I sit on the beach, watching my father struggle to step out of the boat. His Camelbak dangles awkwardly from one hand and he tries to catch himself with the other as the sand falls away beneath him. I take in his black tennis shoes, tall white socks and matching neon-and-black t-shirt and shorts combo. For someone who is so vocally skeptical of inventions like dry boxes, he really has embraced the worst of what modern outdoor apparel has to offer. I should get up and help him, but instead wiggle my toes deeper into the sand as someone else offers to help him ashore.
In 2017, I took my then 67-year-old father on a five-day trip through the Gates of Lodore, an iconic desert run down the Green River within Dinosaur National Monument, which spans northwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. The trip was, in many ways, pure magic. It is rare to encounter a near-perfect combination of new and old friends, ideal weather, clean runs, and—most miraculous of all for the Green River—no mosquitoes. Although many of us were strangers when the trip began, by the second night we were salsa dancing on the beach and telling stories late into the night.
However, while the rest of us laughed and re-hashed the day’s adventures over cocktails, my dad stood awkwardly outside the circle, a decade-old brain injury muddling his once robust social skills. When I was in college, my father sustained a TBI in a car accident, compounding a lifelong struggle with bipolar disorder. A former first-rate boatman—he ran the Grand Canyon three times—he now couldn’t balance while getting in and out of a raft and had a hard time remembering where he put his water bottle. Each day tested my emotions, and after a couple of days on the river, we both realized with stunning clarity that this would be his last river trip.
Incidentally, my dad’s first river trip fifty years earlier was through the Gates of Lodore, inspiring him to run rivers through his twenties and thirties. Dad’s last big trip was through the Grand Canyon in 1986, the year my mother was pregnant with me. These trips were the stuff of legends in my family. My younger brother and I grew up hearing epic tales of a ragtag crew bumping around the West in a brown, windowless van. My mom was no stranger to the river herself, and my parents’ early courtship featured several river incidents that could reasonably have sent her running. The “Did we or didn’t we almost die in Northgate Canyon?” debate rages on even now, despite the fact that my parents have been divorced for nearly fifteen years.
We heard all the stories, but we didn’t actually raft much when I was growing up. Though, when we did go, it was in full 1980s style. I remember one trip in particular on Utah’s Dolores River, which summed up Dad’s gonzo approach to river-running.
My dad, my brother, a high school friend of mine and I made the journey in an old two-door BMW and a Ford Taurus that resembled a spaceship with a raft frame strapped to the top. The drive from Boulder to the put-in outside the booming metropolis of Bedrock was long, and by nightfall, we were all tired of driving. Dad declared a ditch on the side of the highway as good a place as any to camp and we set up tents just out of sight of the trucks that zoomed by all night long.
We awoke in a field of broken glass and shotgun shells approximately ten minutes from the boat ramp. After a hasty breakfast and shuttle, we inflated the old Avon Pro (“Cadillac of the river!” Dad proudly declared), strapping down the hand welded-aluminum frame and loading coolers and rocket boxes before finally shoving into the River of Sorrows.
Within minutes, we began to bicker. Dad desperately wanted me to learn to row, and yet, I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
“Well, what do you think you should do?” he barked.
“Dad, I don’t know.”
[A wooden oar slams into the canyon wall.]
“What were you thinking? Didn’t you see the wall?”
“I told you I didn’t know what to do!”
And so on.
We also argued over our differing wilderness ethics: I watched in horror as he tossed the trash bag that had been lining our ammo-can groover directly into a gas station dumpster. “What?” he said, exasperated. “What else am I supposed to do with it?”
However, I was enchanted by the sandstone cliffs and the muddy water swirling in and out of eddies. Beneath the bright desert sky, I caught a glimpse into my father’s past—which would frame my own river adventures for years to come. When we were in our twenties, my friends and I raged around Colorado and Utah in that Avon Pro, wearing bright orange life jackets and bailing with an ancient Tide container. People would stare as my girlfriends and I floated by, looking like we had come from another era. I learned to love the river on that old boat, and my adventures provided a constant point of connection for Dad and me as I grew into adulthood and he received a diagnosis of the early stages of dementia brought on by his head injury.
Even prior to the car accident and this diagnosis, my relationship with my father wasn’t easy. He wasn’t diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was sixteen, an experience laced with private misery for everyone in my family. The diagnosis and subsequent treatment offered relief, though, because the illness had manifested itself for years in random fits of rage that provided an ugly backdrop to my adolescence. But through it all, we had one reliable topic of conversation: rivers.
The lucidity my father has when talking about rafting is truly astonishing. He can describe every wave train, every “can opener shaped rock,” every bend in the river with guidebook-like accuracy. I once needed some information on a run I couldn’t find a map for, and the descriptions he gave of the first two rapids were as accurate as if he had been there yesterday, despite the fact that it had been more than twenty years and that he often forgets my birthday.
When my dad talks about rafting his eyes light up and his gestures magnify as he remembers those old days on the river. I don’t think he’s boasting when he tells stories in which he was clearly the best boatman around, and I don’t really care if he tells the same stories again and again. I am able to peek at my dad the way he was when he was young and when I was young before a brain injury changed him forever—though certainly not beyond recognition.
One morning on the Gates of Lodore, I watched as he stepped tentatively into an inflatable kayak. Watching him stumble was the moment I truly understood that he would get old, that it was already happening, and that bearing witness to it might be the hardest thing I would ever have to do. A long sob ripped out of the depths of my stomach. My friend, Anna, grabbed me and pulled me into her lap as my husband rowed us slowly into an alcove so I could weep undisturbed.
However, as Dad peeled out of the eddy, my red helmet perched high atop his head, he clearly remembered what to do. He whooped as waves broke over him and though I was anxious that he would flip or somehow hit his head, he was having the time of his life.
When we pulled into camp that evening someone set up a solar shower and we prepared for the requisite end-of-trip costume party. Our theme was “salsa night,” and people emerged from their tents wearing a dazzling array of bright colors, sequins, and fringe. When my dad finally arrived on the beach, everyone stared, exchanging glances of “who is this guy?” The man who had spent the last four days in neon and orthopedic sneakers now wore a starched white shirt and black shorts, complete with a fedora and a red scarf tied around his waist. He clearly still had it.
Around that night’s campfire, the old guys told canyon stories from the ‘70s and ‘80s and my dad held court as he described the time he flipped in Lava Falls, “seeing God” as he rode it out clinging to the frame of the upside-down Avon Pro. We passed drinks, and my dad even took a nip out of the whiskey bottle.
My dad kept a journal on our trip, reflecting with great clarity on the beauty of the canyons, his opinions on everyone’s rigging style, and profound feelings of grief and humiliation. “Angry at being shouldered aside by old age,” he writes, “I realized that the ravages of the car wreck were what made it nearly impossible to make a comeback.” However, the final entry reads: “If this is to be my last trip, let it be this one. Great people, excellent boating, stunning scenery. It would be a high note to go out on.“
Three years later, we’re still talking rafting. We talk about him coming to do another river trip, even though we both know it is unlikely. He has slowly started giving me his old river gear. Some of it is beyond use, but oars and rocket boxes and solid wood decking stand the test of time.
Just the other day, I put my own raft partially rigged with Dad’s old stuff in the water for the first time. My husband and I strapped down our brand-new frame and argued over what to do with the cooler. I smiled as I shoved Dad’s old yellow oars—scuffed and pitted from years on the water—into the pins. The handles, slick from years of use, fit perfectly into my hands. My husband pushed us off the beach and we cheered. As the blades cut through the water, all I could think was, “thank you.”