Housatonic Horizon Lines

If you are lucky, the summer you are eighteen something great happens to you.

It is a warm and wet June morning. Everything is dripping new, like a city street the morning after it has rained and no cafes are open and everything is alive with possibility. Finally it has rained, and the Housatonic River has spilled over the dam and over Great Falls of the Housatonic. Eight hundred cubic feet per second of water rumble into the normally lifeless mile-long stretch of bedrock rapids called the Rattlesnake.

Two boys emerge from the woods and drop their kayaks–one red, one blue–into the driftwood-filled eddy and gaze up at Great Falls and then down to the tips of the first waves with wonder. The boy with the red boat gets in first. His arms and feet are bare. What little gear he wears is sleek, black, and new, though barely fastened. His helmet lolls, his lifejacket sags.

The boy in the blue boat is swathed in gear, all tightly cinched but decrepit and mismatched, a center-zip PFD oozing floatation material out a rip in the back Everything clearly gifted from basement piles of charitable elders: an Ace slalom helmet, a Rapidstyle paddling top with purple and teal trimmings that recall the era of Hearn and Lugbill.

The boys are in that sweet spot: their skills are high from paddling all spring, but they have been restricted from rivers like this by their teachers, so everything about it is new to them: gliding across the current on a fresh river that is theirs alone, attaining upstream along the cliffs and paddling out across the sunlit pool, the boiling cauldron in the mist of Great Falls, where sun shines down making rainbows in the spray that blinds them from looking straight up at the falls and where the world seems a novel thing indeed.

“Should we head down?” the boy in blue mouths over the roar.

“Yeah,” nods the boy in red.

Two months earlier they gazed in wonder at the Rattlesnakes’ final passageway, the boulder-filled corridor at the exit of the gorge.  It was dry then but more intriguing as a result; they could only imagine the white turbulence when the rains came.  The way that mass of boulders raced back upstream was mind-altering — the mental syllogism required:

This looks too steep to be a river, but it is a river.

Kayakers can run rivers.

Therefore kayakers must be able to run a river this steep.

Now they are a mile upstream and looking down the Rattlesnake, letting the current lull them toward the rolling white-tipped waves, the chocolate brown ruminations, like looking down on an ever-changing range of mountain peaks. The eddies, holes, waves–these words sound trite to us now, we who have paddled in a thousand streams–but back then they fascinated the boys like magical creations. Logically they knew the river was born of science: of water, rocks, and gravity. Yet with no two waves exactly alike, each seemed to have been created by magic. The boys felt like travelers across a surface whose contours were raised by the hand of some magician capable of making the earth dance and change. Even by early summer, it still has not washed away–that feeling that what they are doing is amazing. They are floating. There is magic in it.

And even more than the river itself, the whole experience of being free from high school is intoxicating. No more mandatory study halls, no more blazers and ties, no more rules governing when they eat, no more studying for final exams. Now they both have cars–a battered Toyota Forerunner for the boy in red, who bought it. His mother’s borrowed minivan for the boy in blue, who is roundly mocked for it. Now they can sleep late. They have both been accepted to prestigious colleges next fall and they are not working right away this summer. They can stop off at Dunkin’ Donuts for a coffee and donut. They can drive on any road they want, windows down, volume up, straight to the river that has called them all spring. Driving over the bridge they will see the magical creation of long white rapids where before there were only dry rocks. They will hike down to the put in without anyone checking their credentials. It is thrilling, it is new–and it is, at least for the boy in the blue boat, enough to send his heart into his throat.

The boy in the blue boat is more cautious as they enter the second rapid, steering wide of the biggest holes, and catching his breath in the eddies as his heart races.  More than anything, he wonders:

“What will happen to me if I have to roll out in the middle of the current? Will my roll work out there?  Will it translate from the flatwater where I know I can do it?”

The boy in the red boat stays out in the middle of the river, threading between big holes. He has big, tan shoulders. He seems to know where he is going. But the whole time, both boys are conscious of what is ahead. Minutes later they approach the edge. Here the Housatonic River plunges over the final, triumphant bedrock ledge. They can only see mist rising, and out in the distance, the trees lining the shore far downstream, where they will be safe and sound, if only they can make it there.

