Matt Niswonger

Whitewater Zen The lesson of powerful rivers

For most of my life, I’ve been scared of whitewater. I’m humbled to admit that until recently I was terrified of strong river currents. In my youth I spent many days paddling canoes as a summer camp counselor on the Russian River in Sonoma County, but in terms of actual whitewater experience we never went beyond short sections of Class II riffles. So my boating skill level in powerful rivers was non-existent. Whitewater Zen

Feeling ready to increase my whitewater skills, about 15 years ago I went to the American River near Placerville to face my fears. The plan was to throw myself into the deep end both literally and figuratively.

The Gorge on the South Fork of the American River is one of the most famous commercially guided Class III whitewater runs in the country, and I rented an inflatable kayak to experience this famous whitewater first-hand. With names like Satan’s Cesspool, Deadman’s Drop and Hospital Bar, the rapids in the Gorge are serious whitewater, although considered quite pedestrian by kayaking and rafting experts.

As we made our way to the first rapid in the Gorge, my adrenaline spiked. I was having trouble with my inflatable kayak because it was actually designed for two people and I couldn’t steer very well. Too late, I was beginning to realize that navigating whitewater was all about picking a line in the river and paddling like hell to keep that line. Without a passenger to anchor the front end of my two-person kayak, I was all over the place.

Fully committed now, I went backwards through Satan’s Cesspool. Feeling completely out of my league, I was utterly terrified. The roar of the whitewater was deafening as I locked eyes with some concerned people on the shore. Was it that obvious I didn’t know what I was doing?

Somehow managing to stay in my boat through a few more rapids, I finally reached Hospital Bar, and that’s when my luck ran out. My kayak flipped and suddenly I felt like I was drowning. Everything went dark as I struggled to put my head above water. All I can say is thank God for my PFD or I would have certainly died. Holding my paddle with a white knuckle death grip, I floated feet-first down the remainder of Hospital Bar. At some point a sharp boulder slammed into my tailbone. Recovering my boat in a downstream eddy, I eventually limped back to Santa Cruz, feeling defeated and discouraged.

Over time I realized my mindset was all wrong for whitewater. Instead of being humble and taking a river safety course with experts, I treated the river like a personal adversary to be overcome. As usual, nature was teaching me something. Whitewater is not an adversary to be defeated, it’s a dance partner to be understood and respected.

Years later I floated the same section of the American River with my family on a raft with professional guides. The contrast couldn’t have been more stark. This time I wasn’t terrified, I was thrilled. In our group of a dozen or so, we had two guides per boat. I began to see how the guides worked with the river instead of against it. Because I was able to let go of my egocentric need to prove myself, Satan’s Cesspool felt more like heaven’s gate than the entrance to hell.

Welcome to issue # 129. It’s the best year in decades for whitewater but we humbly ask that you do not repeat my mistake. Being cocky and callous on the river will lead to terrifying misadventures or worse. With record snowmelt California’s rivers are flowing with the raging power of Mother Nature herself, so please know your limits and act accordingly. Hire a professional guide service with a strong record of expertise on the rivers you want to explore. From the Rogue to the Klamath, to the Yuba, to the American, to the San Joaquin, to the Kern, to the Santa Ana and every river in between, the thrilling possibilities are endless right now.

In Zen Buddhism, students are urged not to talk about Nirvana. The idea cheapens with every attempt to describe it. In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of the old Zen master who tells his students to wash their mouths out with soap every time they say the word, “Nirvana.” The lesson was not to cheapen the goal of Buddhism by reducing Nirvana to a concept. By accepting the inherently contradictory nature of Nirvana we stand a better chance of achieving it. That’s why traditional Zen teachers were so fond of koans, contradictory phrases like “the sound of one hand clapping.” By forcing our brains to consider a realm outside of over-simplified concepts, koans trick us into a state of beginner’s mind, a place where reality is experienced for the very first time.

A good day on the river is like that. Like a Zen koan, whitewater boating can trick us into a state of beginner’s mind. Forced into a contradictory balance between terror and bliss, hot and cold, power and grace, we break free from cynical concepts and experience the eternity of the moment for the very first time. That’s why many seasoned river guides will tell you they love running whitewater with beginners—it reminds them why they fell in love with river boating in the first place.

— Matt Niswonger

MAIN PHOTO: Rafters drop through Lower Ruck-a-Chucky Falls on the Middle Fork of the American River. The Class IV commercial stretch is one of the most popular rafting trips in California and features the famous Tunnel Chute rapid. Credit: Dylan Silver/OARS

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Whitewater Zen