Thursday, July 30, 2009

River Rafting Through Marriage

“Half the boats that go through that part of the river flip over,” our guide somberly explained as we watched the lead boats approach the toughest part of the river.

As a boating team we hadn’t had the most stellar rafting day up to that point. We had spent some time trying to free ourselves from a rock, losing one of our rafters in the process. She didn’t go down the river at all, and we were eventually able to lift the boat from its submerged state, but our guide had to use his belt for the first time all summer. We thought we had collected ourselves at lunch, determined to have a more successful outing in the afternoon. Literally yards from our second drop-in point, our guide had suggested that we try to “surf” an eddy while we waited for the other boats to launch. We got sucked in by the powerful water, again becoming submerged, and this time our guide had to deploy the life line as he swam to shore to pull us out.

Our confidence was shaken, and we had been forced to paddle continuously to catch up with the boats in our group. There were four women and a guide in our boat, while the boats ahead of us had five or six rafters including at least one man. I was starting to understand why our guide sounded less than enthusiastic when he realized that he was going to be in a boat with four women. We didn’t weigh as much as the other boats, slowing our travel, and despite my desire to admit otherwise, men have more brute strength. We wanted not to be nervous about the description of the upcoming rapids, but our experiences up to that point made it hard to remain calm.

We watched, with wide eyes and gaping mouths, as the first two boats in our group navigated the class 4 rapid. The first boat ducked out of view for a moment, and then we saw bodies and oars flying as the bottom of the boat became visible. We knew our friends had been thrown and we marveled at the speed and force with which they had been flung from the boat. The second boat approached that same spot, and again we watched as they were jostled and then flipped. Our panic was evident, and our guide could sense our trepidation.

“Ladies! Look at me! We can do this! We have to work together and you are going to make it if you do it right! Listen to me, and when I tell you to go high side left, you will put yourselves high side left and stay there with everything you got.” He yelled with authority and encouragement.

As he spoke, and we practiced the instruction, we were still floating toward the impressive rapid. We were getting closer, and each of us took a serious posture gripping our oars. We approached the rock and slid to the left of the boat as instructed. It was an instantaneous collision that included water spray, the overwhelming noise of water on rock, and involuntary movement as our bodies reacted to the boat motion. In less than two seconds we were past the obstacle, having been thrown about inside the boat, but most definitely still inside. We cheered and celebrated with relief. The boat directly behind us had also successfully navigated the rapid, and exactly half of the boats in our group had remained intact.

It was an amazing experience, and a phenomenal memory for our boat and also for the boat of our friends who were thrown out. The pictures of the turned over boat were definitely more interesting, and we looked at those images over and over again. As I studied the pictures of our boat I realized something about the experience that relates directly to what I have come to discover about navigating marriage.

Using the rafting analogy, being married is like navigating a tumultuous river. The personality of each boat is unique and no trip down the river is quite like any other. We all do essentially the same preparation: putting on life jackets and helmets and getting instruction about what to do if you fall out, but until you are on the river, and facing the hidden boulders, you cannot really appreciate the work it is going to take to get down.

In my marriage, I think my husband and I had boarded our raft with the proper safety attire, but we didn’t necessarily have the most experienced guide. We were operating with our own ideas about how to get down the river, and it created some uncomfortable situations. If you have ever rafted, you know that you have to be in sync with the other rafters, or you don’t go where you are supposed to be on the river. Six years ago we ran into an unexpected rapid, and I was thrown from our marriage boat. Rafting experts will tell you that you have three choices when you are thrown from a boat. You can put your feet out in front of you, keep your head above the water and float down bouncing off of rocks. You can swim aggressively to shore or to another boat, or you can swim aggressively back to your own boat. When I fell out, I knew I wanted to swim back aggressively to my own boat, but I needed some help to get there. After all the interviews and books read, I was able to climb back into our boat, and with the encouragement and willingness of my husband we have been able to put a reliable guide in the back to help get us down the river. The guide in our marriage boat is the collection of stories and advice that I gained through the tea party conversations. All of my research has helped me to identify some of those hidden boulders as well as how to best navigate the protruding rocks.

I found out, after our day of rafting, that our friends’ boat was given no specific instruction for how to get through the worst rapid of the day. In our boat, our guide told us what to expect and then we also practiced our technique. There was no guarantee that our instruction would keep us in the boat, but we were more prepared than the first boat who had received no instruction, and who hadn’t had the advantage of watching other boats tip. River rafting is hard work, and it can evoke fear, anxiety, frustration, embarrassment, anger and pain. Marriage is no different, but like rafting, if navigated with the best equipment, a reliable guide and a willing partner, it can be an incredible adventure that is full of joy.


  1. Very good analogy...couldn't have put it into any better words. I can't wait to read your book...will you autograph one for me? ;)

  2. What river/section was this?

  3. The section of river where these photos were taken was on Clear Creek river just east of Idaho Springs, CO. It was in the advanced section of our rafting day, but I can't remember what they had named that rapid.

  4. Being apart of the same experience, I love the way you say it. You always do such a great job putting into words what the rest of us are thinking!!


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