Not knowing what is over the edge is terrifying yet fascinating. The boy in the blue boat breathes deep, trying to hide the terror inside. He has studied it and studied it. He needs to just do it. But is it a good idea? Is he ready? He has never run a vertical drop; he does not even know the kinds of things that could happen to him. He saw his friend get stuck at the bottom and swim. And that was on a day when the presence of Jamie McEwan, his hero, implied that it was safe. Today who knows? The river is higher. Is this suicide? What will happen when he goes over the edge? It is a cruel paradox he considers:

I cannot do this without knowing what it is like. But I will not know what it is like until I do it.

“You think we’ll be alright?”

“Yeah!  It’s fine,” says the boy in red.  “You’ll see a little curler just before the edge.  Hit that right on your bow and you’ll be all lined up.”

“I’ll watch you first.”

“See you at the bottom.”

The boy in the red boat looks hard at the place where he knows he should enter the current at a 45 degree angle.

“You just have to let  the water take you.”

“How is he so confident?” thinks the boy in the blue boat “How can he seem so sure?”

The boy in the red boat enters the current. He leans shockingly far over on a brace. If he flips, all will be catastrophe, but he does not. He balances and just before he vanishes, he is suspended forever lifting a haunting final stroke.

The boy in the blue boat waits ten seconds, hoping that his friend has not been forced under the water to battle for his life. He edges out toward the current and paddles blindly into the chaos.  The water bursts against his hull, heaves him over, but the boy clings to his brace, clings to his training, and it holds. In a flash he knows he will not be forced under, and he is being pushed from behind much faster than expected. Thinking is banished and there is the curler. He sends his bow crashing through it and suddenly the ground drops out and he is afforded a split-second look straight down into the pit of the cauldron. There is no thinking, only reacting, and somewhere in his outward vision as he dives down over the edge he can see the boy in the red boat floating free in the great white beyond.

The boy in the blue boat was me.

***

There is this persistent idea in our culture that you only get so much time when you are young to have adventures, after which you have to settle down and start contributing to society. Somewhere between 18 and your late twenties you are gifted a respite from the yolk of duty: you drink too much; you date the wrong women; and you live in squalor. You guide rafts; make seasonal wages; drive out west and camp by the river for a month; wear the same clothes all week. You spend your days doing things that adult’s normally only get to do on vacation like ski couloirs and drive from one river to the next. You prop yourself up in vacationland for a time. You live in the place that older people pay money to visit on time away, but you have to serve them french fries to do it.  You throw yourself off big waterfalls and down hard rapids.  You experiment. You try out what life has to offer. You go on adventures.

And except for a few proto-bohemians, a few eternal dirt bags, this life does not last. Drive through any banal American suburb and you can feel the youthful exploits of the sober minded PTA members buried behind the walls. Memories hide away in stacks of photos. Hiking boots are shelved in the attic. Kayaks, skis, ice axes, maps from somewhere way up north are all shoved in a corner of the garage behind tricycles and pool toys. The mementos and keepsakes whose meanings are so personal that nobody would know their significance except for we who lived them–a time that was a mixture of freedom, independence, wild youth, and most importantly friendship. Later, when our adventures are long gone, the memories are all we have–except for the friends who were there with us.

So it is not surprising that we tend to cement some of our most intense, if not long-lasting, friendships during these singular periods when we are young, wild, and free.  In the years after decamping from vacationland we typically do not settle en masse with these same friends in the same white collar cul-de-sacs. We move near family, grad school, new jobs. We fall in with friends we make at children’s playgroups, and through the PTA.  When we do run into our old adventure friends, we are struck by their nice clothes and tolerance with toddlers. But inside is the same man who once paddled off waterfalls and drank warm PBR. Their adventurous flame still burns beneath the suburban decency; but now it is productively channeled, put in the proper perspective, passed along to their children in the form of camping trips, ski lessons, or weekend adventures on toned-down local rivers. And channeled into careers which call on an astoundingly large number of the skills we formed in those river canyons–judgment, risk-management, and teamwork.

But sometimes there is one missing link, one former boating pal who is now totally unrecognizable. They are perfectly at home pushing around stocks and bonds, soberly assessing regulations, cloistered and unstirred by adventurous leanings of any kind. Their new identity is incommensurate with the bohemian lifestyle they once championed, their kayaking past wholly unconnected to the person they are today. We scratch our heads: did we really used to look at them and say, “If I don’t make it, tell my mom I love her?” How could they have changed so completely? Sometimes, looking back, it is like their time in the sport made no sense at all.

If you look closely though, you will find that it always does.

The boy in the red boat I will call Tim.

