In 1998 my good friend George died. He had battled cystic fibrosis and the complications that come with it since he was one year old. In his 30’s, already past his life expectancy, he became an accomplished whitewater kayaker. That is how we met. We taught kayaking together for several years but particularly enjoyed going paddling together. Our favorite stretch of river was Chamberlin falls on the North Fork of the American river.
The north fork is the epitome of perfect California Whitewater. It is free flowing. If the snow is not melting or a warm storm is not lashing the Sierra then there is no water. The beauty is fleeting. To be there and see it one must be committed to a grueling hike or be ready to paddle Class IV whitewater.
When the north fork is at its best, is on a sunny day in the spring when California Poppies line the walls of the canyon against an emerald green of buds of new oak leaves bursting into the spring air. The water, when it comes out of the shadows, is crystal clear to the point that the white gray, and golden boulders and cobble stones can be seen in the deepest of water. The rapids are pool drop, low waterfalls backed up by jumbles of house sized boulders. The water drops over the cleavages between gray rocks in deep green tongues that fall into snowy white foam piles. The eddies are blown glass in shades of blue and green.
George and I would return time after time to run the North Fork. We went when it was snowing and the water was steely gray and snow gathered on the rocks. We sipped hot chocolate from thermoses at take out while running the car heater on full blast. We went when it was sunny and warm and ate sandwiches while sitting up on the canyon side in a field of poppies. We discussed our runs through the rapids on end, analyzing every stroke and laughing at ourselves for being whitewater nerds. It seemed that we’d agree that every trip we did, was the best trip we ever did. We would marvel at how lucky we were that we could be there, playing in that sacred playground.
I always knew that he was sickly and that something was wrong, but I never asked. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it. I knew he would when he was ready. About a week before he died, George called me from his hospital room to explain that he’d know that he’d had cystic fibrosis all his life. He asked me to explain to all of our friends why he had not talked about his illness in life. He didn’t want to dwell on the negative. He wanted to live life for the day. Then we said goodbye.
I learned a lot from George. He was passionate about what he did. Teaching kayaking was a passion for him. He truly wanted the best for his students. He loved his community and friends but refused to deal with people that “raised his blood pressure.” He always had a good attitude; even when he would spend weeks in the hospital fighting infections, or at home for months at a time recovering from illness. We would talk on the phone for hours about everything.
When he died, a few of his closest friends, and I paddled the North Fork in his memory. It was one of classic beautiful days. That was ten years ago.
In 2008 while I lay in a hospital bed, contemplating my life to date, I often thought of the north fork and how being there was a highlight of an otherwise extrodinary and fortunate life. I would also think of George and the suffering he experienced with courage, dignity and a positive outlook. Both of those thoughts gave me strength to fight, for my life, for the future of my family and for the outside, ever so faint hope, that one day I might return to that special place. Honestly, at the low point of my battle with cancer, I never thought that I would ever, in this life, have another chance to feel the cool waters of the North Fork lift the hull of my boat. That seemed too much to ask for a man battling for his life.
Yesterday Beth, one of my oldest and dearest paddling friends, and I paddled the North Fork. It was the same place the rocks were just imperceptibly smoother. The day was hot and the water shone like liquid jewels. The rapids distracted us from our daily trials and tribulations and the water soothed our souls. We both decided that we were incredibly lucky to be there and that it was a perfect day on the river.