A friend of my father whom I have known since I was a child, I’ll call him “M” here, gave me my first safety lesson when I was about 10 years old.
I was standing short and skinny, in 1978, above a Class III river section with a helmet, a life jacket, and a big, black truck tire inner-tube, and he said, jokingly, “Hang on, Kid.”
It was my first run-in with danger, so I took this best friend of my father’s words very seriously.
“If you fall off, remember, keep your feet up, don’t drag them on the rocks, or you could get them caught in a crevasse and be pulled under,” he said. “You will be fine.”
Looking downstream, a gauntlet of waves, eddies and irregular rocks awaited me. Some water-shrouded boulders seemed bigger than our house, but I was determined to go if M assured me I would be fine.
After all, M knew the risks. He was an accomplished white water kayaker.
Back before there was anything labeled an extreme sport, I remember traveling with M as he and my father and others I now call my “second dads” challenged some of the most dangerous rapids in the Adirondack region.
These men once broke a wood strip canoe clean in half on a particularly bad rapid but managed to float to shore wearing their helmets and life jackets. Even their thick, heavy fiberglass kayaks were battle-scarred from past rapids and challenging situations.
Although I did not think of it then, the fact that none of them ever got injured in the extreme risks they took I can now attribute to their respect for safety.
When that group first decided to try white water, they took courses through their local YMCA in Schenectady where they learned the basics. They practiced screw rolling their kayaks in a swimming pool until it became second nature, and when they were ready they didn’t go to the biggest rapid around and put in. They started small and developed their skill and confidence, as well as gained respect for the river and its dangers.
At their pinnacle, I stood in awe, watching from the river bank when they twisted and turned in the foam and boiling eddies. It had taken summers and many weekend trips to manage that moment of risk and walk away, with only great stories.
I feel so very lucky to have had their example growing up – they respected the river and the environment and the communities that supported them, and they respected risk.
But just this week, I learned yet another lesson from my second dads that no matter what you have done in your past, and no matter what odds you beat, a risk is always present.
At a place he had been a hundred times – on a paved bike path near his home on the Mohawk River – where kids bike and where he and his friends go to their weekly canoe club meetings, M was biking with his girlfriend when she went over the river bank and suffered a fatal injury. It happened that quickly, my father told me.
There was no sign of danger; they were out for a casual summer bicycle ride. They were wearing helmets, their bikes were in good condition and the weather was good.
My family’s and friends’ thoughts are with M and his girlfriend’s family. Of course, he is as injured emotionally as if he had crashed himself.
But I think that M would like that I shared his story, with the summer of 2013 ahead of us, and to ask you to always respect safety in all your activities, as he taught me; no matter if you are taking on your first Class V river section or just going out for a lazy bike ride.
Hang on, M.