Quote from Jean Gouldís story "Aamma Didi"
"I know that after this night I will be more whole than I have been. I have the hands of those who cared for me so kindly imprinted on my body, the arms of those who let me lean on them on my descent, and the assurance that nature affirms and clarifies, as well as challenges."
August 21st - late (journal entry)
I canít believe I am finally here! After all these months of imagining what the Outward Bound trip was going to be like, Iím about to be immersed in the experience. The last few weeks have been an excruciating mixture of anticipation and nervousness. Nervousness about my physical and mental ability to survive the 8 days ahead. Imagining grueling hikes through a section of Pisgah National Forest where the U.S. army brought soldiers during the Vietnam War to train them for the rigors of near tropical backcountry. Anticipating canoeing the class two and class three rapids of the Chatooga River Ė the same river where the movie "Deliverance" was filmed. Eight days where every minute is spent out outdoors, sleeping with only the protection of a nylon tarp over your head. Drinking water scrounged from springs and streams and treated with iodine to kill any bacteria that may be present. But mainly anticipating the changes this experience would bring to my life and to my self. For most people who endure an Outward Bound course describe it emphatically as a "life changing experience."
Right now Iím on a wooden platform in a sleeping bag with no pillow. I feel more at home and comfortable here than I ever have anywhere else. Even more than I expected. We are at base camp in what our instructors call an environmental shelter. There is a wooden structure with shelves to store our gear, rafters from which to hang our food and two platforms to sleep on. Nearby is a stream that is our water source, a compost pit and the road that leads up to base camp where our instructors Jody and Raymond are right now, planning the route we will take tomorrow morning when we will be dropped off in the woods.
There are 10 of us, 6 women and 4 men. Our ages vary from 22 to 50 and our physical traits and fitness seems to have just as wide a range. Everyone seems to be asleep, but I am staying awake to savor this moment. I have my head turned toward the outside edge of the shelter so I can see the sky and stars overhead. Itís about 60 degrees and perfectly clear. Among all the thoughts running through my mind right now, ironically the one I am most aware of is almost sadness. I am already reminiscent for a moment that is just beginning. For in only 8 days this experience will be over and I will be a new person. I will have only my memories that I will capture in this journal to allow me to relive it.
Finally on day four I am going to try to explain about the last few days. Wow! How intense this has been! Starting at the airport, they gathered us together in a grassy area in front of the airport and gave us our packs. They (Raymond and Jody) helped us to decide what to take - no deodorant or lotion (it attracts bugs,) no watches, just boots, shoes, pants, shorts, long underwear, and a warm top. A few other necessities were allowed but very few! One person, Brad, had not arrived or called so the itinerary was changed a bit. Finally, we all piled in the van with our packs and duffels strapped on top and drove two hours to base camp. Base camp consisted of a wooden shelter, a compost pit, and a small feeder stream.
That first night was a lot of learning - putting on and adjusting your pack, getting water from the stream and treating it with iodine, making and breaking camp, no impact rules, knot tying and tarp hanging, cooking on methanol stoves and of course, how to go to the bathroom in the woods. The only thing hard (and the first shock) was cleaning up after dinner. After our meal, we talked a long time while our food dried in our bowls. Finally Raymond (whom I had already noticed often cracks some pretty odd jokes) began to demonstrate how to clean our bowls. First, he scraped as much loose with his spoon as he could. Then, he proceeded to lick his bowl until every speck of food was gone. We were all cracking up laughing until we finally realized he was serious! I canít tell you, there is nothing more unpalatable then licking cold, hard dried pasta and tomato sauce (which wasnít really all that good when it was warm) off of a cheap plastic bowl! Then we realized we had 2 crusted cookpots to deal with. After scraping vigorously, we dropped in a handful of dirt and used leaves like a scouring pad. Leaves and dirt went into a bag for compost.
Finally, we brushed our teeth (broadcasting instead of spitting) and went to bed on a perfect night in sleeping bags on a hard wooden platform.
Group Journal entry: Entry in the Group Journal
Today marks the beginning of a huge opportunity. I suppose we all begin this adventure by deciding to be on this OB course. But today, we began the risk taking. Packing our minimalist bags to arrive and wait in the Asheville airport is not as easy as it seems - is it? No - it isnít easy - and now that we are all here, we are going to really face some challenges. We are going to have to go far beyond our perceived limits to discover the solutions.