***

He was a gadfly, an instigator, a tall, rail-thin boy who had shot up to the height of a man so quickly it was as though he were having a second go at learning to walk and run. Even I at 16, no paragon of maturity, could tell that he was immature. He needed a response from people and as a result he came down just this side of being disliked. He was a lacrosse defenseman, a “long stick,” and his favorite move was the poke check, where a defender jabs a ball carrier in hopes of a lucky dislodge. It is less brawn than irritation. Tim was a master at the poke check on and off the field.  But one evening when we were sophomores I sat down next to him on the bus home from our lacrosse game.

It is not always easy  to tell who is rich at boarding school and who is not. It is not as though you are all decamping to a glittering mansion each weekend, or pulling up to the student parking lot in either a BMW or a jalopy. Boarding school dorms are surprisingly monastic, and the boys who live in them notoriously unostentatious, if not downright slovenly. But look closely and you can tell: the week-old clothes pile tossed carelessly on the floor may be comprised of Brooks Brothers or of J.C. Penney. The single blue blazer might be flanked in the closet by sharp secondary camel hair and tweed coats, or it may be a lonesome singleton. The post-Christmas conversations may be stoked by stories of Aruba or Vail, or met with an embarrassed shrug. It may even be an innate entitlement that comes across when grabbing a little too easily for the ready-cleaned lacrosse jerseys from the low-wage gym attendants. I understood that Tim and I were two decidedly middle class teammates on an otherwise moneyed roster. Perhaps that is why I sat with him. In the magic light of the early evening, above the hum of the wheels on the back roads of western Massachusetts, we found ourselves talking about our families. I told Tim my father had been at our game, that he usually took me to dinner afterwards and drove me back to campus, but not tonight. We spoke for a while about our families, and then Tim told me matter-of-factly that he had not seen his father in some time.

“Actually, I don’t even know where he is.” He looked out at the rolling woods of Great Barrington and beyond as if searching.

“He left the house a few months ago. I haven’t seen him since.”

When you get older a remark like that rings an alarm bell, and you try to make a sensitive response. But when you are 16 years old, streaked with the dirt of the lacrosse field, knowing so little about fathers, even your own, you stare into the middle distance awkwardly.

“Bummer. You got a lot of homework tonight?”

***

One morning, a year before that bus ride, I looked out my dorm window as I was getting ready for school. My view was of a small parking lot where some of the dorm cleaning ladies parked. Idling crosswise to the parking spaces was an old Buick sedan. It did not look like the sort of clean-lined luxury car that most of the day students’ wealthy parents drove. It looked like one of the cars that people in my small town back home favored.

In the front seat was a boy. I imagined he was being dropped off for the morning, but why back here? Most day students were dropped off right in front of the main building.

The boy was gesticulating toward driver, a middle aged man whose face I could not quite see. They continued sitting and motioning with their hands for some time before I looked away and went to class.

The boy in the front seat had been Tim.

***

During junior year, word got around that Tim had scored higher than of any of us on the SATs: almost perfect. More surprising was how he had done it: he had studied.  Using flashcards!  Boarding school teaches success, but an effortless success. Boys especially are supposed to pride themselves on their haughty disarray, their disdain for apparent effort, their easy As. But Tim had scored higher than any of us. And he had studied?

The next year, senior fall, Tim had risen from irritating and immature gadfly. He literally and figuratively filled out into, as F. Scott Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby, “the substantiality of a man.” Suddenly he was being offered leadership positions–dorm proctor for younger students; teacher advisor of the sophomore Human Development class. This happens to senior boys sometimes. They are delivered into themselves, into their promise.  Tim seemed taller, broader, more confident. He shook your hand and looked you in the eye as he toured wide-eyed eighth graders and their fathers around the grounds for the Admissions Office.  He looked, in his blue blazer under the brilliant light of the fall mornings on campus, like he belonged.

***

During the spring of senior year two things happened.

First, Tim got accepted almost immediately to a prestigious Ivy League college.

Second, Tim and I arrived at the banks of the Housatonic River, twenty minutes and a world away from campus. From the seat of a kayak, we took one last look at shore.

If you are lucky, the summer you are 18 something great happens to you.

We fell in love with the magic of flowing water.

***

James McEwan was James Bond. He was my friend’s father, and he was a daring adventurer. He was at home whether he was on a wild Himalayan river, reading a George Eliot novel, wearing a tuxedo or standing on an Olympic podium. He had done all of that by the time I met him when I joined  his new paddling program run through my boarding school that spring.

