Early in my writing life, I made ends meet by rowing drift boats and rafts down Oregon’s whitewater rivers. My early gigs were low-paying and low stress: I would shuttle camp supplies downstream while the outfitter and clients fly-fished. After a season without a mishap, I traded camp supplies for real live anglers, which meant more headaches but also bigger tips. Eventually, I left the outfitter altogether and launched my own guiding company.
Despite the great scenery, guiding rivers is ultimately a service job, not so different from waiting tables. Except that you are riding the table, and you’re on it with the same people for eight to ten hours. You will need to accommodate food allergies the clients forgot to mention, and you will be privy to conversations that would be better had in more private settings. But guiding can teach a budding writer a lot about people, and art.
Rivers are always carving away at their banks. If you’re on the water enough, you’ll eventually see trees fall into the flow, and maybe you’ll even get to see a cliff shear free and hit the water in a cataclysm that will leave your ears ringing. Rivers themselves are artists, carving watersheds from rock, and thereby sculpting our world into a shape far truer than any prescribed by the politician’s pen.
A core tenant of the artist’s mission is to make the familiar appear strange; we call it “defamiliarization,” though the river has been doing the same without a word since water met gravity. Look at the sunset reflected in a pool, pink clouds against a purple sky — and watch as lapping water sends ripples through the atmosphere. Raft a river, and feel yourself come unbound from the constraints of time and distance, until you look at your watch and see it is not time for lunch but rather dinner. Stand knee-deep in a riffle and see yourself reflected: your hair melded to your chin and your nose protruding from an ear.
Artists and rivers each encounter obstacles. While artists suffer rejections, rivers collide with logjams and boulders that obscure their seaward path. Artists might take notice that the river does not seek to confront these barriers, nor does the river spend time lamenting an impediment. Instead, the river flexes and bends about any obstacle — ever passive and yet ever striving toward its goal.
But some obstructions appear simply too big to overcome. One thousand years ago, about an hour east of Portland at a place now called the Bridge of the Gods, the mightiest river of the Northwest, the Columbia, was dammed when two mountains broke apart and spilled across its path, leaving a landslide four miles long and 200 feet high. There was no place for the Columbia to go; it began to pool behind the rubble, its progress thwarted.
Guiding clients down whitewater rivers day in, day out began to feel something like a formulaic genre novel to this writer. Each day started the same: the familiar social routine of strangers meeting for the first time. Clients told select stories of their pasts, seeking to project the person they wanted to be — not so different from the protagonist in the early pages of a first-person mystery.
Once on the river, the client encountered the thrills of whitewater, and maybe, if we were lucky, the excitement of a salmon or steelhead on the line. The river also brought unexpected challenges, maybe a sudden storm or a forgotten roll of toilet paper. With each exhilaration or challenge came an unfolding of the client’s truer self, a peek behind the curtain the person was holding between himself and the world.
Rivers themselves are artists...sculpting our world into a shape far truer than any prescribed by the politician’s pen.
A highlight of any guiding day was its final chapter, the denouement, wherein the client came to terms with the story that had unfolded, which was always different than the story they had anticipated, for better or worse. I remember the woman who prayed to her god for making the fish bite. I remember the man who proclaimed the day was further evidence that he had finally “mastered rivers.”
It was after one such denouement, about eight years ago now, that I heard my phone ring. At the time, I was working on Oregon’s coastal streams four days a week, and writing the other three. After years of failed efforts, hundreds of fizzling stories and countless rejections from agents and editors, I had finally gotten a novel off the ground. At home, in my basement office, was a computer with several chapters of my very best work. At the time the novel didn’t yet have a title, but it would become Whiskey When We’re Dry
By then, I was nearly a decade into my dream of writing fiction without much to show for it. I had three children at home, a mortgage to pay, and my body was starting to complain of the seasons spent rowing boats and hauling heavy gear bags. I had been considering abandoning my art, abandoning river work too, and seeking the kind of career that would promise my children a stable life. It seemed like the responsible decision. Yet just when I was about to give up, this novel appeared on my shoulder, like a bite on the last cast of the day.
I answered the call in the motel parking lot where I spent my nights between guiding days. My wife sounded exhausted; she said, “Are you sitting down?” That morning, a city water line had burst and flooded our house. The kids were fine; most of the house was fine. But my basement office had been swamped. My computer, as well as the laptop on which I compulsively backed up my writing, were submerged. The novel was lost.
At first I laughed at the irony. Here I had spent the day keeping my clients dry, while my office filled with water. Then the laughter faded and the call ended, and I was alone in a motel parking lot. The sun was setting. I walked across the street, bought a bottle of whiskey, and guided the next day through the friction of a hangover.
Before beginning the long drive home, I walked down to the river one more time and sat on a rock with my feet in the water. I had been with clients all day, but now I was alone with my thoughts. The blue-green water was riffling around my ankles. Once back home, once the floodwater was drained and the office dried, I would have to make a decision: revive the novel or finally give in to the writing on the wall. I shut my eyes and listened to the river.
When those mountains crumbled across the Columbia 1,000 years ago and dammed it with 200 feet of rock, the river began to pool behind the obstruction, eventually forming a massive lake. Stoppered or not, the river was still a river: water, carried on the force of gravity, seeped through fissures in the dam. From the downstream side, the rocks must have looked to be weeping. Over weeks or months or years — we’ll never know how long the river tried, and it doesn’t matter how long it tried — the water finally ate through the barrier and surged on, ever downstream, carving its canyon.
It is said that art must seek to make the familiar strange. Yet a river offers, too, the chance to see the strange made familiar. Rivers don’t carve canyons because they intend to make canyons. The canyons are byproducts that arise when rivers seek their truest end, a diffusion of self in the great, amorphous, all-connecting body of water that is our sea.
I rose from that rock and started my truck, but I didn’t give it much gas. I let the vehicle roll downhill. I wanted to know what it might feel like to give in to gravity.
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earned an MFA from Oregon State University in 2007. During the eight years he was writing Whiskey When We’re Dry
, he worked as a fly-fishing guide, a college writing instructor, and a freelance contributor to outdoor magazines. He lives with his family in rural Oregon.