Through and beyond all of the philosophy, this is a very cool and unique crew. The ages, personalities, interests, goals...Everything about these folks covers quite a spectrum. Everyone brings some interesting and special qualities to this experience. It is going to be exciting to see how this story unfolds. We will be challenged, we will take risks, we will find solutions... and if we learn something from it all...we will be very successful.
On the second day the van came back to carry us to the drop off site for our hike. I should have known we were in for it when our guides had trouble finding the spot! This was the first time an OB crew had been in Cherokee Natíl Forest and the first time R & J had been there as well. The plan was for 3 to 5 mile days, off-trail. We would be following a system of ridges stopping the first night at a river on the other side of Looking Glass Mountain. It sounded easy enough, even with 50-pound packs! Things started pretty good - we were dropped off at a bridge at Big Junction. We climbed over the guardrail and started walking on what looked like a game trail. A gradual slope with easy footing - no problem! After about an hour we started "bush-pushing." We were hiking through areas with little or no discernable trail, following a ridge and a compass bearing (although we didnít know about that yet.) We were often in briars and thorny kudzu over our heads and pushing right through it. We had not gotten our balance with our packs yet - it was very awkward and there were a few falls-not serious and not me, Thank Goodness!
Finally, we stopped for lunch and most of us donned long pants since the briars showed no sign of letting up. We had a compass and topo map lesson and learned how to recognize ridges. Again we set off, reenergized and in high spirits. Going was extremely slow. Cathy, Tasha and I made a premature effort at navigating and were very successful. What a rush to be in the middle of a wilderness that looks like no one has ever been there before. No signs, no paths - and yet you can read the map and see right where you are going. The first time I was leading - trying to stay on a relatively undefined ridge, following a compass bearing that would hopefully lead to a gap with 2 ridges splitting off of it. There would be a steep fall off on one side and a gradual on the other. And during all this navigating youíre trying to find a path through thorny underbrush at least waist high, climbing over and under fallen trees. What a feeling of accomplishment when I was able to find the gap I was looking for and identify all the land features to confirm I was in the right place. It was such a feeling of power - not of overcoming or beating the wilderness but of becoming part of it. To have the strength and the will and the knowledge to be a partner to this incredible mountain. That was definitely one of the high points.
Still, going was slow, we were trying to push on to the river but it was becoming obvious that we werenít going to make it. We decided to "bivvy" on the mountain and head for the river in the morning. The bivvy was a trip! We werenít exactly in the ideal campsite. Waist high brambles everywhere on a descending ridge. We made camp, enjoyed a great dinner and doctored our many cuts and bruises. Everyone was in high spirits and thanking R & J for such a challenging day. This is what we had come for!
I slept in the open air with a view of the sky through the trees. It was quite chilly with the wind on the ridge and it was just wonderful!
Entry in Group Journal
Firsts. Today we truly began our journey - exploring virgin lands as a sort of scouting team for Outward Bound. Some other "firsts" - for many of us this was the first time with a pack on our backs. It was the first time weíd heard of, much less done, a "bush push." We traipsed through briar hell - which prompted Jody to offer these words of wisdom: "Pain is just weakness leaving our bodies." As such, we shed a lot of weakness as indicated through scratches, dried blood but amazingly, no complaints!
It was a first for us to learn orienteering and how to use a compass (even venturing prematurely into map reading.) With our newfound skill and confidence, we located ridges, gaps and more briars plus testy rhododendron groves. k We made camp on a bivvy - a ridge line. It is a beautiful spot, falling off sharply on both sides. We enjoyed a starry night, a calming breeze and the joy of quiet talk and laughter. Our camp circle with us gathered around our pink lady was the perfect end to our first day of firsts - the first of many perfect days to come, I am sure.
-Cathy with a "C" (Cathy Wright)
The next day, (Day 3) was rough. Some people had a hard time sleeping on slanted, rocky slopes and were sore the next morning. Although there was no grumbling, everyone was slow. We all finally gathered around to determine where we were going and set off with one of the studentís leading. The navigation was tough and the terrain actually worse than the day before. We had to stop several time to get our bearing and it was taking forever. I was starting to ration my water a little - nervous about that river not seeming to be getting any closer.
