I was shocked to read about John Mullen's death in a kayaking accident in West Virginia [obituaries, July 25].

I boated with John and watched him gain strength and confidence in his abilities in the past several years. And while I was not on the Tygart River with him when he died, having run that waterfall, I can picture how it must have looked for him as he lined up for the drop: the unrelenting roar; the smooth fast waves approaching an edge of water that vanishes, with tree tops visible far downstream; and, below the waterfall, the whirlpool with its deadly turbulence. The moment of reckoning lies in the decision to boat it or walk it.

I've been kayaking in dangerous places for almost 30 years. John Mullen is not the first friend I've lost, but he is the most recent. All I can say is that in the end what matters is not how we die but how we live.

One evening last spring, John and I were the only two kayakers at a rapid below Great Falls we call Rocky Island. The big standing waves there can be surfed with carving turns and cutbacks. At that point the Potomac River is probably 100 yards wide, with sheer rock walls on both sides and no evidence of humanity in sight.

On that night a storm came down the river, but we stayed on the water. Why worry about rain? We are kayakers; we want to be wet.

We saw lightning in the distance, but on we stayed. Then a greenish light glowed through the bottom of the clouds, and the river that I thought I had seen through all its moods became something I could never have imagined. John and I stopped surfing and watched. We talked about the rare and beautiful sight we beheld and felt humbled. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the storm abated. The clouds lifted and a majestic golden light filled the sky.

I remember John remarking about the beauty of our surroundings and the beauty of our act. I remember his reverence and his joy. I remember how he paddled. I remember how he lived.

MIKE McCORMICK

Bethesda