A Stoic on the River

You can’t know what’s ahead, but you can face your fears and find a taste of freedom.

The nose of the kayak glided around the bend. The roar of falling, churning water rose from the darkness ahead. We had arrived at the rapids.

My eyes had been adjusting to the failing light of dusk, but now it was dark and I was paddling the kayak by the sickly light of stars and a sliver of moon.

I’d shot the spring rapids before, but never at night. Logs and boulders and swirling pools of hungry current waited ahead threatening, cold and unseen. A rush of adrenaline set my hands to shaking. I held the paddle above the water, considering my options.

Angry Niagara River at Night

I could strike out for the riverbank, and drag the kayak beyond the rapids through the tangle of briers and brush. It would be dark, hard and painful.

And it would be a defeat.

Times like that a part of my mind, my Stoic Muse, awakens and offers perspective. Nourished in the old wisdom, it sees things more clearly.

With one slow breath of river-cool air, I waited for its voice.

 *        *        *

The banks of rivers are lush with untamed strips of nature. Even through cities, the banks are choked with trees, thick brush and wildlife. The river forces its way, commands its path, and if you listen, offers lessons.

I’ve seen deer drinking at the river while I passed. I’ve seen raccoons eating crayfish at the water’s edge, carp like slow-moving sharks, and beaver waking to the dusk.

Riding quiet on the currents you meet the citizens of the cloaked river because they take you for one of their own, a huge, ugly duck passing on the water.

A few years ago, my friend Jim and I were on the Cuyahoga. Spring rains left the river swift and swollen. Fast currents and crashing rapids added an exciting dimension to the trip. I wasn’t worried. I thought I knew the river.

Blissfully, I navigated the rapids in a state of river Zen, focused, connected to the water, and in the moment.

Then I saw the bridge.

The bridge was a low mass of concrete arches. The river, higher than I realized, rushed under the bridge leaving only three or four feet gaps between water and concrete. I steered to the center arch. About ten feet from the tunnel, I saw the limb – too late. A tree had lodged itself on the bridge, leaving a branch pointing upriver. I tried to paddle to one side but the current had taken over. I dug deep and ducked.

Wood snapped and I got the wind knocked out of me.

I struggled to breathe as the tunnel spit me out into the light. With sudden breath, I felt a pain in my chest. The limb left a nasty gouge just under my left pectoral muscle. I pulled some splinters from my chest, but the bleeding stopped by the time I left the river.

The scar’s still there, an effective reminder.

Things happen that way. You never really know the river. And you never really know the life ahead. There will always be currents and obstacles you can’t foresee. You can only trust your abilities, set aside your fear and paddle. You’ll probably earn a scar or two, but you’ll make it through.

 *        *        *

On that last trip Jim and I went slow and enjoyed the river. We stopped a few times checking for fossils or watching wildlife. We enjoyed a long lunch at the bones of an old dump site. The river lulled us into its own calm, peaceful pace as we squandered hours collecting treasures from the riverbed and mud.

We had arranged a pickup at a restaurant along the river that evening. It was a good plan but we badly misjudged the time. As the sun dropped beneath the western riverbank, we still had miles of river – and the rapids ahead.

When the river was swollen there were two challenging, rocky descents before our pickup point. Normally I looked forward to the exciting stretches of white water, but the thought of doing it blind terrified me. We had to beat the night to those rapids. We paddled hard, slicing through the rushing spring waters, knowing we were in trouble.

We lost that race.

In darkness we listened to the frothing anger waiting beyond the bend.

Fear seeped up from the river and squeezed my chest. The dark roar ahead shook me as I paused, paddle held before me like a shield. One slow breath of river-cool air then the voice.

My Muse recited the words of Epictetus.

Reflect that the chief source of all evils to Man, and baseness and cowardice, is not death but the fear of death.

Against this fear then, I pray you, harden yourself; to this let all your reasonings, your exercises, your reading trend. Then shall you know that thus alone are men set free.

O.K. then.

“Going for it!” I yelled to Jim, digging my paddle into the water.

The current pulled the kayak closer to the howling rapids. My little boat began to rock and buck beneath me. I could only see the star-lighted knots and valleys of writhing water seconds ahead. I turned and wheeled, paddled and dug with all my strength through the cold spray and jarring thumps of immobile stone. I made it through – the first series of rapids.

In the flat water between the two close stretches of danger, my chest heaved for air, my eyes searched for passage ahead and I let the words of an old Stoic steady my heart.

My stomach lurched as the kayak fell, riding the current to a lower pool. One shoulder touched foam as I pitched to the right. Swinging the paddle to the low side I planted it on something solid and quickly righted myself. Bobbing and falling and cutting the water I made it through the rapids.

Beyond the whitewater, on rushing black glass, reflected stars shined around me, and for a moment, I was free.

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2 Responses to A Stoic on the River

  1. Darrin says:

    Thanks Markus for bringing your readers, like myself, along for the ride. Your prose made me feel like I was with you on your journey. I look forward to future excursions.

    • Markus says:

      I wish my prose could relay just how intense the experience was – still working on that.
      We messed up on that trip, poor planning and bad timing but it felt good to face down fear and win a tiny bit of freedom. You don’t have to do dangerous things for that, you just have to choose courage in those moments that need it

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