After a mid-morning snack, Raymond found a small water source and decided to replenish our jugs, just in case. Thank God he did, little did we know we wouldnít see water again for over 24 hours. The source was small and it took forever to fill a few bottles. When we got going again and had to stop a few minutes later, people were starting to get a little snappy. Anxiety levels were up and a couple people were starting to have a hard time with their packs. When we finally got on a clearer trail and began to make some time, a storm hit and we had to do a lightening drill. That was actually the high point of that day. I sat on my pack in my shorts and sports bra and just let myself get drenched. I combed out my wet hair with my fingers and just felt wonderfully fresh and clean.
After the storm had passed we pressed on, only to have to stop to scout. I seemed to be the only one stressing about water. We only had 2 crew jugs and some personal bottles full. I was worried, but R & J said it was under control, weíd make the river that night. We finally figured out where we were and decided we just needed to crash through a little valley to get to Rough Ridge, which would take us to Looking Glass Mountain (our intended stopping point for the first night!) The crash ended up being a treacherous exercise in contouring the side of the ridge. This was definitely the most difficult part. Laura was struggling and Tasha and I were helping her. It was so soft and slick and the contour was so steep you were belly up to the mountain pretty much the whole time. Finally Tasha and I split the contents of Lauraís pack adding about 15 pounds to mine. It was stretched to the top about a foot over my head and weighed about 65 pounds. But I was feeling strong - a little scared (mostly water stress) and physically challenged, but I was making it. I never doubted I could do it. Shortly after taking on the extra weight I was trying to scramble across a wet rock and slipped. I fell flat on my face (for the 2nd time that day) and the high part of my pack really banged my head into the rock. It really scared me because I hit so hard and it was terrifying to think about being injured so incredibly far away from anything in such rough terrain. It wasnít until later that I thought about how lucky I was to have turned my face - otherwise I surely would have broken my nose!
Several people rushed to my aid - Raymond crashing across the contour like it was nothing. We were almost to the end and he took my pack from me. As I continued on without my pack I had the first "Outward Bound" experience as I think of it. Part of it was I was experiencing so much danger, I was so thirsty I was licking water off of leaves, and I felt so light without my pack. I think it was raining and I felt such a rush of pure intensive emotion. I was exhilarated, so happy to be here on this awful, horrendous, contour. I experienced a rush of emotion that I have never felt before - itís just too hard to describe. I was so happy and so strong - but I began to cry these choking sobs. I turned to Jody who was behind me and tried to tell him how I felt. You could tell that he understands this, that his is why he does OB. He came to me and tried to help me understand what I was feeling. It was just so intense, but it was good - and yet I was crying so hard I couldnít speak. He said this is what OB is all about - about stripping everything away. I couldnít articulate it then - I said what I was feeling was survival, but I knew when I said it that that wasnít right. I know now what it was - it was freedom I was feeling. Not freedom from work or stress, but freedom from limitations. That is what I need to carry away with me from this trip.
We finally made it off the contour and onto our ridge. The relief was palpable - even by Raymond and Jody who said they hadnít expected it to be so treacherous. All we needed to do now was follow this ridge downhill to the river. It looked like we would make it and I felt a little easier about drinking my water. We followed that ridge a long time. It was well defined but brambly. We made good time until we got to a steep downhill. We knew the river would be at the bottom and we had about an hour and a half of daylight so we were all anxious to go. But the going got rougher and rougher. It was extremely steep and rocky and it was getting dark. Finally, Raymond called a halt and he and Jody scouted ahead. They came back with bad news - the slope got steeper, rocker and there was jungle thick kudzu up ahead. We would have to climb back up the mountain and try to find a bivvy site.
That climb was so hard. In the dark, (we didnít use our headlamps because they steal your night vision and make things worse,) up that steep slippery hill in the drizzling rain. Finally, we found a place that could not be called flat, but we could make it work. We rigged tarps, strapped our backpacks to trees and ate a cold dinner of tuna fish (chosen so we could drink the tuna water.) We then went to bed on a slope that was difficult to stand up on, much less sleep on in a slippery sleeping bag on a plastic ground cloth. We braced a fallen tree across two trees by our feet and kept our feet braced against it all night to keep from sliding down the mountain. Amazingly, as miserable as we all were, we had so much fun falling asleep - acting like teenage girls at a slumber party. We were making up Jeff Foxworthy type jokes. "You know youíre an Outward Bound student if ... you lick your dishes to clean them; ...you know how to dig a square hole (to xxxx in.) There were so many and we were laughing so loud and so hard I swear they could hear us on the next mountain. Finally, Sheryl sang us "Beth" from Kiss and we settled down. Itís amazing how through so much hardship we could still have such a good time.
