Fear and Rafting on the Rio Grande

By David Berkowitz/ Flickr

By Zahie El Kouri

We have paddled beyond the point of return.

I am in the left front corner of a rubber raft. The guide has told me that if I jam my leg into the groove between the outside air chamber and the one that makes the floor, I’m less likely to fall out of the raft, so I jam my leg so hard that my left butt cheek aches.

The guide, who is almost certainly stoned, decides to do a safety check. “Everyone raise your oar like this.”

He holds his paddle up vertically, with the wide side toward the water. He does it with a sort of swagger, like this job makes him much cooler than scared city girls like me. I mimic his action precisely, clutching my oar in fear. My husband and his sister do the same, with confidence. My sister-in-law’s partner Dawn holds her paddle up, too, but she holds it horizontally, so the wide side is facing the center of the boat.

“I said this way,” the guide repeats. “You need to look at me.” The guide is sun-leathered and rangy, his hair bleachy-blond.

“I can’t look at you,” my sister-in-law says. “I’m blind.”

This statement comes as no surprise to me, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the guide either, as we’d discussed Dawn’s blindness with him when we arrived.

We’re on the Rio Grande, the five of us: my husband John, outdoorsy and fearless; his sister Liz, a four-foot-ten Krav Maga instructor; her partner, Dawn, an executive with a Manhattan non-profit; and me.

I am full of fear: I am afraid of heights; I am afraid of riding a bike in traffic; I am afraid of getting a concussion while skiing like I did when I was eleven. I generally don’t talk about my fears like a Woody Allen protagonist, but I try to avoid situations where I put myself in what I perceive to be danger. The more rational part of my brain tells me that lots of people go rafting without injury and that I have reached an age where I am willing to give this kind of risk another try. Nonetheless, I am happy for my helmet and my life jacket, and even though I have lost all feeling in my left leg, I jam it further into the raft.

Since neither Dawn nor I had ever been rafting, we signed up for the beginning level trip, a leisurely float down the calm part of the river. When we arrived, though, Liz and Dawn snuck away to change our trip to the intermediate one, which included something called “class three rapids.” I am terrified, but I don’t want to ruin everyone’s fun. Dawn, on the other hand, is smiling, her legs casually resting on the floor of the raft.

The guide says, “Well, just pay attention.” When we approach the first set of rapids, I paddle as hard as I can, against every instinct I have to curl into the fetal position. When we’re clear of the rapids, I see that everyone else in the boat is smiling, while I’m just happy to be in one piece. The next few rapids are the same—fear for me, smiles for everyone else. After the fourth set of rapids, we float along the river for long enough that I am able to take in the greens and browns of the riverbank.

That’s when I notice the large boulder in the center of our path. It is taking up most of the river, but it looks like there’s just enough room on either side for us to get by. Water splashes up the rock and churns around it in a great white frenzy.

“That’s a big rock,” I say to my husband.

“Yeah. Which way should we go?” he asks the guide.

“Oh, we’re just going to bounce off that thing,” the guide says.

“Bounce?” I squeak.

“Just paddle as hard as you can right up onto that rock, and then we’ll bounce off to the right.”

This does not sound like a good idea to me, but I am a lowly city girl who can’t feel her left leg. The rock looms ever closer, and I paddle as hard as I can straight on top of it. My corner of the raft hits the boulder. We bounce once off the rock and land sideways, the right edge of the boat hitting the water.

I am still in the boat! Hooray!

I look to my right. The seat next to mine is empty. John and Dawn and the guide are all in the water. Liz is leaning over the side of the boat, holding Dawn by her collar. John erupts from the water and climbs back in, his leg bloody.

“Dawn’s in the water,” I shout. The water swirls innocently around the raft. John jumps back in the water, helping Dawn clamber back in to the center of the boat, soaked and grimacing.

The guide lifts himself into the raft.

“Y’all took a swim?” the guide asks. “Get a little wet?”

Dawn grumbles.

“Dude,” the guide says, as about to share the wisdom of the ages. “It’s all about facing your fears.”

Dawn whips her head around to face the direction of the guide’s voice. “I do enough of that taking the subway in Manhattan every day while being blind.”

The guide says nothing. John and Liz turn away from him, back in their places.

Dawn stays in the center of the boat, shaking. “Is she going to stay there?” the guide asks.

“Yes,” says Liz. “She’s had enough.”

The guide looks at John, alone on the right side of the boat.

Dude,” he says, “you’ll have to paddle harder.”

He says it to John, but I take the message. We launch again, and I paddle with a new determination. Dawn has navigated New York City blind for thirty years; now she is thrown from a raft in the middle of the Rio Grande and climbs back in. Who am I to be afraid?


ZAHIE EL KOURI writes about infertility, parenting, and the immigrant experience in the United States. She has taught creative writing at the University of North Florida and the University of Oregon Law School, and legal writing at Santa Clara University and Florida Coastal School of Law. She holds an MFA in creative writing from New School University and her work has appeared in Mizna, a Journal of Arab-American Writing and Dinarzad’s Children: an Anthology of Arab-American Literature, Memoir Journal, Brain, Child, and Ars Medica. You can find her on the web at www.zahieelkouri.com.

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