Grace Like a River: Embracing Imperfection on Wild Sheep


From the corner of my eye, I glimpse Casey, waist-deep in the trough of a wave, clinging to a cooler strap with one hand and attempting to shoulder-press our 60-pound dog back into the boat with the other. All while we teeter dangerously on edge. I dangle by my ankle, which is mercifully hooked on a sidebox. Cursing, I scramble back to the oars. I pull twice on my left oar to straighten us out as I blindly grope the air behind me and try to hoist both boy and dog back into the boat but manage only ineffectual whacks in their general direction. My heart hammers audibly. We bob through the tail waves.

We make it through Wild Sheep upright. Just barely. “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry, I… I…I don’t… I’m sorry,” I whisper. 

Wild Sheep is the first Class IV rapid in Hells Canyon on the Snake River. At some water levels, there’s a line on the right. Sometimes, there’s one down the middle. Most often, though, the line is to enter left and move center. I’ve seen boaters use varying ferry angles in their approach, but always with the same objective: avoid the chompy feature bottom left. There’s a steep drop there, and it’s always bigger than it looks.

Despite knowing this—well—that steep drop is exactly where I took us. How. Did. This. Happen?

“It’s okay. We’re okay. Everything is okay,” Casey reassures me in the pond below the rapid. Like my boat 20 seconds earlier, I am teetering on the edge, and my partner can tell. I’ve rowed Wild Sheep at least once every year since 10th grade. This was my third time this year. I guide on this river. Yet, I almost just flipped.

“Wooo-hooo!” My dad shouts as he floats up to us in his kayak, oblivious to my turmoil. “Wow! What a ride! How fun!” His jubilance spills out like sunshine, and it hangs suspended in the air between us for a moment before he adds, “You seemed farther left than you said you’d be.”

“Sure was,” I grit out. Shaken, I mentally replay my line. I cannot believe I almost flipped in a rapid I run so often. I cannot believe I almost swam our dog. I cannot believe it is October and cold, and I almost flipped.

When waxing poetic about the lessons I’ve learned from my decades on the river, I usually express gratitude for how the river encourages me to let go of Plan A. To be flexible and accept mistakes, to be satisfied with Plan B or C… or even D. To see failure as fluid; to be more like the graceful waters that glide over boulders and smoothly around obstacles. But that’s hogwash. The truth is, I expect myself to execute Plan A with precision. I like my lines to be perfect. 

Actually, I like most things in my life to be perfect. Unfortunately, I can spiral when they’re not. If I have a bad line, I start to think that I’m probably a bad boater, and if I’m a bad boater, I’m probably a bad guide, and if I’m a bad guide, I’m probably also a bad person. I want, at my core, to be a good person. To be a good boater, a good teacher, a good friend, creative, partner and daughter. I want to feel proud of my accomplishments and my efforts.

I don’t often give myself grace, and it’s hard to remember that there are variables outside my control. I cling tightly to control, and I often forget that my success at a task does not equate to my success as a person.

For a moment, looking back upstream at Wild Sheep, I think about just giving the oars to Casey. I wrestle the impulse away; that’s not how I want to be. When the roar of Granite Rapid reaches us, I force a smile, and my grip tightens around the oars. “Have a fun line,” I say, in an attempt to trick myself out of feeling the pressure of “perfect.”

When I wax more honest, the lessons I’ve learned from the river come from how it forces me to confront the parts of myself I don’t want to think about but know I should. My perfectionism (and its false entwinement with my self-worth) shows up prominently when I boat. It can be uncomfortable for someone as self-critical as me to stare so openly at my mistakes. My imperfectly executed moves replay in my head like a churning hydraulic, cyclical and sometimes violent. I’m not the graceful water adapting to the obstacles around me. Instead, ungovernable currents thrash forcefully around me. Yet, I keep coming back.

It seems unlikely to crave a return to a place of such discomfort, but I do. I think it’s because, for all the painful reminders of my inadequacies, the river can be a forgiving teacher. She holds space for me to try again. The river holds no grudges. She doesn’t remember what kind of boater I once was, every time meeting me exactly where I am.

That’s a lesson I strive to carry with me into my relationships and into the classroom. I try not to remember what mistakes my students made yesterday, treating each day as a new chance for them to show me who they can be. I try not to be limited by old habits or patterns in relationships. Each day is a new opportunity to be different, better even, than I was before. We can outgrow ourselves if we have the chance.

I keep coming back to this river that humbles me because even though I’ll never have complete control, I get to practice flexibility. I keep coming back because it reminds me that Plan B can turn out just fine. And if it’s fine on the river, it might also be fine at work. Or during that difficult conversation that I didn’t handle exactly how I wanted to. I keep coming back because it reminds me that I don’t have to be perfect to have fun. I can grant myself grace. I’m okay; we’re okay.

The river is a paradox. All summer, she’ll build your confidence tall with clean lines and smooth pivots. She’ll make your muscles swell with strength, and you’ll feel invincible. But at any moment, she could humble you with a single wave. She might even toss the things you love most in this world, a boy and a dog, overboard right along with your pride. 

I was wholly sobered at the bottom of Wild Sheep. But I was also okay. On the tail of humility comes motivation. I’ll be back, and I won’t be perfect. But I’ll get the chance to try.


Editor’s note: Images courtesy of Jasmine Wilhelm, Lou Behnke and Erik Boomer.