Today my wife and I went white water rafting on the Youghiogheny River below Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Between the excitement of the churning rapids and surging hydraulics there were stretches of river in which there was little to do but float along. Our raft happened through some circumstance to be without a professional guide on board, and as a result our crew of 6 adults grew rather close right away out of necessity. There existed between us (most of whom were new to this type of adventure) the bond that grows in a group when you look around and read each other's faces in hopes of gaining assurance in what is not necessarily an assured outcome. I was unfortunately aware that a person had lost their life a few weeks before on this very stretch of river, and so as a rookie I was paddling with the conviction of survival.
A steady rain had settled in the river valley and created a thick mist that floated above the water. Clouds encased the branches of the trees lining the water’s edge and the hills ahead were obscured in a thick fog. After a particularly serene section of the river had fully relaxed us we were instructed by the guides in their kayaks to paddle to shore behind a large boulder. The boulder is known as “Jumping Rock”, and stopping here is apparently a tradition with the outfitter. This was a time set aside in our trip for adventurous rafters to scramble up the back of of the boulder and to jump from the flat top down 12 feet into a deep water hole at its base.
I was feeling satisfied, mellow and tired from the exertions of the rapids, and Becky was too cold from the rain to jump willfully into the river so we stayed on shore with the boat to watch the show. One rafter was so excited that his child had made the leap that the father seemed almost a child himself. Another man launched from the top of the rock in perfect “cannonball” form and hit the water with such force and splash that it drew an “oooooh!” from all of us as if we were watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. There was a kid there too, maybe 10, who scrambled up the muddy bank towards the rock. I just couldn’t help grinning and thinking of my son when I heard him saying to no one in particular, “this is the best day of our vacation yet!”
As I leaned on my paddle, the blade anchoring me on the muddy shore, I looked at all this going on around me and I realized that I was completely content. All around me was laughing, joking and splashing. I thought about how so many different people had been drawn to the river from their various walks of life as strangers, but now as you looked around you might think it was a party of old friends. We all had come to the river for one reason or another, and in enjoying the fearful challenge of running rapids we had been given a a unexpected gift. We had peace and love. I looked at my beautiful wife sitting on the edge of our raft shivering a bit in the rain. The river ran steadily behind her with the same assurance she gives me, and I knew we were in the right place with nowhere else to be.
Nature is for me a Church. On the river, deep in a gorge carved out by the recession of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age, it seemed so easy to see that God’s grace was among us rafters. We were living a fleeting sliver of what life could be were we to let more rivers take us on our way. This is so good for me to be reminded of. It is important to remember that to take my work into the city, a place in which I am not well suited to, into streets full of people who don’t trust me or my camera, that I need to yield to this Power as a feeble raft on a powerful river. If I follow this Power, I will be led to the places where the right people are for the right photographs. I need to take this Power with me and protect it the way our ancestors guarded their fire. It’s that important to have something from which to draw from; a place to return to and rediscover each day the will and faith to continue doing what we do as photographers.