Midmorning, late January, 42 degrees Celsius. You’re cruising the Orange River, a fast, broad strip of water that separates western South Africa from the rest of the continent. You’ve shot two rapids of varying difficulty earlier in the morning, but this stretch is flat, and you take advantage of the calm to snap some pictures and knock back what you and your canoeing partner have come to refer to as your “11 o’clock beer.” You stretch, update your sunscreen, lean back into your loaded packs and allow yourself to drift.
Your eyes are still closed when you hear the rustle of fast water. Sitting up with a start, you feel your drift change — first in speed, then in direction — and see that a short but swift wave train has formed around one side of a large rock, a wave train you should be riding if you hope to make it around the rock in one piece. At the moment, however, your boat is heading for that rock sideways, and in a very short time — a minute, maybe less — you will spin into it broadside unless you can turn downstream.
In 15 years of white-water canoeing, you’ve made tighter, faster maneuvers. If you were in the stern, steering, you’d be back on course in an instant. But you’re not in the stern. Earlier you grew tired of your partner complaining about your need for control, and you figured, on this fairly straight river and supervised trip, the argument wasn’t worth it. So in full view of fellow travelers and guides, the two of you switched places, comically, jumping right into the water and hauling yourselves back into your new spots. For the first time in 15 years, you’re in the bow. Your boat is careering into a rock. And your partner is not completely, not reassuringly, certain what you mean when you scream, “Rudder on the right!“
You paddle like mad from the bow, but your efforts are futile. The waves you hoped to ride are instead conspiring to keep you out. So with a burst of speed that feels as if someone forced open the throttle of a small engine, you rise up on a cushion of foam and crash into the rock. Your bow pitches up like a breaching dolphin before you observe, in the time-lapse wonder of a disaster in progress, the canoe sliding back and listing to the right, its keel grating, water hissing, you shouting with phony courage, “Here we go! We’re coming out!“
It’s a hot morning. Both of you have been sitting on your life jackets. Both of you are slightly drunk. And now, suddenly, both of you are underwater, not sure where up is, aware that your fully loaded Mohawk tandem canoe, when swamped, can weigh up to 2 tons. If the boat collides with your head, you’ll turn up somewhere downriver by morning. On the other hand, if you get pinned between the boat and the rock — well, at least they won’t have to drag the river to find your body.
An average, responsible, up standing individual, particularly one of the American persuasion, might regard this story with a certain measure of disdain: Were you crazy? Why didn’t somebody stop you? And as a matter of fact, had this guided trip of 12 Europeans, two Mozambicans and two South Africans been on, say, Idaho’s South Fork, none of this would’ve happened, at least not quite this way. There would have been no paddling without life jackets, no changing positions midstream, no morning beer.
But neither would there have been any impulsive swims on a stifling and sleepless night, nor a spontaneous afternoon of rock climbing under a sun that shimmered off the ground, nor any plunges from high rocks into pools of black water (a ritual so common in South Africa they’ve nicknamed it “kloofing,” after the Afrikaner word for “cliff”). While adventure-travel companies in most other countries assume that, though your guide will make every attempt to keep you safe, you and you alone determine your fate, guides in the United States enforce a roster of safety regulations handed down from a legacy of liability suits in the 1980s, lawsuits that drove equipment manufacturers into bankruptcy and sent insurance rates soaring so high that several smaller companies disbanded their travel programs for good. So you wouldn’t have run giggling from the water when sand crabs nibbled at your toes, because you wouldn’t have been allowed so much as a wade past the shore without shoes. You would never have sat alone on a rock outcropping at dusk, silently watching baboons feeding along the shoreline, because you would never have been allowed to venture so far from camp alone.
No one really climbs a mountain simply because it’s there. You climb a mountain because once you’ve done time on the edge of what you thought possible, ordinary challenges seem puny. A not-so-small part of me wants to climb rocks, canoe fast rivers and jump off cliffs because I want to solve problems of survival more concrete than what the existential hum of urban living has to offer. And I want to do it with my own strength and wisdom. What little wisdom I have, I earned. But not without being stupid first.
Eighteen years ago, I set out for a weekend canoe trip with a friend I’d just met in college. We were both living in Minneapolis at the time, and as we drove up Dylan’s fabled Highway 61 on our way to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, we were still picking out our route, still bickering over whether to use up the freeze-dried blueberries in pancakes or oatmeal, still trying to fix the broken straps on a borrowed backpack. Both of us had grown up camping with our families, but always with Dad to pitch the tent, brothers to carry the packs and boyfriends to oversee fire building. Neither of us had been given many chances to steer.
We camped overnight at a state park, and late the next morning put our 17-foot, 90-pound aluminum canoe into the water roughly 15 miles from where we planned to make camp, near a waterfall surrounded by the spectacular granite bluffs of Rose Lake. Eight hours later, after we had mistaken several dead-end inlets for portage trails and fended off a bear on a boat landing, we arrived at Rose Lake to find that not only was our target campsite inhabited by a group of teenage boys, but every other idyllic campsite on the lake — there were seven in all — had been claimed as well. Gusts of cold were breaking up the afternoon heat, and the sky to the west was full of black clouds; we knew enough that a metal canoe on a lake in a thunderstorm was a lightning rod, and as the first large drops of rain plunked onto our canvas packs — packs we’d neglected to line with plastic — we searched desperately for the smallest rocky shore on which we could pull up our boat.
We sat for an hour or so on that shore under a tarp, watching electrically charged clouds roll across the lake, before we realized, with heartbreaking clarity, that we had found our campsite, and an idyll it was not. We anchored our canoe with rocks, pulled our tent and gear up the slope, and squeezed a campsite, such as it was, into a tiny clearing at a precipitous pitch.
In our tent that night, teetering on the edge of the bluff in contained terror, huddled in wet wool sweaters and swilling brandy out of a flask, we made lists of everything we wished we’d done, and would do if we had it to do over again. A dozen or so trips later, those lists have evolved into scientific documents. We plan our time realistically. We seek out more remote lakes. And we watch the weather. I don’t regret that night at all.
Your guide on the Orange River, a 21-year-old man with a year’s experience, has pulled his own boat over to the shore. He’s scanning the small patch of rough water for your heads, wondering what kind of rescue he might have to perform. Maybe he’s wondering why two women he judged to be decent canoeists were lackadaisical enough to hit that rock. Maybe he’s nervous about how a drowning might look on his up-till-now flawless employment record. Maybe he even cares about the two of you personally, since the three of you stayed up late last night drumming to the full moon on empty buckets. What he doesn’t have to fear, though, is that this mishap — one caused by the sheer carelessness of the victims — will sink his employer’s outfit.
In the water, lessons learned run through your head like an old hymn, a drill of survival: Push the boat away, let yourself float up. You remember back to sea-kayaking training, where your instructor made you capsize and stay there, tapping out a rhythm on the bottom of your boat before freeing yourself to come up for air. You relax. You pull off the T-shirt you had wrapped around your legs to protect you from the desert sun, find the top of the water, take a gulp of dry air, and begin to kick and stroke. You see your partner’s head bob out of the water. You let out a reckless whoop re served for such moments.
Your boat is still floating. You swim back and push it along to a place where you can right it. Thumbs up to your guide, who is visibly relieved and just a little irritated.
“I knew about that rock,” he tells you as you emerge from the river. “But I just thought, well, it’s big enough and everyone would see it.” Next time, you’ll keep your head up.