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On the Alsek river, nearing the end of a two-week trip that started in the Yukon.
On the Alsek river, nearing the end of a two-week trip that started in the Yukon.

River journeys: Bet you can't emerge unchanged Add to ...

River journeys differ from all other wilderness undertakings in one defining manner: You don't finish at the same place you start. After scrambling up a mountain, one descends. Hiking takes us "out and back." We bike in circles. Trails, generally, return to the trailhead. But a river trip is different. You end up somewhere new, and that physical journey often reflects - whether intended or not - a matching inner voyage.

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Quite simply, river trips are about change.

It all starts with the coiling of the bowline and a hearty heave-ho, the gravel beneath the hull releases, and you are adrift. New wonders leap into sight around each bend. Critters wander the shores and gravel floodplains, frequently unaware of the passing flotilla. Birds wheel inquisitively overhead. Mountains (or molehills perhaps) rise on the horizon, crowd against the banks, and then fade over your shoulder. All the while - whether spinning, bobbing, paddling or resting - you are borne onward by an ageless and irresistible force: flowing water.

The first thing a newcomer to the river notes is the narrowing of focus, the sense of isolation that descends. Banks hem in every waterway on the planet. Whether soaring canyon walls or gentle grass swales, these serve to obscure the world beyond, riveting the paddlers to the immediate: riffles, rocks, companions, sounds, tumbling clouds. Scramble up out of the gulch, and you may find clear-cuts, factories or pastures, but back at water level, the world of the paddler remains defiantly wild.

The gentle bobbing of any floating craft will eventually induce a trance. Still waters run deep, they say, and so do the tranquil moments of a river journey. The finesse of a perfectly placed j-stroke, the blade never breaking the surface, lest drips break the silent spell. Standing cruciform, head thrown back and mouth wide during warm summer downpours. Unplanned naps. Sandy beaches. Silent canyons.

And, of course, there's the occasional sphincter-shrinking, teeth-chattering capsize.

With night come Dutch-oven meals, driftwood fires and the passing of a scotch-filled Nalgene. Such carefree joys are rivalled, in my estimation, only by the surfing life, whose culture was built upon the same bedrock of freedom.

Hours, days or, if you are lucky, months after taking to the river, you eddy out for the last time, drag the boats ashore and de-rig. You have arrived somewhere new. Somewhere deeper, inside. Despite having spent the better part of two decades on rivers, I still can't say where the transformative power of a river journey comes from, but I have sensed it time and again, in myself and in companions. Sometimes the changes are huge, a commitment to a new way of living, departure from a job, strengthening a relationship. Often it's a renewed respect for simple pleasures. No one steps off the river unchanged.

It was philosopher Lau Tzu who famously noted the paradoxical nature of water, soft and yielding yet able to carve through even the most stubborn rock. It is these subtle etchings, changes that remain long after the gear has been rinsed and put away, that bring paddlers back for more, again and again.

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