Waking up the next morning things were not so lighthearted. We at least had caught enough rainwater to make a breakfast of cold cereal and milk, but other than that there was only about a quart or so that 2 or 3 people had hoarded (myself included.) We were keeping that for emergencies. R&J said it looked like water was about 1 mile away but the elevation dropped 1000 feet over that one mile and it was going to be rough going. It was the first time I really felt scared. I wasnít too sore, but my legs were already shaking from exertion and we hadnít even started yet!
It turned out to be not that bad. Most of the slope we took sliding on our butts through the thickest, meanest kudzu we had seen yet. There were several downed trees we had to climb over and the thorny kudzu would wrap around our ankles and packs and we would need someone elseís help to get out. By then, word had gotten out that a few of us had a little water, but we werenít going to drink it until we knew we had more. My mouth was so dry and my tongue felt swollen. But I was still sweating so I knew I wasnít severely dehydrated yet. We came across a stream bed (not the river we were looking for) but it was dry. We had been going what seemed about 2 hours and still couldnít see the bottom. The mood was pretty mixed. On the one hand the slope wasnít as bad as we thought (as long as we stayed on our butts) but I, at least, was not convinced we would find water any time soon. That dry stream bed seemed like a bad sign.
Shortly after that, Raymond called a halt to check for water again and yelled. He had found some! It was so good to have that worry lifted! We drank the rest of our water (we couldnít drink the new water for 30 minutes while the iodine did its job.) I didnít really relax though until about 20 minutes later when we hit the river.
We bathed in the stream and had a huge lunch. It was fantastic.
Group journal entry: Group Journal Entry
Today, we found water. After 2 days of pushing through briars and stinging nettles, of clambering over and under giant trees, and of about 24 hours of wondering, we found a beautiful rushing stream. After drinking my fill of that wonderful, clear, iodine treated water, as we all waded and rejoiced in the water, I waded downstream to a large moss covered rock. As I lay on my back on its cushioned surface, gazing at the sky through the trees, time seemed to stand still, to stop in this one perfect moment. As I savored the feeling of accomplishment and security, I thought of how nice it would be to be able to come back to this one perfect place, to escape from the trials and stresses of "normal life."
So I tried to fix in my mind every detail of that moment, so I could recreate in my mind this perfect place and go there when I needed to. I covered all of the senses - sight: light reflecting through the leafy branches of the trees stretching away from me; sound: the water rushing over the rocks in the river below me; touch: the rounded, cushioned surface of the rock supporting me, a breeze lightly playing through my hair; smell: the rich, healthy cleanness of this mountain air; and even taste: the now familiar, even pleasant aftertaste of iodine.
I know I will come back here again and again to regenerate this feeling of worth - both of myself and of the world around me.
Today is a visit back to civilization. I say a visit, not a return, because even though we are in a place where there is a building, running water, air conditioning and toilets, most of us do not feel as if we belong here. We are doing our service project at Tellico ranger station, trail maintenance. The day began with a short hike to the Tellico trout hatchery where the van would pick us up. I thought there would be excitement at seeing the outside world again, but the mood was subdued. I felt sadness at leaving this world where we were self sufficient. I was reluctant to return to a reliance on gas fueled automobiles and news reports and chlorinated water from a faucet.The backpacking portion was over (although we would still be camping outside it wouldnít be the same as those bivvy sites.)
Once the van arrived, spirits picked up during the short drive to the ranger station. It was so nice to sit in a padded seat! All of us sandwiched into that van was an offense to the nose!
Upon arriving at the ranger station we were given tools and shown what needed to be done on the trail. We removed overhanging branches and deadwood in a three-foot area on both sides. Shored up washed out areas and cleared brambles and poison ivy. (Iím sure this is where I picked up most of my poison ivy.) We were offered cokes and coffee, but I kept on drinking my iodized water. Even using the toilets and washing up with soap in the sinks felt like cheating. Best was the look of the workers and tourists in the station as we walked through - smelly, bloody from scratches and cuts all over our legs and arms, and hair that hadnít been washed or combed in five days. As I looked over some of the souvenirs for sale the clerk watched me like a hawk - she probably thought I was going to steal something! Yet another learning - donít judge people by their appearances.
