May 23, 2018

Lessons From the River, #3: The Many Lessons of a River Trip

As a passenger on a commercial river trip you would not be far wrong to think that what you are about to experience is all about having fun. Sure it is. But it is also (or can be) so much more.

Depending on what you know before you arrive at put-in there are many things you could learn. One of the first may be that this isn’t Disneyland. The boats don’t run on tracks. You don’t return where you started. The beaches were not put there for your specific enjoyment.

If you are more experienced than that, there are still other things you may learn. Whenever I guide, I try to impart some of my knowledge about the native plants, the geology, the local history, and the river itself. I feel like if you’ve left the river without knowing more than when you arrived then I have failed my job as a guide. You should leave it understanding the river more deeply, and appreciating it more fully. A river trip done well is a complete learning experience — both experientially and intellectually.

If things go wrong you may learn that the river is more powerful than you ever imagined. That it can trap and hold a boat a rock like you never imagined was possible. That it can flip a 16-foot boat with seven people in it like it was nothing at all. If you are really astute, you might leave knowing that the river is a force of nature that although it wields the incredible power of gravity it also cares not the slightest bit about you or anything else as it fights its way to the sea. You are neither friend nor foe. It’s as if you don’t even exist. The river may carry you, but it doesn’t care for you. It just is.

And therein is one of the most important lessons of all. Executed properly, we humans are like water striders who skitter across the surface of the water but make not the slightest difference about where the water goes or how. Executed poorly, and we are like detritus caught in weir — pinned where we are by the inexorable force of a body of water that cannot be denied its journey to the sea. Thankfully, we have skill, experience, gear and (one hopes) luck on our side.

By now you probably realize that this is just like life itself. We try to navigate through the time we have on this earth as well as we can given our set of skills, experiences, the gear we can gather, and not a little bit of luck and good timing — or it’s opposite. Whatever we are given by life we have no choice but to deal with it. A river trip, then, is a microcosm in which we can see in real, immediate terms the consequences of bad decisions or the benefits of good ones. Life isn’t always as immediate in its feedback — or as clear. But we struggle on, making our own way to a distant sea where all souls eventually arrive.


Photo: Grand Canyon Collared Lizard, Roy Tennant, courtesy of

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.