I sit down to write my predictable yearly ode to the start of the paddling season. But I realize that, this year, it is layered with so much other meaning.
Never fear, the tribute to rivers and springtime and the first outings of the paddling season is as robust and irrepressible as ever. Skiing is all well and good. A nice walk is restorative. I like a long bike ride as well as the next person. But there is nothing, and I mean nothing, so soothing, so exhilarating, so seductive, so compelling, so evocative, so church-like, as riding the back of current; feeling the pulse of water responding to gravity under the hull of a boat and following its cues. Nothing.
And so, some weeks back, at the end of March, we joined our friends Molly and Jeff, Lee and David at Sand Island on the San Juan River in southern Utah. For 10 days we rode the silty flow through gooseneck canyons, past petroglyphs, stopping to explore side canyons and trails. We navigated rapids and played cards by headlamp and studied ancient rock art and wandered around. It was a leisurely jaunt with lots of time for diversions and contemplation and indulging good company.
Soon after our return to Butte, Ruby got in touch and asked if I wanted to go on a dad/daughter trip on the Owyhee River in Oregon. “Of course,” I said. In the end I also invited my friend Grant, who has been a paddling companion for more than 40 years, who was my best man 35 years ago, and who Ruby agreed would be a great addition. The three of us spent the better part of a week descending a low-flow current through the deserts of eastern Oregon, complete with volcanic canyons, fun water, side hikes, and sweet camps.
So, the paddling season has officially begun, with plenty more to come.
What’s more significant is that my recovery from prostate surgery is on track. Three-plus months out now, and bladder control is close to normal – I can go on a rigorous hike and not pee myself (mostly) and I’m back to full activity – gym workouts, bike rides, walks, river trips. The box of pads gathers dust in the bedroom and I hardly need to think about that any more.
Prostate surgery was my second encounter with an ailment that would have killed me a generation earlier. My first confrontation with mortality was my cancerous eye tumor a dozen years ago. Now it’s prostate cancer, which would have done me in if I’d been born fifty years earlier. Twice now I’ve skated past the edge of the abyss. In both cases I was lucky to find the problem in time, and to live in an era of treatment where it could be dealt with. For me, it means life goes on, more rivers will be paddled, more friendships will develop, more time with family will unfurl. I am very cognizant of how precious and frail a thing life is, especially as we age. That I have the good fortune to go on adventures and embrace exhilaration is a daily benediction.
The other thing that has been impressed on me is the value of companions. Family, friends, new acquaintances. More and more every year, I find that what matters is my company, my pod of humanity, the people who I hold in regard and who might hold me in regard. The interaction doesn’t need to be momentous or meaningful. What matters is simple time together and the sense of solidarity that comes from that network of humanity. I like being solitary, too. I often go on walks or rides alone. I enjoy that mental space, the lack of chatter, the focus on contemplation. But it would be a lonely life indeed without friends to chat with, a partner to share life with, children to marvel at, and a farflung web of human connections I feel embraced by.
And so, spring is pushing in all around, rivers are rising, the sun booms up in the mornings, birds flood north, boats are always drying out in the yard, and life is as delicious as ever. Maybe more delicious than ever.