Are you even paddling back there??? We’re turning sideways! Again! Oh, no, we’re heading straight for the hole that the guide told us to avoid! Paddle faster! Hellooo …
Those were the last words I screamed to my husband as our two-person kayak dipped into what looked like a 9-foot drop from my unfortunate vantage point at the front of our inflatable (read: the opposite of sturdy) vessel.
The next thing that happened was a mix of pure adrenaline, fear and shock as a wall of water danced in front of my face, then crashed over my head, blocking out light, air and sound in a gurgling cacophony that suspended all sense of time.
Miraculously, we emerged from the rapids still upright — and, for some insane reason, laughing. Then again, this essentially describes how we’ve managed to survive the last five years of our marriage. In the face of total despair, we forced ourselves to laugh even when all I wanted to do was cry.
How we ended up paddling against walls of water through the Salmon River canyons of Idaho is a story in itself. After a 10-year courtship, Todd and I finally tied the knot in 2005, which is precisely when things started to go awry, each episode more epic than the last. Between the two of us, we watched a dear friend battle cancer, weathered numerous workplace regime changes (one memorable manager drank openly in the office), dealt with a layoff and a broken knee at the same time, and the coup de resistance: witnessed my father’s premature death, which was followed by the kind of ongoing estate chaos that would make even the sanest person slit their wrists.
Some friends surprised me with their selfless support, while others went AWOL and directly into the category now known as Formerly Close Friends. Yet the one person who shocked me the most was my husband, who never wavered as my rock, or even let on that he, too, wasn’t sleeping at night.
So, as our five-years-married-and-15-years-together anniversary approached, I wanted to celebrate it in a positive, momentous way. Over dinner one night, I ticked off all of my fabulous ideas: Barcelona, Venezuela, a couples-centric spa in New Mexico.
“Let’s go river rafting!” he blurted out.
“What?” I asked, eyebrow raised.
“I want to unplug and get out into nature, away from email and text messages and people,” he said. “What do you think?”
What I thought, at that moment, is that he’d finally gone mad. The man hates sleeping outside! We’d gone on a camping excursion with friends the summer before, and by the second night, he informed me that he’d had enough and wanted a real shower and a real bed.
“You do realize that rafting trips involve moving from campsite to campsite,” I said. “And you’ll be showering with the fishes in the river, right?”
“It will be great!” he replied, his enthusiasm hard to rebuff.
And so this is how we found ourselves in the not-exactly-Barcelona town of Lewiston, Idaho, each carrying a 22-inch duffel stuffed with barely enough clothing to last us for the next four days on the river. I’d booked our adventure with O.A.R.S., an outfitter that’s been leading whitewater trips in the U.S., Canada, and sweet spots like Fiji since 1969. For athletic novices like ourselves, they’d recommended a “slightly” more advanced paddle down the lower Salmon River, composed of gorgeous white-sand beaches and Class III and IV rapids. For those of you not familiar with the terminology, Class V is basically death defying.
At the orientation the night before the launch, our trip leader, Deb, a former ad exec who’d traded her high-stress life in Detroit for a much better one on the river, briefed us on the basics of safety, the itinerary, and our choice of boats. At our disposal was a 16-foot raft rowed by a guide, a single-person kayak for the more intrepid among us, a hard-bottom dory that resembled a rowboat, and a two-person kayak that Deb nonchalantly referred to as the “divorce boat.” Great.
Along for the ride were four other newbies: Ed and George, two playful retirees who became friends through golf and were now living out one of their bucket-list dreams, and a middle-aged couple from Boise, a lawyer and his wife. I made a mental note as we left the orientation: Everyone had been divorced at least once.
In the morning, Todd and I settled into the big raft and watched the Boise couple test out the divorce vessel first. They were the picture of second-time-around marital bliss, she in her light blue life vest and matching sarong and he in his dark blue life vest and matching sarong. My husband was wearing a broken-in “Death to the Pixies” t-shirt, which made me chuckle.
If there was one thing that Todd was right about, it was the nature part. The Day One rapids were relatively tame, giving us plenty of time to take in the stunning mountains topped with Ponderosa pines, which either grew in compact clusters or stood stoically solo. Deb was rowing our boat and she pointed out curious geological highlights along the way, including the columnar basalt that hugged the canyon walls and looked just like neatly stacked Lego blocks. Every once in a while, we’d hear the staccato cluck of a chucker bird echo through the canyon, which was otherwise blissfully silent.
That night, I tried to convince Todd to sleep outside our tent, under the stars. We compromised and left both flaps unzipped, which was apparently enticement enough for the wildlife. As the sun rose, I noticed two different sets of tracks circling our tent, which stopped just short of the flaps. While Todd quietly pondered what could have been, I proclaimed it a good sign that we were going to have the best anniversary day ever!
Of course, it involved getting into the divorce raft. Following the safety brief — with instructions to somehow “sit” with our feet up should we find ourselves bobbing in the roiling rapids — I made the mistake of taking the front seat. With my knees bent, there was only about eight inches of rubber separating me from the rapids, the first of which had the appearance of a class X.
True to our dynamic, Todd effortlessly paddled from behind, gently prodding me to stay calm — while I had a meltdown because I couldn’t propel my arms fast enough to keep the front of the boat from filling up with water and then smacking me in the face. His philosophy: If we fell out, we fell out. Mine: Come hell or high water, there was no way this Type A divorce-boat paddler was going to exit this raft.
After about four sets of rapids full of raft-sucking eddies, I was starting to get agitated by Todd’s cool demeanor back there, which wasn’t helped by the fact that I was beginning to chatter. (Note to self: When the pack list says not to bring cotton clothes, don’t pack mainly cotton shirts and shorts.) By the time we stopped for lunch, my teeth were clacking so hard from the chill brought on by my heavy, sopped clothes, I couldn’t bear it. Then I stepped bare foot onto the powdery white sand, which was scalding. It was like a hot-sand massage that I didn’t sign up for.
As I sat on a boulder, simultaneously shivering and burning up because it was over 100 degrees in the naked canyon, Todd came over with a long-sleeved fleece and a cold drink. Soaked, thirsty, and in dire need of more SPF 70 for his bald head, he was still thinking of me first. I suddenly felt the urge to kiss him, except for the fact that my lips were blue.
Once back in the divorce craft, Todd graciously offered to ride shotgun. It was perfect timing: Our biggest Class IV was just up ahead. (I know this because Deb had to “scout” the scene before we all paddled toward certain doom.) My legs stretched out comfortably before me, I waited for Todd’s reaction. Naturally, our boat immediately plunged into a giant hole, swirling us in circles as we paddled like maniacs to get out of it.
All I could hear was a garbled, “Are you even paddling back there???” Ha! Then came the words I’ll never forget: “I can see why you’d find it intimidating up here. You’re right — it’s a little scary.” And that’s the beauty that is our marriage. When things get tough and all rapids-like, it’s never just about me or him, but us.
After dinner that night, we sat in a circle and swapped tales of our first kiss. My favorite storyteller was George, who had me at “it was a Sadie Hawkins dance.” The pre-evening light in this part of the country lingers for a long time, and I watched it slowly shift across the canyon walls before deciding it was time for bed. Todd turned to me and asked, “Want to sleep outside tonight?” With my head resting on his shoulder, I glimpsed the stars peeking out from the dark sky one at a time, the sound of the river flowing in the distance. It really was the best anniversary ever.