Notes from the River's Edge

I haven’t seen Rico since last November but he writes to me often. 

On April 18, 2016 he sent me this Facebook message:

 “Well 1st things 1st, THANK YOU!!! so much for all the care packages you have sent me this deployment, and helping mom send me hers. You’re the best, made me feel loved. I was always that kid who would never have my family come watch me at sport events, just you, and you will always be the one in my corner. I love you dearly brother.”

“So in roughly 2 months’ time I will be coming back home from deployment. I would sincerely like/love it if you would come be at the pier when I arrive… it’s a wonderful exp, and it would mean a lot to me if you could… I felt like shit last deployment when nobody was there.. part of me honestly wished u would be there to surprise me.. but we know how that went. Anyways, this time around I don’t want to have to play a guessing game. I would really appreciate it if you came out here!”

That was interesting — since last time I had no idea when he was coming back so of course I couldn’t go. I replied to his message that the reason I didn’t go the last time was that HE DIDN’T TELL ME WHEN IT WAS. 

Since I do know when he’s coming back from deployment this June, I started looking up airline fares to Norfolk, VA from Oregon. Even taking a red-eye was looking like $780—highway robbery! 

Then I started looking into flying into nearby Newport News or even DC. After a bunch more research I finally found a RT to Newport News (still a red eye) but one that was only about $550. With Rico’s offer to stay in his apartment and drive his car while I was there, it actually seemed possible.  So I booked my flight, and hopefully his ship will come in when it’s supposed to. 

On the Illinois River, Kalmiopsis Wilderness, April 2016

On the Illinois River, Kalmiopsis Wilderness, April 2016

Recently, while Rico has been on a deployment, David and I took Rico’s brother Luis on a whitewater rafting trip. The excursion lasted four days and three nights down the Class IV and V rapids of the Illinois River in Southwestern Oregon. The River starts in the mountains of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and joins into the Rogue at Agness near to the Oregon Coast. The only way in OR out of the 30+ miles of wilderness was by water. There were no trails except one that came down to the river at one point. And it was miles and miles from any road. 

Taking the whitewater rafting trip was a very unique adventure — only 48 people each year are allowed to be taken through the rapids by the commercial companies. Private parties go, taking their lives into their own hands. Our guide estimated that only a few thousand people had ever seen these remote canyons by boat. 

The first half day was beautiful and we set up camp before nightfall. Then it started to rain. And get windy. And rain and rain and rain. The river rose by six feet the next morning. We spent the next whole day sitting in our tents, talking, and eating. It was cold and wet. Since he was in the book Growing Up Twice, and he was 14, I figured he was old enough to read and understand my book about my mentoring his brother Rico. I was surprised when Luis holed up in his tent by himself and read the whole thing in one day. 

Later we were sitting around a camp fire waiting for dinner when Luis walked up to me. 

“What did you think?” I asked.

“It was funny!” he said with a laugh, “I didn’t know Rico almost got a girl pregnant!” 

Great. Did he think it was funny because that whole episode seemed… stupid? I couldn’t tell. Luis was hard to read most of the time. He stands and frowns a lot, striking a sort of dowdy pose. Luis reminds me very much of another one of my best friends growing up whose name was Bryan. 
The best way to describe Bryan was — droll. Bryan was always very sarcastic and hardly smiled but absolutely loved his own humor and laughed mostly at his own jokes. I had a lot of trouble telling when Bryan was being serious about anything because his sense of humor required that he tell you everything in a sarcastic and serious tone. Luis is sort of like that in that in most pictures he refuses to smile, thinking that smiling makes him look uncool. Luis spends a lot of time on his hair, constantly changing the styles, much like his brother Rico at that age. The main difference is that Luis’ hair is much longer and wavier. Rico’s hair was always some variation on the spikes, whereas Luis is content to let his hair get really long and wild, like a bad wig. He will even use a thin black headband to push it all up off his forehead in a floppy mass.  
But we were still on the river, and while Luis was fretting over his hair, David and I were worried by the fact that the river was still rising. We spent the second night at the same camp – Pine Flats. It was a wide open spot in the river that after the turn of the century had been the homestead of a pig farmer. 

After using their satellite phone to call their office the next morning, our guides Andy and Cooper said we would be moving a few miles downstream to spend one more night waiting for the river to go down to a level that would be safe for us to navigate the class V rapid known as “Green Wall”. 

Along with our guides and our fellow traveler from Sacramento, David, Luis and I packed everything and rafted downstream — glad that the rain had stopped and the sun was finally coming. It was a beautiful morning and we set up camp at Klondike Creek. Our guide Andy who ran the supply boat did the cooking while Cooper set up a solar shower and the loo over a hill right next to the noisy, breathtakingly beautiful Klondike Creek. I’ve never taken a warm shower in such a beautiful spot my entire life!

Green Wall Class V rapids. Looks tamer than in real life!

The next morning, we got up at 6am and set out for a full day of rafting down 30 miles of Class IV and V whitewater rapids.

Despite having camped a bunch as a youth, and even spent hours singing to the trees, as I mentioned in my book, I hadn’t been tent camping in Oregon for decades. The thought of being out in a constant cold drizzle along a wild river was not a place I particularly dreamed of being in early April. There weren’t any dams on the Illinois. It’s an El Nino year. You never know what might happen with the weather these days, or on a class IV or V rapid with four cold, tired paddlers led by one guide. 

There was only one scary incident. After Green Wall, we were in another rapid, a Class III, where we became pinned in next to Andy who was on the supply boat. Stuck between two boulders, our boat started to high side and take on water. We all had to scramble onto Andy’s boat and hold on while our guides got one of the boats loose enough to get through the rapids. 

To be honest, before I went on that trip, I was a little afraid I might die. And I was afraid that Luis would fall out of the boat and drown. 

Now that Rico has almost made it through the Navy, I realize how my own fears must be just some small measures of his. One time out of the blue he texted me “I don’t want to die!”

It has to have been difficult for Rico to sign away four years of his life at age 18. I don’t think I could have done that willingly. Rico is a brave man, and I can understand why he wants someone there when he steps off that aircraft carrier. He will have made it through months away from home, facing any young person’s worst fears — fears far worse than those I encountered in the wilderness rafting a bunch of whitewater. 

And now literally while I was finishing up the editing of this blog post--Rico sent me a Facebook message saying that the secretary of the Navy passed a 30 day extension for him. So I won't be traveling to see him get off the ship after all.

Another bump on the river of life.

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