct our kids to swim back to the pre-Covid shore from which they’ve just swum? How might we temper our anxious need to save, and instead approach our students with a curiosity and calm resolve that belies strength? How will we bring out their power by using these opening weeks to invite them to engage—not in what was lost, but in how they have grown during this pandemic?
And, finally, six years later, I think of my friend Dan who is swimming through the rapids of cancer. I think of the word he said to me, and his faith in my resilience. It’s a word I have and will continue to reflect on with the deepest of admiration. Dan has never once stopped believing in his power to reach the other shore.
He taught that to me. I hope to teach it to my students.