I love summer. I love swimming when it’s hot. I love the smell and feel of the water. I love to see calm glass-like water with native brookies rising. I prefer the warmer fresh water over ocean water. Life is, and should be, good. Yet, for as long as I can remember, I’ve had this love-hate relationship with water, in particular, when it comes to recreating in it. I have a long history of training to dislike water, and especially rivers. As a child it seems that when there was a tragedy, it involved rivers. I heard story after story about the Kennebec River, which legend says to claim at least one person each year. A family of three moved to our neighborhood after she and her husband lost two of three boys, who fell through the thin ice on the Kennebec. My other neighbor’s grandfather was a victim of the Kennebec after he was swept off the dam while working in Skowhegan. A father and son drowned in the Kennebec river one spring, and teens are said to have drowned while swimming “the ledges”, a strictly forbidden spot on the Sandy River, and rafters have died on the Dead River. Perhaps these tragic stories were told by my parents as an attempt to teach us a healthy respect for the rivers, or to voice their own fears because neither of my parents were swimmers; however whatever the reason, it’s had a lasting and negative effect on me as an adult.
So without question, the Kennebec River was totally off limits to recreating, and since we didn’t have a pool, if we wanted any type of relief from the heat, we ventured to the local swimming hole on the Sandy River. The waters were controlled by a dam; sometimes the river was high, and sometimes not. Each year, the river changed due to the spring floods, so we never knew what we’d encounter for depth and current. I struggled crossing the river to our swimming hole, but once there, I loved it. Once I was in my safe spot, I swam, but I never swam where the older kids did because I was afraid of being carried away by the current. It didn’t help that despite my belief I was a good swimmer, I have never been a strong swimmer. Taking free swimming lessons in Smithfield offered through the Red Cross meant two weeks a year to learn how to swim. It also meant facing my inherent fear of deep water when we were forced to dive off the float. I finally passed Beginner’s level just before junior high…and I never went back. My parents eventually put in a giant in-ground pool which meant no more trips to the river. Having a pool provided me an escape from my fear of the river, but it never erased it.
My fear transformed into the mother who was always making sure there were life jackets involved in anything water related. Even though the legal age requirement for kids to wear a life jacket is 12 years old, I always told my kids 16 years old. Hey, it worked for me. I worried seeing my oldest son swim too far from the boat despite the fact that he was on the water every day working for a marina, had his captain’s license, and loves whitewater kayaking. While my husband and older son choose not to wear one, I refuse to swim outside of the boat without a life jacket, and I always wear my life jacket in the canoe. I’m there to have a good time, and I’m not about to let a little water hold me back!
As my love for hunting and fishing grew, it spurred this desire to try all kinds of adventures. I had never been whitewater rafting but had always wanted to try it, but at the same time I was scared out of my mind. When we finally were given the opportunity to whitewater raft the Kennebec, I was pretty excited and I can even say I had a good time during the actual rafting of the rapids.
At the end of the ride, the river flows softer, and many rafters got out and floated alongside the rafts. Oh joy! The photos don’t tell the story of my being convinced to get out of the raft and swim along side of it. My helmet was too big and kept falling over my eyes. The current was stronger than I thought. I could barely move in the water, which was paralyzingly cold even though I had a wetsuit on. When I got my bearings, my son was floating away and I panicked to grab him. Although I thought he was struggling, he swears he wasn’t. This story has only added fuel to the hazing I take from my oldest son regarding my fear of water. Once he was safely back in the raft, and I was hauled aboard, I somehow felt like a failure right then. Looking back, I now know that I had taken a big step towards my fear of river water. I still hope to go back again for a “do over” with a more positive outcome.
Even though I didn’t have the best experience, I did challenge myself and that’s a motto that I’ve been trying to live by every time I do something new. I enjoy pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I take each time I do something and make it a challenge. I actually get in the water on the Dead River, Sandy River and Carrabassett while I fly fish. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be able to catch all the wonderful fish I’ve caught. I don’t wear a life jacket because where I go, the water is only about waist deep and I know my limits. Unlike the boys, I have no intentions of taking an unplanned swim. With proper waders, boots and my hiking stick, I have been able to navigate the river and fish, and that’s what I love most. I still face my fear of river water every time I step in the river, but it’s a healthy one. I still plan to fly fish the Kennebec River this summer, and I’ll let you know how that goes. In the meantime, get out there. Be safe, be smart, and challenge yourself!