Drew Neilsen unwinds by piloting a raft through whitewater rapids full of boiling eddies, erratic currents and dangerous rocks.
The Everett city councilman spends about 30 days out of every year rafting Northwest rivers. It's a sport he said helps him manage the pressure of his career as a real estate attorney and his role on the council.
"Being on the river is like a narcotic," he said. "It completely removes all the things I'm worried about -- when I'm thinking about work and City Council and my house needs to be painted. It just puts you in a completely different place where you don't have to think about it."
His favorite sport probably isn't something the general public is aware of.
Nielsen, 60, rarely misses a council meeting. Sitting on the dais, he looks more like a college professor -- with his gray-streaked beard, sports coat and spectacles -- than somebody who routinely shoots Class IV rapids.
Yet he does.
His introduction to the sport began two decades ago when a friend invited him along on a four-day, 40-mile trip along the Rogue River in Oregon.
"I had no clue what I was getting into or what I was doing," he said.
What he was getting into almost killed him.
On day three of the trip, the group was approaching Mule Creek Canyon, a spot where the Rogue narrows through steep canyon walls, the water moving so quickly the rock at water-level is polished to a sheen.
His boat pulled off onto a sandy bar to watch another boat make its way down the rapids. His boat tried to follow its path, but got caught up on outcropping of rock in the middle of the river known as "The Jaws". Suddenly, he was underwater, sucked downward by the force of the water as it rushed over a submerged rock.
He popped to the surface for a moment, choking. The first thing a novice does is shout something and that's exactly what Nielsen did.
"It was an expletive," he said.
He went back under and felt his foot brush the bottom of the river. He surfaced again, choking, and tried to get his body into a recumbent position, feet pointed forward, so he could ride out the whitewater.
He could feel one sandal flapping around and one bare foot, and he thought to himself, "Dammit, those were $50 sandals." Then he worried about his wallet.
He spotted a rock just ahead and, finally, the gravity of the situation set in.
"I thought if I reach that rock, I'll live," he said. "If I miss it, I might die."
He missed it. Then he caught hold of the next rock.
Another rafter in his group swept by and hauled him in.
Despite that experience, Nielsen picked up the sport seriously about 10 years later. That had a lot to do with his wife, Kim, who is an accomplished oarswoman.
They started dating in 1998 and found themselves spending a lot of time together on the water. This summer, they married on the Navajo Bridge over the Grand Canyon at sunset. The next day, they embarked on a 225-mile trip down the Colorado River.
Kim Nielsen said her husband is an "incessant planner" who maps out every possible outcome. He studies guide books and reads personal accounts of how other people handle rapids on the rivers he travels.
"He looks ahead," she said. "He plans what's coming up and prepares. He never goes through a rapid he doesn't know."
She suspects the intellectual puzzle of figuring out a river might be part of the appeal -- that and the scenic beauty punctuated with moments of sheer adrenaline.
"It's an escape from all the things that go on at home, all the phone calls," she said. "It's just a relaxing place to go."
In the past decade, Nielsen has developed enough expertise he's started teaching others. He's taken dozens of other people out on trips. He and his wife now own five boats.
He's also going to be featured in a whitewater rafting calender next month. He's January in the 2012 calendar put out by American Whitewater, a national river advocacy group. In the photo, he's rafting the Green River Gorge. The photo was taken in December 2010.
"I'm on a national calender," he joked. "Everett firefighters, eat your hearts out."
He plans to hang a copy on his fridge.
Debra Smith: 425-339-3197; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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