Photography as a Spiritual Pursuit 7: The River

July 01, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Milky Way Along the Grande Ronde River


I am going to make a bit of a departure from my regular musings in this post.  While I am still considering this to be about spirituality and photography it will pertain more to being on the river than the photography that happens there.


For those who don’t know me, I am an avid whitewater rafter, although I have slowed down a bit in my later years and don’t take the chances I used to, however, I still love the river and what it does for me each and every time I raft.

I just finished a wonderful six day trip with my son Jake and some very good friends and it has gotten me to thinking a bit.


It is not by accident that the pioneer Psychologist Carl Jung has equated water, a river, a lake or the ocean with the depths of the psyche. Water has a magical quality and can do wonders within our soul when we give it a chance. Loren Eiseley writes, If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water, and I agree with him. Some of my best spiritual breakthroughs have come while on or close to a river.

Maybe it is a bit more natural for me as the river has always been a part of my life. I grew up in the little town of Coulee Dam on the Colville Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington. The Columbia river ran right through the center of the town. The Grand Coulee Dam pretty much obscured the view in its direction. We lived on the hill and our house overlooked the dam and that enormous spillway.


This was before they added the third powerhouse to the dam which in essence screwed up so much of what made that place special. First of all the huge run over the spillway was no longer happening all spring and summer as the water now went through the new powerhouse.

Second, the government decided that they needed our property and took it. Yeah, that is kind of a thing in the area. I would have never been the same anyway, gone was the magnificent sound of the water crashing hundreds of feet down to the river below. More water than runs over Niagara Falls. It was loud, the ground shook and we loved it. I went to sleep every night listening to that awesome sound.


We fished out of the river and as a kid it was great just to grab a pole and a couple friends and head to the river for some fishing, swimming, building log rafts and floating, it was pretty much heaven. All that is gone now, as is the wonderful beach that we used to have so much fun at. The fishing places along the river below the dam are gone, sure there are others but some were just special.


We lost a lot there and yet there were folks who lost much more when that majestic river was dammed in the first place. My Native American friends lost the river in total. It changed their way of life, the river was the center of it and in the name of progress, it too was taken.


I don’t know the extent of the impact that it had spiritually on those who lived there before and I guess even those who were born after the dam was built but I am sure it was great. I can still feel my loss which is minuscule in comparison.

Yes, I know, I am on a rabbit trail but that is how I write, I go where it takes me just like my photography. I seldom plan anything but try to capture what the earth gives me. I want to hear or feel her voice and do so as a bit of worship to the God who created her and all the rest.


For what is worship without gratitude? Sure, sometimes I get down when I think of what I was forced to give up but then I probably would have moved anyway as for many years that big ole world called and I followed for better or worse.


I have learned over the years that the earth doesn’t forget us even though we may forget her. God is always there and in her, he created something of a pathway to better know Him.  

Our society has gone pretty much cerebral and we have come to think that spirituality is a cerebral thing. The great mystics, however, disagree, too bad they are seldom listened to by church folks anymore, it might change a lot. As an Anglican priest once told me, “The mind is a great servant but a horrid master.” I have always liked that.


Yes, the river can work magic, all by itself with no help from us. The following little story illustrates this quite well. I was there and saw it happen first hand.

A while back when I was working on a degree in psychology, (yes I think education is important, this is not a one-sided approach), we had to do a practical application for a final grade. Some of the people volunteered in their church others worked for a couple of weeks at child services, others found many different things that interested them, I went rafting.


Okay, it was a little more than that but in essence, that is what I did. I saw a little thing in the syllabus saying we could do the practical on something called life enrichment so I pitched my case and got to do it.


I came up with a plan for a father-son rafting trip through a friend’s church and set it up. I got some friends with rafts to volunteer their time and rafts and we planned the trip.


I was asked by the pastor of the church and professors what I was going to do. Was I going to have a special time to study scripture, give a sermon, or what have you? I said nope, we are going to float the river for three days and watch what happens. If you want to read your bible or pray do so. If you feel like preaching ask if someone wants to listen but it will not be required. The only actual requirements will be concerning safety.

When the day came we all piled in our trucks and headed for the river. There was one young man in particular who came. He was a kid who had been picked on and was withdrawn. He came with his uncle as his dad was gone and he lived with his mom.


His hair was long and covered his eyes, no problem with long hair but here he was using it to hide. He would not talk much and when he did he would not make eye contact, he had almost zero confidence.


On the first day, not long after we put in on the river he got to help save a life. He was in a paddle raft with some boys and men when just in front of them a fisherman standing in the river in waders was swept away. The paddle raft was faster than our oar boats and caught up to him as he was going under again and were able to pull him out and get him to shore.

Out my tent doorOut my tent door

Over the course, of the three days he learned to climb rocks and one of the dads took him and some of the kids to the top of the river valley, and it was very high and steep but he made it.


We also got into the middle of a huge fire that was burning along the river and it jumped the river just behind us. It was scary but he took his cues from the guys in his boat and did not get panicky.


He overcame his fear and rafted some pretty big rapids including one where the guide of his raft was thrown out, he helped get him back in. He learned not to give into fear and do what was necessary.

He went up with the kids and jumped off of a high rock into the water overcoming that fear, not because someone made him but because he wanted to. He did all these things he had never done before because he wanted to and he hung out with some great men who showed him that they thought he was worth something.


By the end of the trip he was helping out with all the work, something he did not do in the beginning and he would look each of us in the eye when he talked.


I visited the church a few months later, he was all cleaned up, well in his own style but it was cool and he was there talking with his girlfriend, that was new too, he did not have the courage to approach her before.

This all happened because there were some wonderful men and boys on the trip and because we were on a river and it worked its magic. We could have never planned all that but the river or God through the river had an idea of what was needed.


I know I put off some people when I talk about the river in a way that makes it seem that I think it is alive, well I do in a sense. Heck, even the Bible points to that. “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” Romans 8:19.  Many of the best Greek scholars point out that this gives so many scholars pause, it is in there and thus must be dealt with by anyone who claims to be a Bible believer.


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,

Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

- Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

We live in an utterly magnificent universe created by a God who exceeds all description and yet He himself says his very nature is love.  I have to believe that this love, this creative spirit is touchable in nature as well as internally through the Holy Spirit and for me the river is the place I find it the easiest to do it.


You don't have to be in a raft, (but it helps haha) you can be anywhere but for me, I need the river and God Knows that and has blessed me with the ability to be there when I really need it.


Also, you don’t have to be a Christian or even believe in a god at all to be touched by the river, to be healed in mind and body. It is just that wonderful.


But, don’t go looking for how it will happen or even worse with a preconceived notion of what it will be like, just go and trust. They keep yourself open and you will feel it.



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