After delivering a keynote address on risk and choice at a Laurentian University kinesiology conference, my host walked out to join me on stage and presented me with a penny. Standing center stage in front of an audience of professors and practitioners, I found myself completely confused.
He promptly asked for the penny back and, in return, gave me an elegant, custom-built, long-bladed knife wrapped in a handmade birch bark sheath. The gift was beautiful. The penny exchange was very strange.
I learned later that in many cultures around the world there is a tradition, or superstition, about the giving and receiving of knives.
A knife as a gift brings with it the symbolic risk of severing a friendship on the knife’s sharp edge. The same tradition says trading as little as a penny for a knife brings good luck and assures one will never cut oneself on the blade.
How the river gives us things money can’t buy
For paddlers, knives can be a key piece of personal protective equipment and guides who spend long seasons out on the river know it’s a certainty that at some point their knife will be dropped and lost forever.
What is less certain is what the river will offer in exchange.
I lost one knife at the tail of Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River as I was rigging an outboard motor to plow our raft barge across Lake Powell. Adjusting the idle screw on the waterlogged outboard motor, my knife slipped from my black oily fingers and sunk out of sight. The engine fired to life the very next pull and the trip proceeded as planned.
In my first season as a raft guide, I got my feet tangled in my flipped raft’s bowline. I impressed myself by calmly unzipping a pocket, flipping open a hinge-blade and sawing my feet free of the rope, all while underwater and being dragged downstream. When I surfaced, I had to decide between climbing aboard the overturned raft and keeping my knife in my hand.
“The truth I’ve realized is that rivers are true to tradition—my knives were not lost but accepted in an exchange.”
Another knife of mine plopped into the Middle Fork of the Salmon as the rookie guide who borrowed it to adjust his oars at the put-in gapped the hand-off. Mortified, he turned pale as we watched the knife flutter in the swift current, then bounce along the bottom and out of sight in the crystal clear mountain stream. I laughed. We became fast friends and worked together for the next three years.
A penny for a knife; a knife for a richer life
In total, I’ve lost six knives to the river, each time cursing an unholy sentiment while calculating how much of my daily wage would go towards replacing it. The truth I’ve realized is that rivers are true to tradition—my knives were not lost but accepted in an exchange.
In return, the river has given me things that coins cannot buy. My knives were traded for good fortune, for friendships and for life itself.
A friendship never to sever. | Feature photo: Ryan Creary