In 2012, I was working at a hotel in Glacier National Park when a man I’d just met invited me for a day of tubing and drinking beer on the river. Little did I know, I would nearly drown in the rapids.
But this story doesn’t begin in the water.
This story begins at Many Glacier Hotel the night before the start of the summer season.
The employees, most of us new to each other, new to Glacier, gathered in a basement theater space typically reserved for a folk singer who performed songs about mountaineering.
A seasoned National Park Service ranger stood before us in the usual wide-brimmed hat and stiff green trousers.
“Glacier National Park is dangerous,” she said. “And every year, there are fatalities. Climbing accidents, deadly encounters with animals. Some of you have experience in nature. Some of you are new to it. Either way, statistically, one of you will die this summer.”
Perhaps it was the growing darkness outside, the perfectly triangular silhouette of Grinnell Point above the mirrored surface of Swiftcurrent Lake, or the forest, thick with night, but her words sounded like a campfire story. We listened, but we did not believe.
Instead, we thought of the cold beers we’d later share on the porch outside the employee dorms, tomorrow’s hike to Iceberg Lake, the beds in the hotel that needed linens, linens for guests who were on their way to this sacred corner of Montana.
I’m not going to die this summer, I thought the next day in the employee dining room, dousing a plate of rubbery scrambled eggs with hot sauce. I was young. It was my first season in the park.
I’d seen the group of veteran Glacier employees headed for foreboding black cliffs with their helmets, headlamps, and worn copies of A Climber’s Guide to Glacier National Park. I wasn’t going to do anything like that. At least not yet.
An hour later, I stood on the bank of the Swiftcurrent River, barefoot in a bikini, inflating a cheap plastic inner tube.
“It’ll be mellow,” Luke* said over the thrum of the water. Like me, he was a server at the hotel restaurant. He handed me a warm can of beer and we made our way down the berm, sat on our tubes, and pushed ourselves into the water.
The river was swollen with alpine runoff. Clear and cold enough to drink big gulps. He was right at first; it was mellow.
The water tugged us along steadily, then slowed, picked up the pace, slowed again. Like the ride at a water park I’d loved as a kid, or the game I’d played in neighborhood pools where we’d move in big circles to create a current. Mellow.
Halfway through my beer, the trickle mutated into a torrent. Suddenly, the river roared as it curved through the valley. It forked. Luke went one way; I went another.
It became a force bigger than me, a surge of water pouring over downed trees that sliced my arms and legs, poked holes in my pathetic yellow tube which began to deflate, deflate, deflate. The muddy riverbank was out of reach. I sank.
The current tossed me from my tube. I held onto the handle of the sinking vessel, my entire body underwater except for my fingers, the bones of my shins hitting every rock on the riverbed, downed tree branches stabbing my ribs, my lungs filling with water as I gasped for air and was denied.
The river was in charge now, I realized, and though I fought it as long as I could, my veins electric with fear, I kept swallowing water, choking on it, until I was breathing more water than air, until my legs were bruised and useless, until my grip began to loosen on what was left of the inner tube.
And then my head went heavy, my vision went dark. The rushing river in my ears became a song guiding me toward the unknown.
Let go, the river said.
A sense of peace. A flood of euphoria. A joy I’d never felt before, have never felt since.
Okay, I thought.