Running Inter-fear-ence on the California Russian River

Betty Disney

ゥ Copyright 2020 by Betty Disney

Photo of Shan.

I do not have aquaphobia. I'm not afraid of water. Not in faucets, tubs, pools, streams, or lakes. You knownormal water. So when our daughter and her boyfriend suggested we go canoeing on the Russian River in Northern California, it sounded delightful.

Years earlier, my husband, parents, and I canoed the Crystal River in Michigan and loved it. I still remember floating silently along the narrow waterway as groves of white birch trees offered sips of cool summer shade for our bark canoes. My husband and I led the way, gliding through the sparkling green water until we heard a splash behind us. My parents' canoe had flipped, pitching them both in the drink. We paddled to their rescue. But they quickly popped to their feet in the shallow water, their pride the only thing hurt. Soggy yet undaunted, they climbed back into their canoe, and we resumed our journey, rocking gently in nature's soul-nourishing womb. The capsized canoe became a minor footnote to that trip. Nature remained the headliner. And I longed to immerse myself in that environment again覧a quiet, cozy, tree-lined river.

I searched the Internet for a good company offering Russian River canoe trips and found only one that looked promising. It had almost perfect scores from nearly two hundred reviews. I scanned the comments蘭great time, best day ever, magical覧until I came across a detailed account of catastrophe. A mother of a family of four told how their lives were put at risk, how strong currents overwhelmed them, how their boat flipped with the youngest child caught underneath, and how they capsized a second time only to watch their boat escape downstream without them. What a horror story. And even though the company had a preponderance of glowing reviews, I held on to the bad one.

I tried to shake my sense of foreboding and thought back to my parents' mishap覧just a blip in our day. Not a big deal. But I still felt unsettled. To my now fearful mind, their misadventure offered additional proof that these things did happen. I'd seen it for myself. It was just dumb luck they weren't injured. They were old. It could have been a calamity. Then it hit me. The Michigan trip was twenty years ago, and my parents were about the same age my husband and I were at that moment. Would history repeat itself? Or worse? Logic told me the odds were on our side. Fear said we were next in line for disaster.

I didn't tell my family about the bad review. I didn't want to sanctify the story by repeating it. Nor did I want my illogical fears to get the best of me or transfer to anyone else. With over a hundred positive reviews, it made no sense to dwell on the only bad one. But I did.

On the day of our adventure, the sun beamed optimistically, dressing nature in her brightest colors but doing nothing for my dark thoughts. Irritated at my persistent apprehension, I looked out at the water, hoping to relieve my fears. And although the river's gentle current undulated with a reassuring rhythm, the canoes lining her shore did not inspire confidence. They didn't even look like canoes, at least not the traditional bark canoes I romantically remembered from twenty years before.

These were bright-blue, cigar-shaped, plastic inflatables that appeared to have survived several jousting matches on the river and had the scars to prove it. A staff member showed my husband and me our boat. It looked swollen and lumpy like the face of a pugilist. And its multiple repair patches gave me a sinking feeling. (Pun intended.) I wondered if we got the same ill-fated floating device as the hapless family from that scathing review.

Standing on the banks of the river with a handful of other outdoor enthusiasts, we listened to a quick orientation. The captain sits in the back of the boat and uses the paddle to steer, we were told. The first mate sits in the front and stops paddling when caught up in strong currents. During those times, paddling from the front only makes things worse. We were also told pink warning tape had been draped on branches at the most treacherous parts of the river where the water surged toward spikey thickets jabbing out from the shoreline. We were told to paddle away from those areas...duh.

This information came with the reminder that our inflatables had no rudders, and we should not expect them to go straight. Instead, we should expect to do a few donuts here and there as the currents have their way with us. Given those conflicting facts, I wasn't exactly sure what the pink warning tape was supposed to do, besides grant extra time to panic as the driving currents swept our rudderless canoes toward swirling doom.

So with that reassuring orientation under our belts, we were off. Our puffy boat unsteady at first. Its beat-up body convulsing with our every move. But soon we stopped wobbling and settled into an easy paddling rhythm as we admired nature's pageantry覧the glittering, clear water, the blue sky brushed with wispy white clouds, the luminescent greenery fingering out from the water's edge, and the soaring canopies of evergreens interspersed with oaks.

As we approached the first turn in the river, we saw a strong current flowing directly into the bushes lining the shore ahead of us覧bushes with no pink tape. The bad review flashed through my mind, and my heart pounded with dread. But these shrubs weren't even marked, so how bad could it be? As instructed, I forced myself to stop paddling and hoped for the best. But the rudderless boat and current colluded against us. With no other way to help, I became an excellent front-seat driver, shouting directions at my husband, who was powerless to keep us from crunching into the thick low-lying branches. We pushed ourselves free with our paddles, and my captain regained control of our craft, steering us beyond the current and away from the man-eating vegetation.

Once in calm waters, I thought back to the collision. Well, that wasn't so bad. We didn't flip. It didn't even feel like we might. So, except for the spiders in my hair, it wasn't remotely life-threatening. I'd been anxious for nothing. What was I afraid of anyway? Getting wet (hydrophobia)? Getting cold (cryophobia)? That was hardly life at risk.

