It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Heraclitus wrote this around 485 BC, when he was roughly my age, living in the city of Ephesus, now modern-day Turkey. His home river, Küçük Menderes or “Little Meander,” generally flows westward and eventually spills into the Aegean Sea. Heraclitus wrote, “Ever-newer waters flow on those who step into the same rivers.” But this only explains half of it, doesn’t it?
Heraclitus’ philosophy is most famous for his insistence on ever-present change as the characteristic feature of the world and man. As in, “And he’s not the same man.”
If you paddle long enough, you will eventually return to some of the same rivers, lakes or coastlines.
“Do you realize, Scott, it’s 25 years since we first started shuttling up and down these roads?” my friend and Paddling Magazine regular photographer Rob Faubert asked me as we pulled onto the broken blacktop bordering the Ottawa River. Except for a couple of photoshoots, I haven’t really been on the Ottawa in a dozen or so years.
Tall rows of corn still grow in the same fields. School buses of clients in the same smelly wetsuits and trailers stacked with the same rafts still hustle to the same put-ins. The rocks and waves are in the same places. I can close my eyes and remember the lines through the rapids, for they are still the same, of course. The trees are taller and the shorelines more trampled, but otherwise, it seems no time has passed. Look, Heraclitus, it feels like the same river and I feel like the same man.
Except in the backseat of my pickup truck were now three teenagers. One of Rob’s. Two of mine. We were here test paddling and getting photos of the new AIRE Cub.
Around the time I first paddled the Ottawa River, I was reading the novel One by Richard Bach, author of The New York Times bestseller, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Bach was on the same dorm room shelves as Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Coming of age hippy stuff.
In One, Bach and his wife come under a spell of quantum physics, and he’s able to fly his airplane into alternative worlds—worlds existing in different incarnations at the same time.
Imagine all possibilities described by quantum theory simultaneously occurring in a multiverse composed of mostly independent parallel universes. Or imagine your life as a spiderweb. Every decision, big or small, taking you down a different strand of the web. Decision after decision, left or right, your life goes one way or another. We only get to experience one. But in One, Bach’s other lives all exist. In his airplane, he can visit his current self at different times and places in the spiderweb of his many co-existing lives. Bach is able to see how life’s small choices work out in ways he’d never expected.
My friend, Dave, found paddling because he choose to smoke pot before it was legal and before he was old enough, even if it was. His parents sent him to summer camp to clean himself up. Fortunately for Dave, the camp had a whitewater kayaking program. He’s since spent every summer on rivers and most of his adult life guiding and traveling around the world… and smoking pot.
Another friend married and chose a corporate career in a glass office tower too far from the rapids where we learned to paddle. He returned to the river last summer, wondering how it’d been so long. His teenage son had never seen his dad solo a canoe. I sent him a dog-eared copy of Bach’s, One. He signed up for a father-son paddling weekend.
While Heraclitus would say the Ottawa is not the same river, and I am not the same man, most of our rivers, lakes and shorelines are still here to be stepped in. They are mostly unchanged. We have all made choices. Change happens. But unlike Heraclitus, I believe the same man exists. The same man exists, not down one of Bach’s spiderweb yes-no decision trees in a parallel quantum universe, but inside me. Inside all of us.
We will never know the outcomes of the decisions we don’t make. But the ones we choose, the ones we live, live inside us forever. The rivers, lakes and oceans we paddle do too. And we can return.
Stepping in the same rivers is not only possible; it feels as good as it ever was. It feels good in this universe or any other parallel universe we may choose to paddle.
Scott MacGregor is the founder and publisher of Paddling Magazine.
This article was first published in Paddling Magazine Issue 62. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or browse the archives here.
“A tiny change today brings us to a dramatically different tomorrow.” —Richard Bach | Photo: Rob Faubert
Your commentary rings true – to a point. I’ve returned to many rivers that were once my playgrounds to find them unchanged and just as enjoyable as they once were – reuniting the same man with the same river. But there are also rivers that have burst their banks and changed their course entirely, creating new rapids never seen by me before, testing me in ways that have long been forgotten but are reborn in the moment also bringing the same emotions and sensations from a different man on a different river – did I react the same way, would I have run the line differently 30 years before?
I think your challenge to Heraclitus is more intune with the multiverse than first meets the eye.
We are all changed in some way but not in all ways. What I have found is that rivers, new or old, take us down known paths that can still lead to different experiences. Thats life – in this universe anyway! I’ve always enjoyed rivers, I always will, they are my life.
“Eventually all things merge into one, and a River runs through it.”