Sharon of the River

Photo: Ashley Ojala


My mom, Sharon, decided that 2021 was her year to get on the river with me. At 67, she’d never slept outside for more than a couple of nights in a row, and she’d never been on a multi-day river trip, even though I’ve worked as a guide my entire adult life.

Photo: Nicole Q

At first, she wanted to come on my October Grand Canyon trip, but it was a charter, booked up by a group from Santa Fe and an astronomer from California. I worried my mom would be an outlier, and I envisioned her on the outside of circles, a satellite or constellation unto herself, hiking alone, or setting up her little tent on the outskirts of beaches.

I also knew I’d be busy marrying coolers and scrambling from boat to boat, squirreling around for some elusive jar of olives buried deep in the bowels of a dry box, always distracted by a mind trained on guiding, calibrated to survey the whole group and hold individual conversations simultaneously. I’d be too busy to savor sunsets or coffee chats—too scattered to really pay attention to mom.

I was also slated to guide a Middle Fork Salmon trip in August, and we agreed that this could be a perfect first foray into river travel: just six days instead of fifteen, milder temperatures, and with cots for sleeping. This could have been a sort of homecoming for her, as she grew up in Idaho but had not ranged far beyond her hometown in Bonneville County. She registered, and I sent her some exercises to help prepare her body, to increase her chances at comfort on the river: gentle core strengthening, lunges, modified push-ups, yoga. I started setting aside gear that she could borrow from my garage.

Then, a week before our launch date, she called and, through tears, told me about an injury she couldn’t shake. She didn’t know what was wrong, which scared her, and her leg hurt so badly that she couldn’t stomach the thought of getting on a remote river in just a few days. It was horrible to hear her cry on the phone, heartbroken by the things of aging. She canceled the reservation, and I went to work on the Middle Fork. I coaxed my raft through rock gardens and over gravel bars, the water very low and warm. I imagined how hard the bumpy ride and uneven beaches would have been on mom’s leg, and each time my boat got stuck I felt a twinge of relief that she wasn’t there.

On my return from Idaho, mom reported that her pain was diagnosed as arthritis. Her doctor had given her a shot of cortisone, which had helped. I had a quick turnaround. In one week I needed to be in Vernal, Utah for a Gates of Lodore trip with eight writers—a five-day river-based writing workshop on the Green River, through Dinosaur National Monument. It was a small cohort, and, since mom was feeling better, I invited her to join.

Lodore is a good trip for someone who’s never spent time floating and camping in the desert, or in the wilderness at large. I wasn’t guiding, but rather kayaking along and teaching the workshop. So, I offered to cover most of her cost, and she decided to come. A few days later we met in Salt Lake City and drove together to the desert.

Photo: Ashley Ojala

Our first few days, I watched mom settle and slow. Unable to plan or control anything, she relaxed. She listened to the water, to the guides’ stories, and to my little lessons on writing. I encouraged her to listen to her body, too, and to make adjustments as needed, to tell me or the guides if she was hurting. She didn’t complain; she very seldom does. Mom has navigated the hardest parts of being human with commendable grace. She spent twenty years teaching middle school, a heroic endeavor by most estimations. And after thirty Alaskan winters and a brutal divorce, she moved with her wonderful new husband to Deadwood, South Dakota, to be closer to Sturgis and to ride her Harley on sunnier highways.

From my kayak I watched her watching me. She knows my challenging relationship with this sport, and I wondered if she was worried. Fifteen years earlier, I’d called her from my soggy camp in West Virginia, in tears, terrified to work my first trip on the Upper Gauley after seeing the river only once. “Stop worrying and envision yourself doing it well. You made the choice to be there.” I did as she said, and my first and only Gauley season began the next morning. That conversation required her to be so much stronger than I needed to be. If she was worried now, on Lodore, she didn’t let it show. She resisted all temptation to say, “be careful.”

We took our first lunch at Winnie’s Grotto, a dreamy little side canyon on the west side of the river. We hiked up and away from the water while half the guides stayed back to prep sandwiches. This was the first time I’d walked with mom in this way in ten years. I noticed a lot at once, and she did, too. She stopped short of the alcove itself, settling into a stony seat below the crux: a squeeze through boulders that, with some help, she could probably get up and over, but she chose to stay put.

The other women came back down to meet her where she was, and, perched upon cool, smooth rocks in the exquisite shade of that sandstone canyon, we had our first discussion on deep time, geologic time, slipping between the present moment and the comforting vastness of ancient things. We began, at that first lunch, to take our place in a stream of narrative and history, dislodged from routine and re-rooted in place.