I wanted to be initiated. Within me was a hunger and a longing that I see now in my own high school senior students who feel called into the army–a passionate need to belong to a group of like-minded companions embarking on a dangerous, elite mission in service of some vaguely noble objective. It is an elemental longing that has been stirring in the breast of young men since before the Bible. In times past guys like Tim and I disappeared into the woods to kill our first prehistoric beasts, or raided enemy camps, or signed up for a three year voyage to the south seas, killed whales and braved typhoons. Young men of a certain bent need to test themselves in the face of danger. That is what I needed in the spring of 2000: a rite of passage to prove myself.  And I saw Jamie McEwan as just the man to bring me into the fold, the wise sage and battle-hardened veteran to my apprentice. That spring, I trailed the stern of his C-1.

Tim bought a red boat. By early spring we had exchanged several breathless, hushed conversations about the mystery of our newfound infatuation. It was as if two men in love with the same woman were comparing notes. Tim did not join the kayak program. Instead he took a lesson at a local kayak shop and spent the winter dreaming of looking down into the transparent water beneath his boat, 1,000 cubic feet per second of snowmelt undulating beneath him. Though Jamie, irrepressibly affable–a golden retriever of a man–was nothing of the tyrant or bully he looked like, he was still a coach and father-figure. And where I shamelessly jockeyed for position beside Jamie in the eddy and in the van, I got the strong sense by the way Tim avoided Jamie that he was in no rush to take the front seat again when any grown man was driving.

Six days a week of kayaking was not enough. On the seventh day I drove away from the main gates of our school for the first time in a car driven by someone who was not my mother. Tim picked me up in a fittingly beat-up and barely running Toyota Forerunner, weather-gray, that would lose its brakes one day alongside a wild river in the Adirondacks. The inconvenience would not restrict its driver from his class V dessert that afternoon. That Sunday morning as the rest of campus slept, I was met on the beautifully manicured lawn of the quad by the rusted and dismal Toyota Forerunner weighted down by Tim’s garish red kayak.

“Do you want to meet down behind my dorm?” I asked him the evening before.

“Naw, let’s just meet out front of the main building.”

Strapped to the top was Tim’s red Pyranha kayak, ten years newer than Doug Gordon’s old navy blue Upstream Edge slalom kayak I had taken a liking to.  We drove with the windows down and the sun on our shoulders across the fields of the east feeling like kings of New England.  The open road was before us, the river ours alone, all of the hardest rivers, even the Rattlesnake, surely in our future.  We were into college and finally into life.  Now this was freedom!

In the freezing snowmelt of the Housatonic, I tossed Tim upside down in his kayak and taught him to keep his head in the water until the last possible second just as Jamie had taught me. He threw himself again and again under the water with the same soulless devotion and dead-set expression he must have employed while drilling himself on SAT analogies. Soon Tim was righting himself. He learned to roll in half the time it had taken me.

Anyone watching would have thought we were torturing each other, dunking our heads under the water when it was barely 40 degrees out. We wore torn paddle jackets that were like old raincoats, sleeves swollen with water, wool sweaters soaked against our skin, smiles irrepressible, eyes wide open with the magic of existence beneath the sky. We paddled down into a forest of wave-holes and slalomed among them, linking and joining moves and strokes. It was like discovering music. I beckoned Tim upstream and under the groaning iron bridge I pointed to the final boulder-strewn staircase rapid of the Rattlesnake. It was dry, but what would it look like with water?

“We should run that someday,” I said to Tim as we floated next to each other.

“Yeah,” he said, looking at the dry, soundless riverbed that had seen great paddlers descend it, and would in time see us take our place among them. “Yeah, we definitely should.” Somewhere high above us we could spot a huge piece of bedrock that appeared to be a vertical drop. What was up there? I had no doubt we would explore it together.

Right then I knew that I had found the door into the world. I had struggled–and would continue to struggle–with finding friends, with the small talk of parties. I knew as Tim and I cemented our bond to run the Rattlesnake that for as long as I gazed up at hard rapids and wondered if they were possible, I would find other guys who had wondered the same and we would be drawn together. As long as we had the river in common I would have no trouble making friends or conversation. I had been initiated.

***

Two steps forward, one step back.

That spring we rolled and swam, swam and rolled. Sometimes I flipped far out in the middle of the river only to have my roll work on the first try.  Then I would flip purposely in the take out pool, fail to roll three times, ingest water, thrash around, and finally wind up standing beside my boat up to my armpits in the river.

Two steps forward, one step back.

