It takes courage to enjoy life

Derek Franz
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

If life is a river, fear is a waterfall, a place where everything plunges out of sight below a misty horizon and even the air rumbles around you.

The Roaring Fork River was so clear I could see the shadow of my kayak racing over cobbles on the bottom as the glassy water whisked me along. It didn’t seem like I was going very fast until I looked down and saw the colorful rocks flying under me like pavement under bicycle wheels.

Ahead, the flat, swift liquid collided with round granite boulders. My friend Brian was already weaving his kayak through the maw of waves, foam and noise. Somewhere around the bend was Slaughterhouse Falls.

I’d run Slaughterhouse before when I was 17 and the experience plagued my nightmares for years. It was the closest I ever came to drowning.

At the time, I was full of teenage confidence. I had paddled a lot of Class IV and V whitewater by then. The falls were a single move of Class IV and a mere eight feet high. I was not impressed and failed to appreciate the do-or-die nature of the move. (The “do-or-die” intensity varies with the water level, of course.)

Though not a very big drop, what makes Slaughterhouse nasty is that the river is funneled over an under-cut bed of rock. There is also a rib of rock along the bottom that creates a whirlpool. If a boater fails to stay on a jet of current six inches wide while going through the drop, he or she is prone to be sucked beneath the under-cut and recirculated for a while.

The first time I ran Slaughterhouse, I followed my friend and we missed the proper line. We were a foot too far right. I didn’t know it until I crested the drop and saw Michael’s yellow helmet directly under me at the base of the falls. He was upright in his boat but fully submerged as I plunked on top of him.

Round and round, our boats banged together in the hydraulic as if competing for space in a washing machine. My body rag-dolled. I couldn’t tell which way was up. A ceaseless, pounding roar hammered my ears. I couldn’t think. I merely extended my paddle over my head and hoped to catch a deeper current that would pull me out.

BANG. BANG. The plastic boats kept smashing together like bathtub toys until the current finally spit me out. All I remember is rolling up and discovering that I was totally alone. Then Michael’s boat popped to the surface – empty. Then his paddle. At last, his head came up as I was carried downstream.

He told me later that he exited his boat but was still trapped in the waterfall, so he swam down and pushed off the bottom. Even then, the current sucked a neoprene sock off his foot.

After that, I never had the same chutzpah in a kayak. I paddled fewer days on the river every season. I almost forgot the joy of kayaking.

Then I reconnected with Brian, an old buddy from high school. Brian has paddled more Class V waterfalls than I’ve ever seen. He, too, has been humbled since our teen years, but he awakened something in me this season.

My fear of “what if” has grown into my adult life. I even talk myself out of walking through the park on beautiful nights because I imagine so many bad scenarios. I used to walk through the park under stars all the time without the slightest worry.

It’s strange that I’m more afraid of the world now than when I was a budding adolescent. Perhaps adults have seen too many tragedies to enjoy life. Apparently it takes quite a bit of courage for an adult to have fun like he used to. Brian helped me with that.

I followed him through the rapids and tried to emulate his finesse. My old skills came back. I hardly got my face wet. Even better was that I was in control – I didn’t feel like I was going to die. It was fun.

Then we came to the falls. We scouted the drop and I thought about carrying my boat around, but I didn’t want to do that. My fear was the only thing holding me back. It was time to put the monster to bed.

Over the edge I went, holding my breath, completely scared. I lost my balance and flipped.

“No!” my mind screamed.

I was upside down in Slaughterhouse again. The rumbling water encased me in such a familiar way that I panicked and failed to roll up on my first attempt. But I was right where I needed to be.

We ate lunch and took another run down the same rapids.

If life is a river and you’re not in it, you’re not having any fun.

– “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Saturday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Glenwood Springs. He can be reached at

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