By Chris Bates

Amazingly, they escaped unscathed, but both of them could have easily been killed. My brother Scott and our friend Brian encountered the power of a swollen river firsthand. The Bitterroot River, nestled in a high valley of Montana, is breathtaking, although sometimes its beauty conceals a merciless force.

Since childhood, Scott and I have been drawn to the pristine waters of Montana, learning the arts of fly-fishing and river navigation from our uncles. Rowing a Mckenzie river boat down a swift mountain river and casting a fly with precision became second nature to us. Those summers spent along the rivers of western Montana and Oregon instilled in us an appreciation for nature’s majesty and a keen understanding of its dangers.

In years when the water is high due to lots of snowmelt runoff, it changes the way the river looks and feels. It creates splits in the river that look different than they did the prior year. The usually recognizable stumps and islands that are waypoints can be underwater and hard to see. Such was the case this particular year after a winter of record snowfall caused the familiar landmarks to disappear. While the fishing and flies we throw have to be adjusted, so does the extent to which we give priority to potential danger from high and fast water.

Simply put, they made one small wrong navigation decision. With Brian fishing in the front and Scott on the oars, they came around a tight turn without enough distance to pull off of the river just above the trunk of an enormous tree that had fallen and blocked most of the way across.  With big eyes and mere moments of near panic before impact, they had seconds to prepare.  They spun the boat to best take the coming wreck fully on the side, grabbed for the life jackets, dropped down into the bottom of the boat, and hollered “lean downriver!” to each other.

The impact was bone-jarring, and they were both thrown hard into the side of the boat while every piece of equipment slammed onto the floor and hull. The danger was instant and real. A boat at sideways impact to a solid object wants to do one thing immediately – let the strong current suck the upriver side of the hull down and into the water, which instantly floods the boat, flipping it downward into the current underneath and completely losing the battle. If that happened at this point, it would be a total loss of the boat, with both men helplessly pinned against it and the huge tree underwater.

At thousands of cubic feet per second, the force of the river will crush a 16-foot, 400-pound fiberglass Makenzie River boat like a stomped-on Coke can, and it will suck you under with no regard for swimming ability or floatation device. They had seconds to maintain their cool. Both men ignored the instinct to lean away from the huge tree that was about to crush the boat, because any weight upstream would have instantly pulled the top side of the boat under. Instead, they listened to years of river experience and what we had been taught all those years – lean slightly downriver into the blockade.

Their survival depended on split-second decisions. Scott used the upstream oar to stabilize the boat, while Brian positioned himself on the fallen tree, desperately trying to prevent further tipping. In a synchronized effort, they leaped from the boat to the relative safety of the tree, just as the river took the entire vessel under sideways and crushed it, instantly and completely. Only small pieces of debris and other parts of broken equipment began to pop up like corks on the other side. They both described that in the adrenaline-filled chaos of those moments, they had thought of their families and the preciousness of life. They had survived but knew fully the enormous reality of that escape.

Life’s defining moments often come unexpectedly, thrusting us into situations where instinct and survival collide. For me, it was first the battle with addiction, a journey through darkness and despair that reshaped my very being yet opened me up to a spiritual solution. Many years later, life hit again with divorce, other brokenness, and the forced sale of a business that tested my faith and resilience.

Each of us faces our own trials, be it in relationships, careers, or personal struggles. The instinct to fight, to endure, is ingrained within us, yet true resilience lies in surrendering to God. So, what is it that you do when it gets challenging or bad, it’s an emergency, and fear or shame are at a peak? To “lean downriver” goes against every instinct with millions of gallons of water rushing toward you from upriver. We can, if we choose, go against our intuition to use self-reliance, to fight harder, to fix it. The real answer instead is to lean into our Maker fully. The choice to lean downriver may be the thing that saves us.

Romans 12:1-2 tells us, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Right now is the time to lean downriver. Decide to do differently; go against what has felt like the only way, using too much self or worldly reliance for too long. Be willing to step out of the boat into a new way with Christ-centered solutions. It is letting go so that we can move forward.  Pause for a moment, pray, and prepare yourself to lean into being transformed and renewed.

Chris Bates is CEO of AgoraEversole, a full service marketing agency in Jackson, and can be reached at He and his wife, Stacy, live in Madison and have adult children and three grand boys.