My mother, who had managed to extract Tim’s existence as a friend of mine from post-lacrosse game chatter, mailed me a clipping from a Connecticut newspaper. In it a middle-aged man stood behind a hot dog stand not far from my school. The man, his face hidden by the brim of a hat, shared Tim’s distinctive last name.

“A hot dog stand?” Tim said, a strange disbelieving smile curling onto his face.  “My dad’s running a hot dog stand?”

Instantly I felt horrible, exploitive.  Why had I told him?

One step back–always one step back.

***

One evening that spring Tim told me about his plans: first Harvard, then Wall Street.  No one I knew talked that way. At 18 the future seemed so far off, remote.  Nobody at boarding school talked about getting rich.

“I want to make money.” Tim said. “I want to make a lot of money. I want to go to Wall Street, get into banking, whatever it is. I want to help out my mom, make money for her, for the family.”

“I’ve got it all planned out.”

***

The water got warmer, we got better.

That spring Tim showed up more when our group was paddling. He even became friendly with Jamie McEwan. Tim quickly made friends with some of the better paddlers around the Housatonic. He got a job working at a local kayaking store. Even so, he was still aloof. Just as his popularity and his standing on campus was cresting, an Ivy League admission in his pocket and a new confidence in his handshake, he began to withdraw from school. At a time when many of us were basking in the relative ease of senior spring, Tim had withdrawn into himself. His ruminations were conducted from the seat of his kayak, alone, or sometimes with me on the Housatonic River.

***

High school graduation is lost on most kids. Life comes at you fast when you are 18. One day you graduate, the next day you are onto the next thing. Graduation means more to the parents because they made the sacrifices. They remember diapers, tantrums, shuttling to soccer practices, haggling about grades, and the struggle that it took to get you across the finish line. When I crossed the stage that morning in 2000 I saw my parents, my brother, and my grandmother beaming. My father asked me to take pictures with all of my friends, but there was only one I could not find: the one I rarely saw on campus anymore, the one with the highest SAT score, the most prestigious college acceptance, who lived closer to school than any of us, and he was not there. But it had rained the night before, hadn’t it?

***

Two weeks later, Tim told me he skipped graduation to run the Rattlesnake.

“I just didn’t want to go,” he said.

“Your mom was okay with that?” I asked. “Wait, did you run the Drop too?”

“Yeah.”

“Alone?”

“Yeah.”

We know so little at 18. Back then I was more stunned that he paddled over the edge alone than secluded himself in a river gorge on the day of the most important communal rite of passage in a teenager’s life.

We stood in the roadside pull off and looked at each other. I shrugged and took my kayak off the car and we put on the Rattlesnake. That is when we paddled up below Great Falls through the mist and the water like snow. Twenty minutes later I watched as his stern rose up ever so gently as he plunged out of sight.

But seconds later I too took that mysterious plunge over the Drop, and despite my worrying, it turned out fine. I slapped high fives with Tim in the white pool below and looked up at what we had done. I shook my head to think he had done this solo. Then we paddled into that final rock garden that once looked so steep, and we hurtled down it toward the pool at the end where we had once gazed up with wonder and knew we were changed.

I am older now, and I can tell.  Show me a horizon line, give me a quick look at the amount of water, the shape of the ledge, and the rock, and I have a pretty fair idea of what the base of the drop will look like.  And I have the confidence to either portage or to react to whatever the river does. I have seen it all. But back then I had not been over the edge of thousands of drops, or even one. So I had no idea what to expect–whether I would be allowed to pass through rightside up or flung upside down, kept and beaten in the hydraulic, or subjected to some torturous fate beyond my nightmares.

***

I returned to run the Rattlesnake many times, and today it looks small, and I wonder why I agonized over such a trivial ledge. But that is like a grown man asking why a child feels so enchanted by his first trip underwater with his eyes open. If we only had eyes to see as we once did. And isn’t that evidence of the magic: what a hold it had over us?

In that hidden space below the Drop lurked all the unknown joy and terror that existed but was unknown to me. I hungered to know what was beyond the edge, and the Drop on the Rattlesnake represented all of these questions that I had. What would it feel like to make love to a woman? What would college be like?What would my life’s work be? What sort of man would I become?

