Debra Mihalic Staples
Sometimes, looking at old photographs is like rereading a favorite book; things stand out that you didn’t notice before. I’m looking at some taken twelve years ago during a family vacation. Our twin daughters were eight that summer, so John and I had decided a rafting trip on the tamest section of the New River in West Virginia would be fun. I’d checked out various outfitters, finally deciding on a family-friendly float with some Class I and Class II rapids—on an international scale of difficulty ranging from I to VI, these are the gentlest, although Class II rapids usually require some maneuvering.
When I phoned to make reservations, the staff confirmed we would all four be placed in the same raft. I described to the girls what the trip would be like, purposely avoiding images of watery mayhem. Once they grew older and more experienced, I could reminisce about shooting rapids complete with hydraulics, created when the water drops precipitously into a deep hole then rushes backwards, where, if you fall out of your boat, you will be “agitated” like a pair of stone-washed jeans. I hoped one day we would all chuckle over names of rapids like “Satan’s Eyeball,” “Roller Coaster,” and “Staircase,” and maybe even tackle some together. But for now, I stuck to a description of what we had signed up for—a gentle ride in a big, air-filled boat, with some occasional waves and spray.
At the put-in early the next morning, the guides handed out lifejackets and helmets. Helmets? That’s when I noticed they were inflating small rubber single-seat kayaks called “duckies.” There were no big, bulky, friendly rubber rafts anywhere in sight.
I raced over to the nearest guide. “Do you have any doubles?” I demanded. “Well, yeah,” he said, looking around, scratching his head. “But everyone usually wants their own boat.” He was shirtless, lithe and young, wearing a bright blue rain sombrero over his pony-tailed hair. I had met many like him on rivers in my former, pre-maternal stage of life, but the approach that might have gotten me what I wanted back then was inappropriate here for many reasons. Instead, I spoke to him as only a mother can. “I’ll need two doubles, please.” He nodded and got to work.
Usually the largest paddler sits in the back position in a double kayak; these, however, had insufficient leg room to allow that, so John and I each took a front position, seating Lauren behind him and Kristen behind me, with only the adults paddling. We joined a pleasant flotilla of folks paddling their duckies in clumsy circles, and finally I began to relax.
That is, until I began to spy rocks beneath the surface. The guide in the blue sombrero passed us, rowing a river catamaran with the group’s lunch lashed to the canvas in waterproof bags. Soon I saw the sombrero bounce up and then disappear just as the sound of water rushing over rock reached my ears. Two more guides shot past in hard-shell kayaks, positioning themselves to funnel everyone through a specific point between two large boulders.
There was no time to prepare—the river sped up, shooting us into the Class II rapids. I paddled quickly, maneuvering toward where the guide pointed, and we rode a bucking bronco through the waves. It was exhilarating; the spray in my face, the feel of the paddle in my hands, the rush of the rapids.
Then, above the roar of the water came Kristen’s voice. She was frightened, and suddenly I felt guilty for not having prepared her for the sound, the speed, or the sensations. As we drifted into quieter water, I turned to offer comfort, but before I could speak I caught site of John’s kayak coming through the rapids. As he deftly brought the boat through the rocks, I looked for Lauren, wondering what her expression would reveal.
There was nothing behind John but empty space.
In an endless instant, I spotted Lauren clinging to a rock, drenched and laughing. John retrieved her, plopped her back into the kayak with an order to “Hang on next time,” and I allowed myself to breath again.
There were smaller rapids after that, gentle riffles that nudged the kayak and warbled melodically, instead of tossing and roaring. We beached for a marvelous lunch buffet. I took the girls for bathroom breaks in the woods, then it was back on the water for the rest of the float.
On the winding bus ride back from the take-out, John and both girls dozed while I sat thinking about how I could have done a better job of preparing Lauren and Kristen for the possible challenges of the trip. It was my charm against danger; I always tried to forearm myself, and those I loved, with carefully selected information.
The outfitter had stationed a photographer on shore at the Class II rapids, catching an image of each kayak as it shot through. In one, Kristen is gripping the back of my seat, peering around me to see what’s coming. In the other, Lauren has her eyes narrowed against the spray, her helmet askew, grinning in the moment before she was bounced from the boat. Twelve years later, I realize these are snapshots of their different personalities. It also hits me now, with startling clarity, that it has never been my job to smooth the way, but rather to encourage each of them toward finding their own ways of navigating.
Since then, both girls have traveled often without me or their dad. Now college students, they are making ever-widening circles as they go out into the world and return.
Meanwhile, I’m paddling frantically, still trying to navigate the turbulent waters, difficult obstacles and narrow openings of the Class IV rapids called “Letting Go.”
This essay first appeared in Catfish Stew, Volume III: Tender Morsels of Fine Southern Literature. It was awarded “Best of Issue.”