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Master of the Rapids - A True Story

Updated on March 1, 2013
River rapids similar to those in the story. This photo of the Yosemite River in California is by the Hubmaker.
River rapids similar to those in the story. This photo of the Yosemite River in California is by the Hubmaker.

On the Kennebec River in Maine

The river crashes through the gorge, sending white spray into the air. Kayakers shooting these rapids hope they aren’t splattered and broken against the rocks. Fragments of kayaks wrapped around the granite are a testimony to those who didn’t make the passage.

From my post on the river’s edge, I could spy kayak racers as they rounded the bend upriver and appeared at the entrance to this most challenging stretch of whitewater.

Most of the sportsmen were young and athletic. The crowd ooh’d and ah’d above the roar of the river as they banged from one rock to the next, fighting to keep their crafts parallel to the current.

The source of this current is in the streams which feed Moosehead Lake in north central Maine. The outlet of that enormous body of water begins the flow to the Atlantic.

Tested by the Rapids

For years a kayaking club has had an annual competitive event on the Kennebec. The summer I was photographing the river for a film, they chose the most notorious section as part of their race. The torrent rushes through a series of granite rocks strewn across the riverbed.

With a movie camera and tripod set up on a boulder along the bank, I panned to follow the action as kayakers struggled through the whitewater, one by one.

Most hit the rocks with their kayaks and bounced against them. Some nearly overturned. They fought fiercely to stay afloat through the most dangerous rapids. After one lost the battle with nature and had to be pulled out of the water, I turned the camera again upriver.

A Different Kind of Kayaker

A white-haired gentleman kayaker appeared around the bend. I wondered how he could make it past the dangerous rapids when younger, more vigorous racers had failed. Watched through the camera viewfinder, he appeared calm, even serene. He sat straight, relaxed and alert.

The focus of my filming had been to show the daring of the kayakers and the risks they took in this stretch of whitewater. Their struggle against the force of the river as it threw them to the rocks proved their skill and courage.

Then the older man guided his kayak easily through the rush of roaring whitewater. He glided between the rocks in the riverbed with no sign of struggle. I was dazzled by his effortlessness.

But I was looking for action shots, and as my camera rolled I thought, ‘that’s a waste of film.’

A Dawning Realization

Later, while reviewing the footage, I ran and re-ran that segment as the realization dawned on me that it demonstrated something beyond skill and courage. The white-haired man kayaking smoothly and confidently through rough waters became a metaphor to me of the way of mastery in life.


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