But the answers to these questions all lay before us at 18. I learned to approach horizon lines just as I did when Tim and I first paddled toward the edge of the Drop. There was only so much scouting or planning that we could do. At a certain point you simply had to pick the best spot to enter the current, lean downstream as you had been taught, and paddle toward the edge. I did the same thing a year later when I paddled off Otter Creek Falls in Vermont, my first big waterfall. I did the same thing four years later when I set off from the start gate at the Olympic Trials. And I did the same thing years later when I strode into the glass lobby of my first job in Washington, D.C., from which I resigned in protest two months later.  Or when I stepped into the restaurant at which I met my wife.  Sometimes you knew the horizon lines were coming, and other times you did not. Only by having the courage to paddle over the edge could I know what was on the other side. The Drop on the Rattlesnake symbolized all of the attendant fears and possibilities of my life back when most of it was before me.

Though we never spoke of such things I like to think that first horizon line held some of the same meaning to my old friend Tim.

***

I once heard that when you are young you need a “door into life.” You need a passion, a pursuit, a cause that requires not only arching your back over the abstractions in a textbook, but pressing shoulder to shoulder with other flesh and blood. You must meet, commune, scheme together, plan together, dream together. You must work alongside others for a common cause. You must share an intellectual hunger, for this is the only real connection. For some people, this comes in an internship, for others in a job. Still others, like Tim and me, find our door into the world through a sport.

That summer we scoured guidebooks, and in that novel freedom we enjoyed, we drove straight to the rivers and ran them: Bulls Bridge of the Housatonic, the Shepaug, the Deerfield Dryway, Tariffville Gorge.

Soon I began to feel that I was losing Tim. He paddled harder water than me. He spent more time with older, more experienced kayakers: cool guys in their twenties who smoked weed, drank beer, owned creek boats. They could cartwheel and run class V creeks like the Hubbard and the West Branch of the Deerfield.  Tim even became friendly with Jamie McEwan. I began to hear kayakers that I didn’t know call Tim “personable.” I could see his confidence.  Within a year of our Rattlesnake run, Tim had run the Moose, the Gauley, and the Green, and  raced in the U.S. Nationals. As I languished back on class II again after switching from kayak to C-1 Tim surged far past me, and I was not sure I would ever again catch up.

Within three years Tim had all but quit kayaking. He lived out his life plan with remarkable fealty: the Ivy League then Wall Street. I have seen him since college, but not often. He is doing well and has had considerable professional success. When you look at his life you might think that his few years kayaking heavily were an anomaly, completely disconnected to what came before or after. And at the time it puzzled me deeply how he could quit so completely a sport that had largely defined him.

Look closer and you begin to see that for Tim kayaking arrived at the perfect time to allow him an entry into the world, a way for him to test himself and to find out what he was really made of–just as it did for me. Would you be brave in the face of danger?

Kayaking taught us judgment too–to decide for ourselves whether to run or not, and forced us to live with the consequences. It taught us how to train ourselves for a specific objective. It taught us decisiveness: you can scout all you want, but at a certain point, you have to climb into your boat and paddle toward the edge. It taught us to be there for each other, for our teammates–who might literally drown if we did not act quickly–in a way that lacrosse never could. It gave us a way to try ourselves against the achievements of real-life Olympians and accomplished adults, like Jamie McEwan. And it put us on a footing of equality with all the doctors, lawyers and teachers that we met and formed fast friendships with at put-ins and playholes across the region. It allowed us to cut across normal social and economic boundaries in the people we hung out with. It was like a friendship-making cheat code, the heightened comradery of hard river trips. It was a degree in decision making, thanks to challenges like the Drop on the Rattlesnake.

The whole sport was our rite of passage. And even though we have long since lost touch, and he is probably wearing a suit and sitting in a glass-lined boardroom somewhere high above Wall Street right now, I know that Tim–like me–is not a whole lot different from that kid who first pushed away from shore and realized that he was floating.

As I think of Tim, I think of the two of us as we were back then: above the Drop on the Rattlesnake, right above the horizon line–poised above our first great rite of passage, wondering what was on the other side, waiting for the moment when the rest of our lives would begin. Back when there was more of our lives to come, more that was undiscovered than discovered, more that we didn’t know about life than we knew, and more possibility lying in wait over the edge–if we only have the courage to take the plunge.

If you are lucky, the summer you are 18 something great happens to you.

There is magic in flowing water.

(Author’s note: I changed a few details to camouflage identity.)

About the Author

Alden Bird

Alden Bird has been paddling for 17 years. He is the author of several books, including Let It Rain: A Kayaker's Guide to the Rivers of New England, as well as a novel, and the blog "Notes From the North Country." He is also a high school English teacher. He lives in New Hampshire.

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