“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”

-John O’Donohue

Whitewater Rafting on the Trinity River…

Our raft rushed toward the edge of a waterfall, carried inexorably on a white froth of icy snowmelt. A rock wall loomed to our left. A boulder garden offered devastation to the right. The only way forward was over a five-foot waterfall and into the churning maw of Hells Hole. “Go! Go! Go! Paddle hard,” yelled our guide, Glenn Hoxie, over the roar.

Photo by Irene Salter

We crested the lip, and several things happened at once. There was a moment of weightlessness, then a sudden plunge like the first drop of a rollercoaster. My husband flew out of the boat and disappeared into the depths. A high-pitched shriek echoed across the gorge as several of us screamed like little girls, myself included.

Welcome to whitewater rafting on the Trinity River.

Let’s back paddle a bit.

It was September 2020 and time for Chrysalis Charter School’s annual all-school rafting trip. But this was smack dab in the heart of the pandemic. Despite most local schools being open to in-person instruction, the rafting trip was canceled for the first time in 20 years alongside so many other long-standing traditions.

I felt sad. Isolated. Lonely. Just like so many others throughout the pandemic.
Loneliness kills. For adults like me, loneliness is worse than obesity or smoking half a pack a day, increasing your chances of dying by 26 percent. For young people like my elementary and teenaged children, loneliness increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety and suicide.

Photo by Irene Salter

The longest-running research study on happiness and wellbeing ever done came to a single, simple, profound conclusion: Good relationships are the key to health and happiness. Before the pandemic, my kids’ best friends and their parents would gather at my house every Friday to play Dungeons and Dragons, eat french fries, and chill out at the end of a long week. We hadn’t been able to do that for months. The most important thing I could do for me and my family’s health was get creative and nurture the good relationships in my life despite the pandemic. So I called up Hoxie to see if we could arrange a private rafting adventure since the school trip was canceled.

“No problem. How does Saturday sound?”

As our cars pulled up to the headquarters of Trinity River Rafting, my heart grew three sizes with the realization that we were all together in one place for the first time. Suiting up with matching helmets, life jackets and paddles reinforced our unity.

Us. Together. Finally.

Photo by Irene Salter

Soon, we were floating down the Trinity River collecting wet and wild adventures. Once our raft got hung up on a rock in the appropriately named Pinball rapids, requiring a combination of pushing and shifting our collective weight to get free. One of the dads got thrown from our raft several times and earned himself a gold medal for swimming. At one point, two girls were huddled on the bottom of the raft like puppies, one shivering, the other patting her back. Other times, the two little ones were figureheads dangling off the prow of our very own pirate ship. Several of us braved the 15-foot leap into a deep, quiet pool. In a meandering section of river called the Otter’s Playground, kids and adults leapt into the frigid water to float past rocks that time and water sculpted into elaborate artworks.

And what about Hell Hole? We all survived. (As has everyone who’s ever booked a commercial raft trip on the Trinity River, thanks to all the amazing river guides!)

Much to his horror, my husband initially surfaced under the raft with a layer of blue rubber between him and breathable air. My own panic rose as the first few seconds passed. But he quickly washed out into the open and was pulled safely back into the boat. We paddled into an eddy and hugged on each other while watching the other rafts plunge over the precipice towards Hell.

Stress is a natural part of life. There are rocks to get stuck on. Turbulent rapids. Moments of panic. Rich or poor, young or old, the stresses of life take a heavy toll on the body and mind when navigated alone.

Photo by Irene Salter

Good relationships protect us, make us happier and help us thrive: spouses, children, parents, teachers, friends, extended family, kind neighbors, church communities, officemates, book groups, volunteer teams, gym buddies, great schools, service clubs. There’s something about successfully navigating tumultuous waters together that strengthens relationships like steel in a forge. Whether Hell Hole or COVID or the Carr Fire, treasured companions in your raft offer that much-needed hug when you’re pulled dripping and shivering from the water.

A river runs through us, collectively, as friends and as a community. And that is a very good thing. •

Trinity River Rafting
31021 Highway 299, Big Bar
(530) 623-3033

Article Written By:

Local leadership coach, author and PhD neuroscientist Irene Salter has chaired university departments, led schools, designed exhibits and guided nonprofit boards. Now she uses science to help leaders thrive, not just survive. Learn more about her writing, women’s leadership retreat, mastermind groups and individual coaching at

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