“We don’t meet people by accident. Each and every person that crosses our path does so for a reason.” –
I’ve never been a believer in the deterministic universe, that everything happens for a reason, but sometimes it’s hard to dismiss.
When Columbia announced that our #OmniTen trip would be on the Rogue River I laughed. I’ve only been on the Rogue a couple of times since my dad passed away but when I was younger we did regular trips down the Rogue and I know the river well. Columbia was going to take us to my old stomping grounds and I knew it would be emotional for me.
Then the fires started.
The fires closed down the river. Some friends of mine put in on the last day they allowed anyone on the river and they pushed to get off the river as soon as possible because parts of the valley were so choked with smoke you couldn’t breathe. This was 2 weeks before our trip and every report estimated the river would be closed for at least 3 weeks as fire crews struggled to get the Big Windy fire under control. Columbia was scrambling to come up with plan B.
Several days before we were to converge on Oregon for our adventure, the word got out that the river was going to open back up. Plan A was back on schedule and we would be floating the Rogue. At the same time, this meant a scramble for the outfitter, Rogue Wilderness Adventures, to grab some last minute guides for the trip. Aaron DeSilva was one of those guides, setting our paths on a collision course.
I wasn’t planning to be on Aaron’s raft. I had intended to grab a spot on the other boat, but ultimately ended up in Aaron’s crew and as others traded spots throughout the trip I stayed put.
Aaron is a local guy and grew up running the Rogue, and other rivers, with his dad. Even though I moved away from the area to pursue a career, we shared similar stories. We both grew up playing in the larger than life shadows of adventurous fathers, learning to live a life of actions not talk. We both grew up on the river, developing an appreciation and respect for the river and the outdoors. We both developed close friendships with our fathers in our adult lives, something that doesn’t seem to happen as often as it should.
So when I found out that Aaron had lost his father I understood, all too well, what kind of impact that had. It was later, when I accidentally walked across him having a private moment with the river, that I started feeling that our meeting was intentional. Walking back from the river’s edge he smiled and shared that he was scattering a handful of his father’s ashes in the water, something he had been doing on all his trips since losing his dad. This hit home hard and I mentioned that I had done the same with my father.
This was right above Blossom Bar, one of the most technical runs we would deal with on the three day trip. Blossom can be tricky, and if you don’t nail it the consequences can be severe. Aaron had been looking for his good luck charm, the Bald Eagle, all day. He was nerved up as we float toward Blossom. Only a couple hundred yards away from the top of the rapid he spotted a Bald Eagle resting in tree leaning out from the canyon wall. We quietly floated past, Aaron never took his eyes off the bird and it returned his gaze until we had passed it by. Aaron’s mood changed, nerves seemed gone and Blossom went by without incident. Good luck charm indeed.
Later that afternoon we ended our river trip and piled into the shuttle vans. Everyone randomly grabbed a seat and Aaron and I ended up in the same vehicle. Due to road closures because of the fire, we had to take the long way back to Grants Pass which meant a long detour south into California…right along 197 and the Smith River. This had already been an emotional trip for me, but it was going to get worse. Not only would we be driving right by my parents’ old house, but the accident that took my dad happened along highway 197.
An eight year old scab was quickly torn open as we drove along 197. Knowing Aaron would understand I mentioned what I was feeling and shared the significance of where we were. It was then that I learned just how raw and recent things were for Aaron. While I had lost my dad almost 9 years ago, he had lost his only 9 months ago. It came together, Aaron is the same age I was when I lost my dad and the closeness of their relationship had left him adrift. No one understood the depth of what he had lost and he couldn’t communicate it even to his wife. And here I was, eight years ahead of his position and understanding exactly what he was going through.
We had an emotional exchange as we drove along 197, the rest of the bus quietly gave us the space to talk (either out of respect of awkwardness). I offered understanding, I offered advice, but most importantly I offered proof of the healing nature of time. Strangely enough, this exchange brought me a measure of closure. I really, really hope it brought Aaron a measure of relief as well. I remember that first year and I would have given anything for some true understanding. It was a very lonely time.
The Rogue River was fantastic and Columbia puts on a hell of trip. Rogue Wilderness Adventures and their guides do a bang up job providing way more comfort than most of us are used to outdoors. And having Ninkasi Brewing along was some seriously tasty icing on the cake. All in all an unforgettable trip with some really genuine and amazing people.
After the trip I received a message from Aaron, he had found me on Facebook and reached out. He had found some of the articles I had written about my early adventures with my dad. He mentioned he had enjoyed our talk and asked if I had written more stories about my dad, so I sent him some links. I told him that writing had eventually helped me work through some of the loss. For Aaron, the river is where he finds peace.
In chatting back and forth after the trip I learned a lot. His father, Tom, had been running the Rogue River since the 70s. Everything Aaron knows about rafting and the history of the Rogue (which is extensive) he learned from his dad. They also shared a love of flying and sky diving. Aaron’s description of his dad reminded me of my own, “The rogue is one of his favorite places in the world. On day two you could always find him sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of mule creek with his feet in the water and a cold one in his hand. My dad was always my best friend, father, mentor, roommate, coach and most of all my true hero.”
Blossom Bar in particular holds a lot of significance, and dusting the river with his father’s ashes upstream of the rapid Aaron had been looking for guidance. I’ve done the same thing myself. Aaron and his father, with their love of flying, have always told each other that if they came back they would want to come back as a bird. Aaron looks for a Bald Eagle on every trip now, thinking of it as his father watching out for him. To Aaron it was no coincidence that the Bald Eagle appeared as we approached Blossom Bar and he felt the strong, reassuring gaze of his father that morning.
Hopefully I’ll get to see Aaron again one of these days, maybe share another trip on our favorite river. But I can’t shake the feeling that so many events came together for us to cross paths. I just can’t help but think it was not an accident. Even if we never cross paths again, we connected at a pivotal time that made big ripples in our own little ponds.
Well played, Universe….well played…