Although the following river account is my personal story, any form of rafting, kayaking or swimming on the Youghiogheny River is well worth it.
Risk and reconnect. Let go and be carried.
written by Cherie Redfern
The raft is moving, there are jumbled impressions and the unsteady sway of rubber is undulating underneath. Nothing is firm, I feel jerky balancing, I hear the rush and swoosh and I am poised to lean in at the slightest jerk when I know I should be further out. I am lost as to technique and slightly uncomfortable. There's a pain in my left hip from my left foot being jammed under the thwart for a hold and now I find a blister forming on my hand.
Yeegads! Am I really doing this? Whitewater! Get ready! Entrance, Cucumber, Camel and Walrus! What names they come up with for rapids...oh, no! I think that was me screaming! Muscle the paddle through. "Reach, reach."
Whoooweeee! We did it, high fives all around!
It's the Yough, the river of my river guide, my son. He is a kayaker with whitewater in his blood. Though today, it's raft day with mom, a birthday request on my part.
I am sixty-four years old, recently a grandma and beginning role reversal with my adult children (though they would say it started much earlier, in their teen years when they knew everything and I knew nothing).
After my son and daughter-in-law unload their raft and leave to drop off the car at our take-out spot, I wait by our gear and watch the large outfitters lecturing people. I can't actually hear them, but I can see attentive faces watching the guide move about and point to life vests, sound a whistle and make wild gestures with a paddle overhead.
He goes on for a while.
I am beginning to feel a little nervous. Maybe I should be in one of those larger commercial rafts with a guide who does this every day. Isn't there more safety in a mass of novices? If I fall out, won't the rest, without hesitation, all jump in to fetch me?
But then, I would have missed this.
High fives, rushing water. I am in his hands now; his strength and river wisdom are my buoyancy. After three or four rapids, when I discover I am still in the raft, I gradually rest my apprehension as I see how he is so easily, with a quiet confidence, chooses the lines to run and eddies to rest in. I ride along gradually becoming awed by his skill and knowledge in steering us through.
The Lower Yough: sparkling cool on a hot day, rippling in the flats and tumultuous in the rapids. It yanks not only this first-time voyager's breath away, but also my self-absorption and worries. I hold on to my paddle and gradually watch my thoughts drift away. My focus is on footholds, reaching over whitewater, listening to paddling commands, my heart beating, the exhilaration, concentrating on my strokes staying in sync - "now, forward....forward..." and oh, the sun against the water, the iridescent blue in still ripples and whites of tumbling energy.
It doesn't happen right away. But gradually, sensing how to go with it all, adjusting my center of gravity ever so slightly, I balance. My mind is quiet, my body is taking over...or is it the river itself?
I find the river brings a different connection as it forges forth and runs over its rocky course. It is an equalizer. We are no longer mother and son, mother and daughter-in-law. Roles and ages are left behind in eddies. We are one on this raft. This rollicking river could care less about who we are and what we own, but only whether we can work in unison! Do we have each other's backs?
My son is showing me on this river run how to let go of what is coming next. To instead embrace the waterfall, barely visible on the right, here, NOW, and over there, the log-worn white perched perfectly, tightly hugging the outline of a huge rock formation. To stop altogether and sit in a quiet spot, Jacuzzi-like, slowing down our breath and watching water cascade over the surrounding rocks in small surges like strands of bluegrass music.
He does not miss the Merganser duck. Even though he just found out his car engine needs work, his pile of projects at his office only grows and deadlines loom on Monday, he does not miss now. He sees the duck, camouflaged on the edge of the river. I don't even see it until it starts flying away and he points it out.
I miss seeing the duck, but I do not miss how he honors this wild beauty all around in the moment. I ride this raft humbled and grinning. He is my teacher of grand things and mighty lessons. He knows things now that I don't: how you can let the water do the work, which angle of entrance is best and what last-minute swing of the raft will put us in proper position to run between two closely-spaced boulders. He knows the greater gifts of here and now.
It took this run to open my eyes to his river passion. You can know it from reading and hearing about it, you can see pictures of colorful kayaks at crazy-looking angles against whitewater, but I suspect riding the river has lessons for everyone that only the experience itself can bring alive, into the heart and depth of the soul.
It is here at the Yough, nestled in the Laurel Highlands, where I count my blessings and revel in the truly important things which have nothing to do with cell phone texts. I hear his laughter resonating against the cliff walls covered in thick greenery as he jumps off a huge rock into the water. How blessed he is to have a good woman who will share this with him, who jumps in too, zips downstream and surfs the churning waters. Watching them with each other, playful, a team, pulling together, is my jewel of memory.
Now, I've been back home and in my routine for over a week with many other happenings since my trip. I'm at my computer at work, drowning in e-mails, struggling to catch up and to knock something, heck, anything, off my list, juggling house guests and demands and the phone rings nonstop.
I stop. I breathe. I put a hand on the edge of my desk and slowly feel the smooth curve of a paddle's handle, see the sliver of the sun's rays sparkling on the water surface with whitewater in the distance.
Remember: feet first, head up.
It's the Yough! Here. Now.