“The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.”
This quote is attached to a photograph that hangs on the wall in my office, a photo of my husband and me floating down the Klamath River in our yellow Sotar , with our kids paddling in an IK behind us.
It’s a picture I treasure and stare at often.
I love the Klamath. I love the way it sounds. I love the way it smells. I love the way it feels when I bathe in it at the end of a long hot day. I love the memories it holds. I can not separate who I am today from that river. It was the place that molded me, that opened my heart to truly know there is a God.
The Klamath River runs like blood through my veins. It was the first river I ever rafted. I was 15 years old. Our youth pastor convinced an old college buddy, who lived near the Klamath, to take our church youth group down the river for a five day trip. With my brother, and twenty something other high schoolers from LA, we made the 15 hour drive up to the Klamath River. We piled into a bunch of rafts, some patched and barely holding air, with unseasoned raft guides and we experienced a river, and our lives were never ever the same.
Our youth group came up again the next summer. That ragtag group of guides and some newer rafts officially became a company, Adventure Whitewater. I asked the owner, Gene, after my second summer trip if I could come guide for him when I finished high school. That would be several years away, seemed like forever. But he said, “Sure!” I don’t think he realized how serious I was....after I graduated I went up to work for him and I spent the next couple summers living the dream.
What could be a better summer job? Living in the great outdoors for months, no need for clothing (a couple bathing suits, shorts, and a pair of tevas do the trick!), a sleeping bag and pad were my home and I got to do it all with my best friend and others who became dear friends.
Every week was an adventure. Though the river became more familiar, the groups that came were new and our river “tales” fell on fresh ears. We got good at the storytelling, so good that sometimes we even started believing them.
My dad always encouraged me to keep a journal, and I am glad I listened to him. Reading them now takes me right back. My favorite chapter in my river novel is the one where the Klamath gave me my soulmate, Joey. Some say their knight in shining armor showed up on a white horse. Mine showed up on a red achilles raft, with tan skin, blue eyes, and the warmest smile my heart has ever known.
The next two summers were spent working the river together, 24/7. Sometimes when we didn’t have a trip, we babysat our boss’s 3 boys, cutest darned kids you ever did see. What a perfect place to get to know someone. What you see is what you get... no makeup, no cute clothes, sometimes no deodorant. We got to see the best and worst in each other, physically and emotionally. I remember stealing away at night, after the campers were turning in, and we were done with our responsibilities. We would lay our sleeping bags out next to each other’s, stare up at the stars and talk about all kinds of things we dreamed of, the song of the river accompanying those dreams. After two years of dating, my knight asked if I would marry him and the plans for our future unfolded. We talked of having children and taking them rafting, raising them to love and appreciate rivers and nature and what God has to teach us through them.
I would imagine little tan blond haired kids playing on the river’s edge in the sand, riding the rapids in their life jackets, and tucking them into their bags under the stars at night.
Several years later, that dream came true. We brought Michael (4) and Katie (2) to our “heaven on earth”, the Klamath River. We made our base camp at Cottage Grove, which is now owned by Adventure Whitewater and called Paradise Point. The rafting below Cottage Grove was class II, so a good place to start the little ones. Katie was our little “go getter”, willing to try anything. She climbed immediately into the raft with her dad as she clutched to her dollie. Michael, on the other hand, was quite hesitant and informed us he was not planning on getting in the raft. We told him he needed to get in or he would have to stay on the beach alone for the rest of the day while we rafted without him. Of course, that would have been one of those promises that parents make every now and again that we knew we couldn’t keep. But Michael didn’t know that. He jumped into the raft and, after the first small rapid around the bend, he was taken by the Klamath. Both kids were.... just as I had been as a teenager.
For the rest of our summers raising the kids we brought them up to the Klamath, slowly introducing them to the bigger rapids, cliff jumping and the amazing hike to Ukonom Falls. Our dear friends with their two boys also joined us year after year.
There is no vacation that can compare with a week on the river, especially these days when we are now so “connected” ALL THE TIME to technology. On the river it’s you and your family, and God, the water, the sun, the wildlife, the wind, and yes...sometimes the rain, but no other THING to distract us from appreciating the fullness of God’s creation. I wouldn’t trade one day we spent on the river with Katie and Michael for anything else, EVER!
And the beat goes on..... Michael and Katie now guide for Adventure Whitewater, the same company Joey and I guided for 27 years ago. And remember my boss’s kids, “the cutest darned kids you ever did see”? Well, they are our kids’ bosses now. And our kids are making their own memories, with their own special friends, on the very first river they paddled. And yes, the Klamath River runs like blood through their veins too.
- Judy Tomkiewicz (AWW Guide in the 1980's)