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Overcoming a 23-year-old ghost …

Gary (in Gilligan cap) and I (in Yankee cap) attack the river with the help of our guide, Emily McMillan.
Gary (in Gilligan cap) and I (in Yankee cap) attack the river with the help of our guide, Emily McMillan.

This is the story of a haunting that refused to go away.

Twenty three years ago, in the summer of 1994, I went white water rafting with a gaggle of colleagues from The (Nashville) Tennessean. I was 22 at the time—fresh out of college, cocky as a morning rooster and itching for adrenaline. So we drove the 3 1/2 hours to Ducktown, Tennessee, home of the Ocoee River and soon-to-be home of the canoe slalom venue for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Without the two-straight days of nonstop rain, the river was tough. With the precipitation, it was intense. We were warned so much beforehand. A guide said, literally, “This will be really rocky today. But if we’re careful, it should be fun.”

I boarded a raft with seven others. We went, oh, 300 yards down the Ocoee. Then we hit an enormous rock, and the vessel flipped. Suddenly, I found myself all alone, flying down the river backward, my legs slamming into rocks, water pouring into my mouth. When I finally grabbed hold onto some earth, then found my way back to the shore, I felt as if I were shocked by 100,000 volts of power. I screamed at the guide in ways I’d rarely screamed at another person. “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING! JESUS FUCKING …”

He instructed everyone to return to the boat. The seven colleagues got back in. I did not. “Hell no!” I said. “No way! I’m walking back!”

So I did. As the others continued their journey, I trudged to the headquarters and waited. I was wet and furious and frustrated. When, three hours later, I met up with my colleagues, they were—to a man and woman—giddy with euphoria. The ride was amazing! Powerful! Dazzling! I, on the other hand, felt like a fool.

I told myself I would never participate in white water rafting again.

•••

It is 2017. Two days ago. I am in Whitefish, Montana with my longtime friend, Gary Miller. We’ve spent three days hiking Glacier National Park, and now we’re looking for something to do on our final full afternoon.

Gary knows of my misadventures with rafting, so he (kindly) suggests other ideas.

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe I need to give it another go.”

Why? Honestly, because I’ve always been haunted. Not by the tip-over and not by the rocks slamming into my legs, but by the surrender. By the meekness. What sort of person gives in after one bad trip? What sort of person resigns himself to a lifetime of non-participation? What sort of father shows his children it’s OK to be cowardly?

Sooooo … yes. Gary calls Great Northern and signs us up for white water rafting down the Flathead River. We arrive, and there are five people on the raft. Me, Gary, a lovely couple from Seattle and Emily McMillan, a ridiculously joyful 24-year-old first-year guide. We’re handed life vests, blue jackets (it’s chilly) and paddles. I’m nervous. We’re given some basic instructions. I’m nervous. We’re told what to do and what not to do. I’m nervous.

Then we’re off.

And I love it.

I.

Love.

It.

Admittedly, this was no Ocoee. The rapids were pretty light, the water level not too high. But a guy has to walk before he can run—and this was a blissful walk. The first rapids made me nervous. The second, third, fourth fifth made me excited. I wanted them to be bigger and faster and more powerful. I wanted in on the action I missed for 23 years.

Am I ready for another run down the Ocoee after a rain storm? Eh, probably not.

Will I do this again? Most definitely.

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