I would have been less confident of who I was seeing if Michael Jordan was getting out of his Mercedes with a Bulls #23 jersey on and 6 championship rings gleaming in the sun.

After a successful race day experience in Boston at the marathon, I thought why not give another race a try. Again using Volunteer Match (it is becoming my go to), I found an opportunity. The key to volunteering on short notice off of volunteer match is writing your quick response, then calling when they give you the contact information. I learned that one from my Mom…she always favored getting someone on the phone. In this case, it was easily the better option. In no time I was on the phone with Meg, the race director for the Run of the Charles, discussing the volunteer options for the day. The Run of the Charles is put on by the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) and is the largest flat bottom boat race in New England. It highlights the importance of how water quality improvements and clean-up efforts during the past few decades have transformed the formerly-filthy Charles (even the subject of a song called “Dirty Water“) into a remarkable city recreation area.

Of course, where Meg needed the most help was at Bemis Dam just after the biggest rapids of the race. The task? Helping those who ended up in the water after those rapids. In what seems to now officially be a trend in my community service opportunities, I was asked about my experience with the required task and yet again had to admit virtually no experience. Volunteered with the race before? Nope. Safety training background? Nope. Water survival skills? I’m pretty good at drinking it! That has to help right…

The urban river looks very clean today.

Unlike some of my previous opportunities though, I chose no sarcasm. You are probably thinking I’ve really turned a corner. Not likely. The reason behind my lack of sarcasm: genuine concern this time about being qualified for the position. Mostly about being accountable for others’ lives! This was a big responsibility. Meg could sense the concern and reassured me that EMT would be on site and that I WOULD NOT be responsible for saving lives. Now, I was questioning my Mom’s advice. It surely would have been nice to have that guarantee in an email. Despite this, easily the most reassuring line of the conversation was when she told me I would be working with John. Why so reassuring? John had been pulling people out of the water at Bemis Dam for 30 years! I’m in. Now confident that John would show me the ropes (literally and figuratively), I signed up for Bemis Dam.

Pushing away from Cape Cod (and the chickens), I headed for the river on a beautiful Sunday. I had déjà vu as I got off on the same exit as I had for the marathon. As I approached the river, I looked for a sign pointing me to Bemis Dam. There was no sign. At least not the typical road sign. On my second pass over the river I caught a glimpse of the “sign” that I was in the right place. A man in a full wetsuit, classic bucket hat and water shoes was getting out of his car. I would have been less confident of who I was seeing if Michael Jordan was getting out of his Mercedes with a Bulls #23 jersey on and 6 championship rings gleaming in the sun. There was no doubt this was John. I circled around once more and pulled in the lot. Asking more for John’s sake than my own if he was in fact John, he said yes. I introduced myself as his volunteer help for the day. John was also technically a volunteer, but let’s be honest. I stepped out of the car with basketball shorts and Nike’s on…there was little doubt who was the leader.

Tried to strike an official John pose…doesn’t work as well in the gym shorts.

I asked John what I needed to wear…clearly feeling under dressed at this point. That being said, one of the perks to life on the road was my entire closet sitting feet from me as I asked the question. John’s response: “You got a hat?” Yup. “You got sunglasses?” Yup. “You got sunscreen?” Yup. “Should be good.” How about that? For once, I was responding with a series of yes answers. Granted, I did buy the sunscreen on the way (learning from my mistake at the marathon), but just maybe I was going to make it in this volunteering world after all. We headed down to the river as John pointed out the poison ivy along the way. His attempt to kill it out the previous year had helped, but had not been 100% successful. We prepared the area where we would pull boats in by trimming down some of the branches and shrubs. John tied up 3 ropes to the trees to have ready to pull tipped boaters to shore.

After surveying the rapids, I felt much better about my role for the day. My nerves had built the rapids up to waterfalls in my mind. That being said, I tried my hand at a few rope throws to prepare myself for the start of the race. As the first few boaters came through, John told me we wouldn’t have much action today. The river was far lower than usual and they hadn’t had rain in days, so it was moving pretty slow. We did have an early flip, but they gathered themselves on the shore on the opposite side of the bridge. We ran up the slope and crossed the bridge. As we cut through traffic in our yellow vests, John commented that this would be the most dangerous part of the day. Peering over the side, the kayaker looked to be in control and had found some footing along the bank. With no easy access down, we waited until he was about to push off and hurried back across in case they found more trouble and flipped again.

Not as bad as the waterfalls I had envisioned.

It would be quite some time before we had any more action. I was mostly cheering folks on like I had at the marathon. Finally, we got the radio call that we had a flipped canoe heading our way. I readied the rope until I saw them come out from under the bridge. As John had taught me with a big yell of “ROPE COMING OVERHEAD,” I tossed it out. In midair, I thought it might actually hit the first racer in the head, but it landed perfectly next to him across the flipped canoe. I struggled some pulling him in and thought my Nike’s were going to slip and force me in to the water, but I managed to get them to shore. John had hopped in the water by this point and we helped them flip the canoe and get them both back in the boat.

That would be our only tip of the day. Numerous canoe partners pointed at us saying that was where they flipped the previous year. The amateur radio operator had also worked last year and said there were at least 7 flips. Although I was happy for the riders, I also enjoyed the action of helping someone get their boat flipped back over. I felt bad, but a part of me did wish more folks ended up in the water.

Even a dog made it comfortably through the rapids on this day.

Although the day wasn’t filled with action, it was filled with stories. John told stories from the race. He cited the path to our left as where he would come back if someone’s canoe or kayak got away from them and he had to swim after it. He HAD done this before. I shared the stories of my travels and he shared how he had hiked the Appalachian Trail on his own in ’97. I got website advice from the radio operator and petsitting advice from his significant other and their puppy (who had painted toenails!). We were four people (and a pug) at very different points in life sharing a spot on the river for a day and lessons for a lifetime. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

At some point during our talks, John admitted he had flipped on the rapids at this very spot once when trying the course with his brother. After 30 years, John had probably helped over 200 people get their boats flipped back over at Bemis Dam, but even he was once in their shoes. It was a refreshing thought and one that will stick with me. In life, everyone will find themselves flipped over, feeling helpless, and scrambling for solid ground at one time or another. Righting yourself on your own is not always the easiest and you may be in need of a rope from overhead. When the rope comes, thank them and remember to always have your rope ready. You never know when you may find yourself yelling, ROPE COMING OVERHEAD!