The fast-flowing river was a magnificent beast

Ruby Seaton | Gros Ventre River, Wyoming

I was staying in the Gros Ventre campground outside of Jackson, WY, taking part in a wilderness program put on by the Animas Valley Institute. On the last day, we were given an assignment to create and enact a ceremony in the wilderness. I knew immediately that I was to cross the Gros Ventre river, on the other side of a wood with moose in it, some few hundred yards from our campsite. In the previous few days, I had watched a few of the larger, strong men of our group wade into this river.

So I went to the river’s edge. I tied my boots to my backpack, took off my pants, tucked the rest of my clothing into my underpants, and stepped in. I didn’t stop to think about it. This was early autumn, and the river was running swift and strong. I just stepped into it, barefoot. It was like stepping off the edge of the world, because immediately I had only two choices: either to step back onto the bank, which I wasn’t going to do, or to rapidly figure out how to stay upright on extremely slippery stones. My body figured it out for me, literally step by step. Soon, the water was half way up my calves, and the little slippery stones near the bank had become an endless mass of large, round, even more slippery rocks, with no gaps between them. I learned how to balance with my arms spread wide. I learned to pace each movement so that I could withstand the strong pull of the water and stay upright. My feet learned how to slowly, carefully create footholds in the gravel between the next two large round rocks. By the middle of the river, the water was near the top of my thighs. I’m a short, older woman. In reasonable heath, but nothing like the big guys from our group whom I’d seen in the river in the previous few days!

I felt more alive than at any other time in my life. Nothing else existed than each careful, careful movement, creating another foothold in the gravel between the rocks, easing onto it bringing my weight from my left hip to my right, from my right hip to my left again. Slowly, carefully. There was no time to be afraid, because I needed all of my attention and energy for keeping moving, though about two thirds of the way across, I did let out one huge yell.

Once on the other side, I discovered that my knees were shaking like crazy. I sat and massaged them on a lovely, white-sand, rock-strewn beach, with the time-bleached limbs of a huge old dead tree nearby.
The packed lunch I had brought with me tasted so good! …I spent an hour or two there on the other side of the river in a state of deep, joyful at-oneness, with self, with the wild world, with the river tumbling by.

I had somehow known that I would not need to go back across the river in the way I’d come across it. Sure enough, when it was time to return, a friend showed up on the other bank, a young strong one who waded out to the middle holding an old pair of Birkenstocks, and said “You can wear these; I don’t care if the current sweeps them away.” She took my hand and together we stumbled safely back across, then through the moose-wood back to our camp.

It may sound as though the river itself was merely the backdrop to this story, but it wasn’t like that in reality. This fast flowing mountain river was a magnificent Being that I will never forget. I had a direct encounter with the awesome power of Wildness that day that I still carry within me years later. In fact crossing that river changed my life. I step out into far more tricky situations these days, not looking back, not second-guessing, just figuring it all out as I go.

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