Life Lessons From the Nantahala

A few weekends ago we spent a Saturday rafting the Nantahala with my oldest. For the past few summers, Julie has been a raft guide and we have been able to occasionally join her on the water. If you haven’t been white water rafting, it requires clear instructions, listening, and a coordinated effort in order to keep everyone in the boat when the water is rough. Juj did an excellent job guiding us down the river.

We arrive at the outpost in time to complete the required safety waivers. Multiple groups gather for a quick rafting safety lesson on handling your paddle, listening to your guide, and what to do if you fall out. Some listen, some don’t. Afterward, all groups board the retired school bus to begin the adventure. It starts to get real for those who haven’t done this before. First, you pack tightly in an old school bus. Then you are the passenger on a mountain road, driving like it’s a road course- all while already cinched in your life vest and carrying a paddle. As we drive the curvy mountain roads to the launch point Juj and other raft guides chat with nervous and giddy participants telling them what to expect and reminding them how to stay safe on the water. It is a great opportunity to get to know people and put them at ease.

Once to the launch site, everyone gathers in their groups to await further instruction from their guide. Each group has to carry their raft to the water. I’m sure this is partly to make you appreciate the sturdiness of the raft that is going to carry you over sharp rocks and water drops. A few last-minute instructions then it’s time to step into the freezing cold water and board the raft. (The Nantahala is a dam fed river, and as they say, this makes it dam cold because the water is released from the deep lake waters. The deep gorge river only receives about 4 hours of direct sunlight a day. The temperature averages 45 degrees, so in the late summer, it is likely a balmy 55.) Julie tells each of us where to sit, balancing the raft by weight, strength, and ability. As the guide, she stays in the back and immediately begins giving instructions to get us down the river. Two good paddle strokes and we are on our way. The water carries us forward while she steers the raft and yells for paddle strokes to keep us on the right track.

Rather quickly, we approach our first rapid. Juj steers the raft, calling for one good stroke and telling us to lock in, and we splash through. As we approach a group from another rafting outpost company, we see they are unguided and trying to figure out what to do as they go. Julie yells to them to stay to the right in the next section. We continue forward paddling when needed, following her instructions as given. The unguided raft ends up going left, losing a passenger, and finds themselves stuck on a rock. Thinking they should have gone with their other right, we paddle to the side and Juj checks to see if everyone is OK. They’re stuck but good. She flags someone down from their raft rental company. We go on our way, following our instructions and having fun. At one point, Juj is having us full paddle forward for a rock spin when another unguided raft group decides it would be fun to paddle into us. We end up hitting the rapid at an awkward angle but manage to keep everyone in the raft. We were put in a very unsafe scenario that required Julie to think and correct while we powered the paddles as instructed.

The rest of the trip went without incident. We paddled together to spin in circles through one section of the river, laughing hysterically and entertaining other rafters behind us. Hitting the last rapid and drop at the falls, no one in our raft joined the Nantahala swim team. It was cold, wet, a lot of work, but loads of fun. I also got to see my oldest in action.

There are few life lessons to take away from this river rafting journey.

  • Once in the raft, you are going down the river. You can have fun riding in the raft and steering the best path, or join the Nantahala swim team by taking a cold, bumpy ride in the water.
  • It’s easier, and more fun, when you work together. Paddling in sync will keep you on course. Sometimes you have to alternate in order to correct course or go for a spin.
  • There is no guarantee that the river, like life, is going to be smooth. It will be smoother if you balance your boat and paddle to keep it facing forward.
  • You have to pay attention, read the water, and paddle to stay on the right track. It’s the same in life. You have to pay attention to where you want to go and try to stay on the path that gets you there, but it may be necessary to change course if there is an obstacle.
  • Rocks in the river are best not hit head-on, and if you hit it just right you can go for a fun spin. Sometimes there are obstacles that you need to avoid.
  • Doing nothing, you will still get down the river but you may not like the ride.
  • There are those that will deliberately cause you difficulty. Paddle hard to get around and away from trouble.
  • Listen to those who have more experience than you. Following their suggestions can save you some difficulty.
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