On hikes away from the river, the bolder, more outspoken women supported mom with outstretched hands and a flow of encouraging expressions. Others channeled their support toward quiet conversation and subtle proximity. Sometimes on hikes mom stayed back at the boats. She acknowledged her limits, something I’m only now learning to do, and only when necessity mandates it.

On day three we scouted Hell’s Half Mile for a long while. The low water seemed to make the younger river guides nervous. Certainly, there were plenty of places to get a raft stuck, and anxious for mom, I got in my kayak and skittered away from the beach to run the first stage of the rapid ahead of the rafts. I wanted to be downstream, waiting and ready to help, just in case something happened to her boat. But nothing happened besides a clean run, and she floated past me, laughing and whooping with the other ladies in her raft. I pulled out of my little eddy to run the rest of the rapid. She turned around and watched me the whole way.

I would have liked to be her neighbor at camp, to have dried our wet clothes on the same branches and fallen asleep to the same riparian sounds. But I also like to sleep out, closer to the river’s edge, and to watch the stars blur together when I remove my glasses for sleep. She preferred her tent up high, on flat and dry ground. The river won my heart each night, but I was sure to wake early and deliver coffee to mom’s tent before she left her sleeping bag.

Photo: Nicole Q

On our fourth day, we floated out of Lodore, past the confluence with the Yampa, and into Whirlpool Canyon. After lunch, I strapped my kayak onto the back of a raft. Mom accepted my invitation into the front of the tandem ducky, proclaiming that this would be the only time she’d get in the inflatable kayak and that she would not paddle with anyone but me.

I secretly hate duckies because my butt gets so wet. I thought about saying that out loud, but I noted that mom had not uttered one dissatisfied word about her soggy derriere—I kept quiet. Our group agreed to float silently for a while—a rare and precious gift from our guides—so I indicated when mom should paddle by tapping the side of the ducky. She sat attentively in the bow seat, smiling without showing teeth, holding her paddle across her lap.

We caught an eddy to let the other boats pass, and I looked down to see a feather floating in the eddy water. I scooped it up and tucked it into my PFD. Later that evening, I would press it safely between the pages of my notebook. Then, once my river season had come to an end, I’d send the feather to mom in an envelope with a note, thanking her for paddling with me.

Photo: Nicole Q

Later that afternoon, we were walking up Jones Hole Creek, mom and a guide named Mary and me, the rest of the group far ahead. I dipped mom’s bandana in the creek and draped it around her neck. Synthetic pants and the bamboo sun hoodie I gave her for gardening a few years back protected her freckled skin. The trail wasn’t difficult, but it was uneven with roots and rocks and loose sediment. I watched mom carefully; her footing was concerningly unstable. I asked, too many times, how her knee felt, and she got annoyed.

Then, an hour up the trail, she fell. Her toe snagged on a root, and she tumbled forward with such sudden force that she could not catch herself. I gasped as her face smashed against the earth. She lay prone on the trail for several long moments, unmoving at first. Mary, in full guide mode, descended upon her too quickly, too enthusiastically; I shooed her away. Mom rolled over, dirt caked onto her mouth and cheek and ear. She grimaced and insisted she was fine. I helped her to her feet and she wiped some of the dirt from her face.

We kept walking, more slowly now, and I could see from behind how her gait had changed: it was clear her leg was angry. A few more yards and I offered, hesitantly, that maybe we should spin around and head back to camp. She was crying now. I suggested to Mary that she go on to catch the rest of the group, and mom and I began a slog of labored steps back toward the river. We took breaks, and she insisted her tears were for her frustration, not for pain. We arrived back in camp, and I set her up in the shade of a boxelder. I wrangled some ice from a cooler to calm her swollen knee. The others wouldn’t be back for an hour or so; mom could be quiet here, alone with her tears.

Over the course of the workshop, the writers were invited to write a profile of another member of the cohort. They sat with one another for quiet interviews, watched each other with curious eyes, and scribbled observations in their notebooks. A woman named Nicole wrote about my mom.

Nicole is a force, a powerful writer whose voice occupied a lot of space in our circles. Mom, for her part, was hesitant to speak up in our discussions, but when she did, the women welcomed her voice warmly, without judgment or critique. I began to see, embarrassingly for maybe the first time, how mom’s voice—inherently creative and unique—has been systematically shuttered over the decades, and how here, her voice sounded different, how she used old words in fresh ways. She also laughed louder on the river than I’d heard in a long while. Nicole, in her profile, called it laughing “bigly.”

I remember how mom used to play the piano, and how soulfully she would express those notes and how she used to enjoy playing most when no one else was in the room. I think she played the piano “bigly,” too.

