Control and Other Illusions: Lessons From the Amur River

Written by KEEN Ambassador Amber Valenti

Smoke stacks, concrete, and cranes etched out a skyline amidst the wildness of Siberia. It could have been a dream at that early hour, with strange sunlight just seeping out from behind a high rise. I kicked some cigarette butts and broken glass out of my way. The water smelled faintly like sewage. I tied down my final deck bag and carefully placed the last of my things in their well-thought out places. It’s my ritual when I feel terrified. I control what I can. I organize. I fuss. I fuss some more. I re-arrange until I feel I have adequately disillusioned myself into some semblance of control. Of security.

What a funny concept–Control. It became clear very early on in this adventure to travel the 4,400 kilometer free-flowing Amur river, that control need only be relinquished. And that security was a delicate and fleeting illusion. As our team of 4 women made final preparations to leap into the wildness of the Far East Becca’s wonderful partner Zach exited this existence unexpectedly one sunny sunday afternoon, my own relationship of the last few years dissolved in a rush of letting go and paradigm shifts, and the unknowns that lay across the pacific became greater instead of lessening. We went anyways. Not because we are brave or courageous. But because sometimes you just know. And you put one foot in front of the other.

As we worked our way across a continent through the unknown and unexpected we did not gain more control over our fate. It was just the opposite. We sunk in–despite all the resistance that welled up every day. We sunk in to this experience of living. To what lies beyond the illusion of security.  We allowed ourselves to become a part of something, of THAT thing, that is so much bigger than any of us or our fragile paradigms. We stood on our heads with our nomadic companions in a perfect meadow of wildflowers. We galloped dirty faced ponies through gentle rolling mountains. We cried soft, slow tears of healing day by day. We faced obstacles and fears with the subtle, quiet strength of the feminine. We gave firm handshakes and a steady gaze to stern uniformed men toting guns. For a brief moment in time we became a part of the perfect clear, cold waters of the sacred upper Onon River. We roused our worn thin bodies day after day, in a vigilant act of daily endurance.  We felt impossibly small as monsoon storms raged across a massive braided river and tossed us around like toy boats. We feigned confidence until we really felt it. We laughed. Hard. Like there was nothing else in the world to do. We fell apart. We got lost. And we found our way. Our journey was no more courageous or incredible than any other journey. But it was ours. And we took it.

Recalling that first day we put on the lower Amur river in the industrial effluent of the city of Khabarovsk I remember the worried face of a Russian man as he yelled down at our departing boats in choppy English “But you have no security.” The fear pulsed through me, welling up hot and thick in my chest. I denied this truth with all I had just to make it through that terrifying day. But he was right. Things are not as they seem. This life has no rules. No constants.  Rivers channels flow upstream sometimes and Russian Military officers kindly teach you Russian on a long train ride. Security is only a fantasy that helps us sleep at night.

But in the brief moments where we can actually fathom and believe in the transience of absolutely everything there is so much freedom. We no longer have to fear pain, struggle, depth, lightness, loss, love, a shitty job, or a treacherous storm. Because none of this will last. And we can finally relax into this experience of living knowing that we are not in control.