Back in the 1980s I was very involved as a volunteer for my local Red Cross. I became an Instructor Trainer in all sorts of areas – CPR, Advanced First Aid, Canoeing – and because of my West Coast mother, the amazing Vinnie Biberdorf, I was able to participate several years in a row in week-long trainings teaching white water safety.

River as Metaphor

It was during these trainings that I learned what a powerful metaphor a river can be. Phrases like, ‘Don’t push the river”, and “You can choose to be a rock or you can choose to be the river going around the rock”, showed up in my therapy practice even after I had stopped running rivers.

The river is always seeking its source (another powerful metaphor). It lets nothing get in the way of reaching the ocean. There isn’t an obstacle it cannot find its way around, over, or through. It just takes time. Since the river is always flowing, it is the very definition of persistence. The only thing that stops a river flowing is a dam, and even that only slows it down.


Water speed changes depending on the amount of water in the river – more water after a storm or less water in a drought. Water flows more slowly in wide spots in the river. In a narrow gorge, it runs faster. The most remembered metaphor here is, “Still waters run deep.”

Rapids can be found in places where there is a change in gradient or where there are obstacles like rocks. They also may form where a river narrows, increasing the speed (flow) of water.

Rapids are ranked in terms of intensity from easy to extreme. Class I (easy) might look like gentle ripples on the surface suggesting shallow water (and a chance of getting stuck on a sand bar). Class II (novice) will have obvious pathways through visible obstacles (for example, rocks) and most beginning paddlers will enjoy a bit of a rush and not be in too great danger if they capsize.

Class III (intermediate) rapids provide more excitement with opportunities for resting in eddies, riding waves, and increased speed (and adrenalin). Paddlers here need to know how to “read” the river and can get into trouble if they are not careful.

Class IV and V rapids are for experienced paddlers. Here the water is turbulent, waves are high, and split second decisions need to be made. Scouting a Class IV and V rapid before entering it is essential in order to anticipate what you might encounter and even then, there is no guarantee you will make it out safely. Only experts with advanced skills should even attempt to run these kinds of rapids.

The Only Way Out

When you are paddling in moving water you need to understand that if your paddle is out of the water, you have no control. Your paddle is your direct connection and communicator with the river. It is a rudder, a steering arm, a brake, and a gas pedal. Your canoe or kayak or raft will go where the river takes you unless your paddle is in the water. And the river is always in charge.

The important lesson here is that once you are in the rapid, the only way out is through. There is no turning back and saying, “Gosh, I made a mistake here!”  You’ve got to keep your paddle in the river and find a way to the other side.

Paddling the COVID River

All of this to say, I find that using a river metaphor is useful in understanding what we have gone through this past year with COVID. Like a river, COVID keeps on till it reaches its end. When there are no more humans to infect, COVID will have found its ocean. And, like a river, we are now seeing how it has meandered around the world, popping up in different spots as it changed course seeking the path of least resistance.

If you were are among the millions infected with COVID as I was, you may have experienced it flowing throughout your body. We are just beginning to understand the long-term effects on those who had mild symptoms, as well as the effects on children and those who were hospitalized and on ventilators.

Taking Precautions

In my years of teaching safety classes, I have always been amazed at how many people are unwilling to take even the most basic safety precautions. On a river, you must have a personal flotation device (PFD). Yet many people don’t wear them. It shouldn’t require having people drown to demonstrate the seriousness of the risk. But in this pandemic, just like running rivers, people are still ignoring the warnings and not wearing masks or keeping up with physical distancing.

Vaccines are like PFDs. They offer protection if you capsize. If you don’t wear one, however (or if you don’t get the shot/shots), you may encounter injury or even death. And, you will need the help of trained experts to get you out of trouble.

As a nation, we certainly have lost too many paddlers, and there will be more to follow, since we still apparently haven’t learned the lessons the river has taught. And this is true for every nation on our planet.

Running the COVID Rapid

David Boswell, 2010

This past year has felt like I was running a Class V COVID rapid. I wish someone had scouted it before we entered. Most of us didn’t have paddles. Those that did had to learn how to use them in new ways and then they had to teach the rest of us.

Most of us weren’t wearing PFDs at the beginning. Now, we see the value of wearing a mask, keeping physical distance, and sheltering in place. What felt awkward at first now feels second nature.

Coming Out of the Rapid

Running a Class V rapid requires intense concentration and effort. Coming out the other side is like that first full breath you take after holding it for a while. It is expansive and relaxing. It allows for celebration. And the river keeps moving.

I got my second vaccination this week. Now it feels as if I am on the other side of this rapid. I can feel my breath deepening.

While it is restful to be in the calm flow of the river for this moment, I know there will be more rapids ahead. With each one, I will gain experience and knowledge about how to navigate. If I can keep my wits about me and keep my paddle in the water, I have confidence that I will be able to get through.