That night, our penultimate, we circled up at camp and Nicole read her profile. She called it “Sharon of the River.” In her prose, she noted the nuances of mom that float beyond my view, like how she secretly loves the wind. Nicole’s inquiry elicited an unexpected connection between mom’s memory of eating whale meat in her first Alaskan home of Barrow, before I was even a thought, and the way that I drew whales in my notebook while the rest of the group wrote. That whole summer, I’d been drawing four cetaceans that I planned to turn into tattoos for my left arm, each one meant to be a member of my faraway, spread-apart family. Of the four, the orca feels like mom.

Nicole, in her noticing, illuminated something hidden: “Does Chandra of the River know that perhaps these whales spring from her atomic knowing? From a meal her mother took into her body as it harbored — in water, in membrane, in matter — this present life that now sits among us?”

As Nicole read, mom sat tall, not a trace of dirt left on her face, and radiated something like pride.

Photo: Nicole Q

Mom listened patiently to all the talk about the Colorado Plateau, Southwest water politics, and dams—topics and stories that have become more familiar to me than stories of the places I come from. When our family was young, we spent summer weekends on the salty coasts of Alaska, frigid fingers in tidepools, midnight sun hiding all the stars.

In the Lodore workshop, I invited the writers to recall something from long ago, something that persists across time and memory and geography. These memories are indelible, their stamina ineffable. David James Duncan calls them “river teeth;” Pam Houston calls them “glimmers.” For this exercise, mom remembered the Alaskan ocean: small, translucent jellyfish, caught in buckets, my little brother and me on our bellies, stretched out across the sun-warmed dock. Her memory is made of seawater.

A while back mom passed down to me an old painting that used to hang in our Alaskan home: two orca whales against the deep blue backdrop of a Northern ocean. Communities of toothed whales—orcas, dolphins, and sperm whales—are matriarchal: mothers and grandmothers hold positions of power within the social hierarchy.

Here, on the Green River, as if by nature, a lovely, easy structure emerged in which mom was an elder. The river exposed mom’s vulnerabilities and weak spots, and it allowed the younger females (whose strength had not yet waned, who had not yet lived full, long lives in the service of others, in the service of children) to scaffold and elevate mom to where she deserves to be: in a camp chair on a desert beach, where others bring her La Croix to mix with her tequila, offer to fill her water bottle, and take her dinner plate to the dish line without prompting.

Sharon of the River is a composite of memory, hard work, persistence, hopes, and fears, and she is deserving of all the physical comforts in the world. Sharon of the River is also, perhaps, a composite of all these women’s mothers, the mothers who weren’t here with us on this beach, but who also, by their nature, deserved to be revered, supported, loved, and spoiled with coffee in their sleeping bags.

The last morning of our trip brought with it a bitter wind. I watched mom crawl out of her tent, stiff and creaky, her pink fleece ineffective against the bone-deep cold, I realized that I had been neglectful. She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t asked about how we’d be sleeping on the river. If I’d been more focused, and if she hadn’t been so stoic and strong, I’d have brought her a cot. She’d been made to sleep on the ground unnecessarily: her aching leg, her poor body. Smoke from autumn forest fires had settled into the river corridor, and the warmth from the morning sun couldn’t reach us through the haze. The guides set up a propane heater for our morning circle, our final workshop session of the trip, but no one’s hands were warm enough to write. I watched mom’s eyes; she was tired.

That last day we paddled through smoke and flat water and made it to the takeout by early afternoon. We said our goodbyes to the group, and I drove mom back to Salt Lake City, where we spent a very sleepy night together in a hotel. The next morning, I began my drive back to Montana and she caught her flight home to South Dakota. In a week I’d be in my car again, headed this time to the Grand Canyon to meet the astronomy aficionados from Santa Fe, and then onto the Rio Grande for one final river-writing workshop.

The Santa Fe people were lovely; they’d certainly have welcomed mom into their circles. Walking behind our elderly clients as they hiked, I recalled mom’s tears after she’d fallen: I didn’t step too close or issue too many “be careful’s.” At night, as we named the stars and told stories of brave friends and loved ones gone downstream, I pictured mom sitting in the circle, as well, bundled in pink fleece against the October chill, listening, and telling her own stories, too. I stole away for quiet moments alone with the evening breezes and the Big Dipper as it filled the space between canyon walls and finished my whale sketches in the Redwall limestone.

I don’t know if mom will go down the river again in this way. She doesn’t seem to need the river or love it like I do. She does, however, love her Steelers football games and her RV named Nadine; her dog named after a Sturgis biker bar; and her Italian husband whose biscotti pairs well with our Norwegian family’s lefse. Twenty-twenty-one was indeed her year to get on the river with me, and she has so many places left to go. One year after Lodore with mom, when I tattoo her orca over the scar on my upper arm, I’ll remember her on Lodore, surrounded by women, held up and honored for what she is: Sharon of the River.