With our non-calamity behind us and no new threats ahead, I looked back to check on my daughter and her boyfriend. They were approaching the current we had just escaped. My heart began to race, and I started to yell a warning when I saw the boyfriend flop playfully overboard into the foot-deep water and guide the canoe gently out of harm's way as you might a toy boat in a swimming pool. He then jumped back on board, rocking the canoe wildly for fun as he and my daughter stood up, switching places from front to back. Their boat zigzagging haphazardly downstream, sometimes forward, sometimes not. They had no fear.

Encouraged by their carefree attitude, I relaxed and let the soothing environment quiet my phobic mind. Thick hedges of tall reeds stood like sentries guarding the shoreline. Tree trunks lying in the shallow water looked as if they were napping. And an occasional snowy egret perched watchfully on a fallen branch. I felt at peace, nestled safely in nature's cradle.

But the peace didn't last. Soon we encountered other rushing currents shooting into the thickets. Many of the branches were now marked with tape, looking like pink icicles dangling from Christmas trees but prompting alarm instead of nostalgia. Sometimes my captain managed to steer clear and other times not. When the currents did grab us, I felt overwhelmed by helplessness and tried to assist by shouting directions. When that didn't work, I frantically paddled. But, as we were told, paddling from the front only made matters worse. So in the end, I sat, useless, as the currents forced us into the menacing limbs. Only then at the last minute could I help by stabbing the brush with my paddle and pushing us away. With every pink tape sighting, my heart leaped into my throat, and the bad review commandeered my mind. Yet each time we hurtled into the barbed underbrush, we emerged unscathed.

So why did the bad review still haunt me and fill me with fear? Why wasn't my anecdotal anxiety squelched by reality-based confidence? I remembered reading somewhere the brain made no distinction between a real event and an imagined one. Is that what was happening to me? Did my brain give the traumatic tale I read about the same credence as my own real experiences? And since the story was so frightening, did it get precedence over my perfectly safe reality? Ridiculous, I scoffed. This is fun. Get over it!

Halfway through our ten-mile trip, we came to another area marked with pink tape. Piece of cake, I told myself. Except it wasn't. Perhaps the surge was stronger here than before. But whatever the reason, we smashed into the water-level branches with such speed, I only had time to duck as the current propelled us deeper and deeper into the brush. Then, with my nose inches from the boat's flooded floor, another canoe crashed into us with one of its boaters attempting to catapult herself out of her vessel and into ours, succeeding only in scaring the bejesus out of me and landing in the water between the two canoes, backpack and all. My daughter to the rescue.

Her heart was in the right place, but all she did was wedge us farther into the branches. I'm sure we were a sight, with our two blue boats stuck in the low-hanging tree limbs like misshapen Christmas bulbs覧a bizarre, yet fitting complement to the pink 'icicles' all around us. We eventually disentangled ourselves, a bit disheveled but otherwise intact. We hadn't capsized. No one got trapped under the boat. Our canoe didn't take off without us. And nobody got hurt. The only bad part about the whole thing was my fear of a bad part覧catastrophobia.

After a while, we stopped to rest our rubbery arms. Finding a beach shaded by willow trees, we spread out our blanket for a picnic. Drinking cold, white wine and eating avocado and burrata sandwiches, we watched the glistening river flow by and relived the comical rescue attempt. The tale got funnier with each retelling and each taste of wine until that real experience finally replaced the horror story that had hijacked my mind.

Finished with our picnic, we began looking for the large rocky outcropping in the middle of the river, signaling we were forty-five minutes from the end of our journey. Rounding the bend, we saw it覧a towering but unremarkable gray boulder commanding the center of the river. As we got closer, though, it got more remarkable. A young man and woman appeared to be sitting on the very top of the rough, barren rock. At first, I wasn't sure what I saw. My logical mind contradicting my eyes. How did they get up there? But more puzzling, why were they up? And finally, why were they up there buck naked? I stared in fascination as they calmly watched the boaters go by and delighted at being watched in return.

But instead of looking outlandish and embarrassing and just plain stupid, they seemed perfectly in place, bare as the rock they sat on and natural as the environment surrounding them. What a fitting welcome to the last stretch of the trip. At this point, after close to five hours of paddling, I had finally stripped myself of my phobias and, like the nudists, felt perfectly in place, trusting nature to take her course with no more inter-fear-ence from me.

Born in New York, I lived in five states before my family settled in California. After high school graduation, I spent a month in France and returned during college to master the French language but fell in love with art instead.  When my parents moved to Rome at the end of my junior year, I lived with them in the summers while completing my B.A. in French and pursuing my M.A. in art history.

I worked as a college art history professor for twenty-five years. In the summers, I taught art history courses and led tours through Greece, Italy, and France. For three of those summers, I established a business in Paris, offering art tours for American travelers.

I currently live in Southern California with my husband and a houseful of magical alebrijes. 

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