My friend Dan lives on the McKenzie River. The front of his house is filled with windows overlooking a sweetly sloping yard with lovely landscaping and magnificent trees, but my eyes are drawn always to the water, which moves in one direction at a constant and mesmerizing pace. Wherever I stand in the house or on the deck or in the yard, I am compelled to study the movement of the water and the flow both calms and quickens my mind.
Last week I got to be on the McKenzie in Dan’s drift boat.
We drove the boat upriver seven miles and put in at a boat ramp. I held the rope while Dan parked the truck. I was frankly amazed that he left me alone with his precious boat and a river with whom I had no relationship. I suddenly grasped the breadth of my ignorance and imagined the boat being ripped out of my hand like a bucking horse. I was standing on a bit of shore next to the ramp. I felt the power of the river tugging at the boat, and the longing of the craft to be in the middle of it. I worried that the boat would be able to sense my fear and inexperience, and bolt for the freedom of the rapids.
I settled into a chair in the front of the boat as we entered moving water, with nothing but the white bow deck between me and the river, which suddenly seemed gigantic and fraught both with danger and possibility. Dan sat behind me in the row seat. The oars became, along with the craft itself, natural extensions of his body and mind. He moved the oars lightly, cleverly, steering us through and over rocks and half-submerged tree-trunks, through eddies and pools, under trees leaning so far over the water as to be parallel with the surface of the river. Certain rapids caused surprising waves that he smoothly navigated by angling the boat sideways, rocking us side to side as we traveled up one side of a wave then down the other.
There were rhythms in the journey, stretches of hushed floating through languorous pools, suspended in time, the wind whispering in the trees and the lazy murmur of insects and gossiping birds. Then we would turn a bend, and the boat would unexpectedly jerk forward in response to an irresistible but invisible pull. A low rumbling ahead would intensify into a roar as we neared rapids. Dan would tense, his whole being peering ahead, thinking, studying, responding, and, it seemed, the boat with him, a couple of old friends working in tandem. I would hang on to the grab bar in front of me and thrill up and down the waves, marveling at the sudden approach of boulders or a low-reaching branch, at how swiftly and completely everything can shift. I got splashed a little, a cold and clean baptismal shock, and secretly wished for more.
“How many times have you been down this stretch of the river?” I asked Dan. He shrugged. “Hundreds?” I pressed. “Maybe,” he said. He’s learned over the years that the river always changes, sometimes significantly, in depth and velocity, above-water and underwater topography. “You have to be completely present to each moment,” he added. In this way, I think, river drifting is very much a prayer.
I felt I could drift forever. By the time I stepped onto the rocky shore downriver, I knew I was in thrall to the river. I was not the same person who had climbed into the boat. Mary Oliver: “Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.”