In One’s Element: The Value of Being On the Water


By Robert Smith, Oregon State Parks

I don’t know when it started, young I guess, like most things. My favorite memories always involved water. Vacation often started with a ride on the ferry to Whidbey Island. Then there was grandpa’s house overlooking Puget Sound. Maybe it was fishing trips with my dad to Lake Leland – eating tomato soup warmed on an old Coleman stove. Dad would make sure I was safe and warm and, based on the abundance of tomato soup, would continue to grow. There were smells and sights and sounds that I still remember and that I still seek, because for me it’s part of who I am.

If you really think about it, it’s where your life started – in water. Well, in the womb, suspended in amniotic fluid – safe and warm and growing. You were free to grow safely in what some people call the “Bag of Waters.” That’s as good a reason as any for me to explain why I am still drawn to water. I guess it’s just a way to get back to my roots. Getting back to a time when I was safe and warm and growing.

Think about it, over 70% of the earth is covered by water and your body is up to 60% water and if you want to get really specific your heart and brain are composed of 73% water. It’s starting to make sense, the draw that water has on me.

It is probably those experiences that drew me into the Navy in 1986, once again surrounded by water. This time I wasn’t always safe, I definitely wasn’t always warm, but I sure was growing, and that water had a lot to do with it.

It was during those 10 years that I saw water in a new way. I saw it as a fierce opponent that requires you to be on the top of your game to survive. I saw the results of not respecting water, as they carried a shipmate’s lifeless body from the embassy pool in Kuwait.

That was many years ago, and I think of those days often: when I sit in my drift boat on the Deschutes River; or in a float tube on a high mountain lake; but mostly when I am wading in the fast, cold water of the North Santiam. It is there that the stress of work, the worries of bills, and the bruises of life are soothed. The water carries them away. There are smells and sights and sounds I experience that awaken memories from ferry boats, grandpa’s house, and Lake Leland. They remind me of where I came from and they become part of who I am.

On the water the sound is silence that allows me to think, to contemplate, to pray, or just go blank. There are smells that clear my head and lungs of the toxic air of anger, distrust, and conflict. There are sights that put me in awe of the world and provide hope because of the beauty that surrounds us. But the river does more than carry problems away, it challenges me to be on the top of my game. It reminds me that being safe and warm is nice, but not as important as continuing to grow.

Robert Smith was an E5 in the U.S. Navy serving from 1987-1996. He has been with Oregon State Parks since 2000, which provides him the opportunity to visit some of the most stunning water-related sites in the state. He has been married 28 years and has two children. At this time next year, he will be a grandpa.

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