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When the river made us one

No one told me it would be cold, or that it would rain all night. I wasn't prepared for the thick, black mud that sucked at my boots, or the breakfast of half-cooked eggs. No one said that the river would flood after we had pushed off from the soggy shore.

The picture that hadm been painted for me just before I agreed to a weekend raft trip on West Virginia's Cheat River was rather different. We would sleep under the stars, be nudged awake by a choir of birds, and glide lazily down the river, swimming in the still, clear pools that lay like quiet parentheses after occasional dashes of white water. There was even the promise of a picnic lunch half- way along our journey, a journey that would take, I was told, about eight hours.

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There were no stars. I think I heard an owl cough once before it shuffled miserably back into the damp hollow of a tree. The dashes and parentheses were erased by a fast four hours of breakneck caroming between submerged boulders and steep canyon walls.

Fed by a tributary that unexpectedly roared down from the nearby mountains of western Maryland, the rising waves of the Cheat were laced with stray paddles. Having anticipated nothing more than a brisk gallop down a swollen river, guides and passengers alike were flung out of their slick rubber rafts with attendant calamities. The picnic itself was drowned.

Looking back at it, I would not risk an adventure like that again.Yet neither would I give up that weekend for the sunny one that had been promised me.

When we drove to the campsite, we had arrived singly and in pairs. Not everyone knew one another, so naturally we moved among tight knots of acquaintances and friends. However, when the first squall line began to rake the campfires that were cooking our steaks and hamburgers, we pitched in together to string tarps over the burning wood. And we began to sing. First a half-dozen voices; then, as the rain increased in intensity, as the tarps swelled and discharged on our heads their accumulated waters, we raised one great chorus. We sang loud, we sang long. I doubt any neighboring campers slept much that night.

Dawn oozed in, wrapped in thick blankets of mist. The one campfire (somehow coaxed into a smoky glow) was shared by everyone.Together we struck the tents. And together we snaked through the West Virginia countryside toward that place above the Cheat River canyon where we would shove off.

But one look at the angry red water of the Cheat nearly washed away our newly found comradery. Had any official from the rafting company announced that our trip was called off, I don't think I would have been the only one relieved.

No such announcement was made. It would be rough, but we were assued of no unusual risk. However, signing the releases that absolved the company from any responsibility in the "unlikely" event of our individual or collective watery demise did little to dispel the anxiety that hung more clammy than the morning fog.

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Once on the back (and soon under the hooves) of the river, there was no time for anxiety. Hardly had we gone a mile downstream, when that Maryland tributary suddenly discharged into our path. Our guide had to shout to make himself heard above the roar: "Back left!" "Hit it hard!" "Over to the right!" "Watch out for that rock!" Two of the eight on our raft were washed overboard. We fished them out of the water almost immediately, their faces drained of color, their lips blue from the cold.

At first we were completely dependent on the instructions our guide barked at us from the back of the raft. Even at that, in the confusion we did not always distinguish left from right. But, as we made our ways down the river, something began to happen. We started to move withm rather than against the river. We could sense the life, feel the very heartbeat of the waters drumming through our paddles. We began to stroke instead of flail at the waves.

Something else was happening: we were relying less on our guide. He sensed what was occurring and gave the raft over to our control. For, if the river was revealing itself to our eyes as a wild but understandable creature, we were ourselves becoming one finely tuned body. With increasing grace we confronted the fact that the survival of each one of us depended on our working together.

Our relief could not be distinguished from our exhaustion when at the end of our run we at last struggled free from the waters and out of the canyon. Yet we were reluctant to speed back to our separate homes. We were glad to be free of the river's grasp, but we did not want to shake free of the embrace that had made this trip worth the cost of suffering. So we found an excuse to have dinner together, a long dinner during which different versions of the same story were told over and over again.

Through all the telling and retelling, we were nevertheless unable then to put into words what we were feeling. I'm not at all sure that I can even now. But it occurs to me that floating down a river is not something we do on a occasional weekend. Perhaps, however, it requires unexpected danger, a flood to remind us how each day we are paddling together past whirlpools and over boulders. Perhaps he cold water breaking over our heads awakened us to how much we need one another not only to make our various journeys, but to make them safely and with grace.

Even after four months, the Cheat flows powerfully in the conversations of those who risked the river. For whenever two or three of us get together, our talk invariably turns to that spring day on the river when in a rush of flood waters we forgot our fear and, more importantly, our illusions of self-sufficiency to be swept up by a force that scoured the canyon walls, a force that made the rafts, the boulders, and even our spirits sing.


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