Minding Mindless Beauty


Hometown River

This river is my home because I know all of its secrets.

It needs my heart, and not my brain.

It knows which of my fears remain.

This river is my home because I wrote all of its secrets.


This river is my home because it’s in me.

It’s my white bones, and my blue eyes,

my muddy hair, my cells revived.

This river is my home because it’s in me.


This river is my home because it made me.

It taught me how to take and give,

it showed me how to die and live.

This river revealed God, and how He made me.


I’m a long way from home these days. A long way from anything, in fact. I’m hanging out in Yellow Pine, Idaho, where there’s a handful of friendly people and dogs, millions of pine cones, miles of whitewater as far as the eye can see, and tons of wild space. Much of the whitewater looks runnable. Whenever I hike, drive, run or meditate along a river, my mind instinctively leaps towards picking lines, judging the stickiness of a hole, estimating the deadliness of a strainer, discerning the intricacies of a drop. I analyze each inch of river to the point in which, if I were in a kayak, I would know what to do.

Recently, I took some time to just sit still on the bank where the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River joins up with Johnson Creek. A massive rock split the downstream flow, and water pillowing on its upstream side ebbed crazily. It reminded me of a foam-headed river monster, coming up for air then slinking back into the depths. The pourovers on either side of the rock thrashed like two massive tentacles. I shivered at the power of the river, despite the 90-degree heat.

I thought back to a conversation Daniel and I had on the Black River in Michigan last month. We talked about how we kayakers sometimes shortchange ourselves of witnessing the simple beauty of a river, because we are trying so hard to understand the river in terms of how it might be boated. We get out to scout a rapid, and we point out the hazards, we pick our lines. Sometimes we brand a phenomenally crafted river feature as “ugly” or “nasty” because of what it might do to our kayaks, or to us if we swim out of our kayaks, etc. Sometimes we call a rapid “friendly” because we anticipate that we can paddle it without too much trouble. I realized that I have been doing this all week since arriving in Yellow Pine—judging every speck of river through the critical eyes of a river runner. But does every hole have to be nasty or nice? Does every drop have to be deemed rowdy or not? The short answer is, no. The drops and holes simply are what they were made to be. They weren’t made for kayakers; they were made to be part of a river. Part of something dynamic, gorgeous, and life-giving.

I’m grateful for my knowledge and experience as a kayaker, and my ability to read water has and will continue to serve me well when I’m kayaking. But the river flowed long before my kayak was built. These waters fell long before I fell for the sport of kayaking. I have to learn to free myself from my thoughts, and just let some rivers be beautiful.

There are times when we need to know a river as something other than a place to kayak. There are also times when we know a river so well as kayakers that we can paddle fairly free of our thoughts. I feel this way about my hometown river, the Wolf back in Wisconsin. I’ve connected with this river on a level that transcends intellect. Paddling the Wolf River feels like coming home to myself. But it’s going to be awhile before I’m back there, and my goal for the next year is to find a spiritual home in the wilderness in which I am present, right here, right now. Our bodies are mostly made of water, as it is. We have to let the connection happen, wherever we are. Whether we are paddling our kayaks or portaging or just sitting on shore. Whether we are in our backyard river or somewhere halfway across the world. The river is always going to be bigger than us. It’s always going to be a part of us. And it’s always going to be beautiful, so long as we let it be.