The best part of each summer is the two weeks that my wife flies north from Atlanta for her annual vacation. This year, we had the additional pleasure of hosting her niece and fourteen year old great-nephew. Neither had previously been to Canada.
The four of us had a fabulous time, and it was an added bonus to see my world through their eyes. We travelled from the Badlands of central Alberta to the glorious lakes and mountains of Banff and Jasper National Parks, with many stops in between. We climbed into canyons and walked on glaciers. We went kayaking, hiking, to a rodeo, and played on the edge of a river, where we built an Inukshuk. I re-discovered my wife’s competitive side when we raced summertime luges. They roll on wheels down cement runs rather than with runners over ice. She was the first of the four of us down to the finish on all three races. I was equally consistent about my fourth place finishes, but merely because I was taking my time to smell the roses and admire the city view. Someone had to, and it wasn’t going to be my speedster wife, Parnelli Petersen.
One of the highlights of our vacation was something we’d wanted to do for years—white water rafting in the mountains. It was a hot afternoon when we arrived at the meet-up place, and none of us were thrilled about having to don wetsuits. Fortunately, Transport Canada’s regulations made it non-optional. My wife also had the good sense to suggest we avail ourselves of the string that was supplied to tie our glasses tightly on our heads, just in case. When we got to the spot on the river where we would launch, we first had to listen to an extensive safety lecture. One of the instructions given was this: “In the unlikely event that you are ejected from the raft and come up underneath, do not panic and flail around trying to decide which way is quickest to get out from under. Pick a direction, and just go.”
Allow me to digress a moment to my childhood, when I first began to understand that physical life was finite. Being an odd child with an inquiring, albeit slightly morbid mind, I tried to decide what would be the least painful way to die. Because I loved the water, I settled on drowning as the most peaceful, most painless way to shuffle off this mortal coil. I was wrong—so wrong.
Alright, back to the present. There were seven adventurers in our raft, plus a nice Aussie guide named Mick, who had been on the job for a couple of months. On our side of the (fortunately self-bailing) raft was our great-nephew, our niece, myself, and my wife in that order, front to back. We were having a grand time, until suddenly a guide from another boat started hollering at us. We were all facing forward so we hadn’t seen Mick thrown off the back of the raft. Another guide shouted instructions and we paddled in place until Mick caught up and hauled himself aboard.
Then off we went, down the river again. We’d grown accustomed to glacial water nearly swamping the raft (note the photo—I’m the one in the sunglasses,) but the violence of one particular rapid was our undoing. One moment I was paddling madly, and the next I was in the river, coming up underneath the raft, without a clue how I’d gotten there. The river was not deep, I could stand on the bottom. But the raft, still loaded with five people, was forcing my head under water, and I could not breathe. It was at that point that I realized how horribly erroneous my childhood assumption about drowning was. It did not feel the least bit pleasant or peaceful.
I did, however, (and I’m very proud of this) remember the safety instructions, and struck out immediately in one direction. Thanks to my wife and her string theory, when I popped out from under the raft, I still had my sunglasses. My wife and her niece had also been ejected from the raft, though fortunately not under it. My wife tells me I grabbed her hand and pulled her back to the raft, but all I remember with any clarity is the colour of the bottom of the raft and water filling my lungs. The three of us were hauled back to the safety of the raft. Mick clearly forgot the safety instructions where you were supposed to ensure that when an ejectee was recovered, they were turned on their back so they could breathe. I lay face down, gasping for air like a flounder out of her element until I could summon the strength to resume my place on the rim of the raft.
And that, dear readers, is how I spent my summer vacation in the Great (wet) White North. I had a wonderful time, a ton of fun with family, and learned the philosophical difference between a nine-year-old’s view of mortality and that of a fifty-nine-year-old. Funny the difference a half century can make.
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