After we finished our work the chief ranger gave us a tour and told us a little about what they did. I was struck by the dedication these people had for their forests. They are fighting a difficult battle. Answering to the president, funded by congress, reviled by environmentalists and anti-environmentalists alike - they have to keep everyone happy and still find a way to keep our forests whole, all with not enough funding.
We left about 3:00 for a long 3 hour drive to the Chatooga River. On the way there I read a little bit about the river. One of only a few rivers in the country designated as a Wild and Scenic River it is very protected. Only 4 bridges cross its entire length and all other roads must be at least ľ mile away. Camping is allowed only on certain sites and trails are for foot traffic only. It is fed only by rainfall, no dams or pipe systems and it is a huge watershed. For that reason we would not drink from it and brought five-gallon jugs of water instead.
Our campsite was a nice 20-minute hike (with our packs of course.) We saw a pretty garter snake all curled up on a protruding branch and what looked like it could have been bear tracks leading up to one sandy spot on the river.
I was so excited about being there and wanted badly to break away from the group. Five days of constant interaction - all day and all night - was beginning to wear on me. I was glad it was clear that night and I could take my sleeping roll away from the others. No one could understand why I would want to sleep unprotected in the open and I couldnít understand why they insisted on sleeping squished together under an open tarp! It had been a relatively easy day (compared to the last 3) and I lay awake a long time looking at the full moon and listening to the river. I felt so fortunate to be there, pulsing with life and full of anticipation for the days and years ahead of me.
The next morning, Jody went to run the shuttle for the canoes. While he was gone, Raymond talked to us about what he called zones of learning. Raymond said the point of telling us this now was that many people had difficulty (I think his word was get "freaked out") with this part of the course. We would be starting in a flat section of water and learning the strokes and the other skills we would need to navigate the whitewater safely. I remember thinking, "how could a river be farther out of my comfort zone that a mountain ridge in the middle of nowhere, covered with briars and kudzu and no water?!" I was excited about this part of the course and was sure I would skate right through with just some sore shoulders.
After an explanation on the parts of the boat: bow, stern, gunnels, thwarts, and waterline, we chose our gear and got into our canoes with the partners we had chosen that morning. Cathy and I were partnered. We got along well and planned on doing more hiking together so wanted to build the relationship. Other partners were Tasha and Joe, Sheryl and David, Kathy and Chun, and Laura and Mark. We were the only all-girl team, but were very confident.
We first learned the strokes - draw and cross-bow draw for the front (Cathy) and draw, pry, and sweep for the back (me.) It was different that I expected because your donít keep switching sides. The back and front paddle on opposite sides and stay there. The pry, which pulls the boat toward you was easy, but the draw and sweep which pushed the boat away from you was very difficult. Already our patience and compassion was tested as I struggled painfully with left turns (requiring the sweep.) I found myself being uncharacteristically negative as Cathy kept calling for left turns and I kept replying "I canít, I canít!) Finally, Cathy turned around and said "stop saying canít!" I realized she was right and got help from Raymond on fixing up my technique to figure out what I was doing wrong. Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a two-day, long lesson in dealing with frustration. One, which I now realize, is probably the most valuable lesson I have taken away with me.
A snack break and a fun lesson in tipping your canoe and recovering your gear restored my spirits. At about 10:00 we set off downriver on the beginning of our journey. We went through our first Class one (very minor) rapid - not with grace but at least upright. It seemed fast and exhilarating and the steering was beginning to feel a little instinctive. With a little thought I could send us in the direction Cathy was yelling back to me.
We did more class ones without any mishaps when we came to our first class two - War Woman. We eddyíd out and beached the canoe to learn how to scout a rapid. Still clad in our life jackets and helmets we climbed to a precarious perch on the on the rocks and surveyed our first real rapid. It was loud and fast and rocky. There was only one real route to take requiring a straight shot through two rocks and a slight right turn in the middle. The power of the rapid was intimidating, but id didnít look too difficult - it looked like the water would automatically carry you where you would want to go.
One team went in front of us and although we couldnít see them it sounded like they made it through. As we waited in an eddy before the rapid my heart was really pounding. I remarked about how good this must be for your body - this adrenaline rush that heightens all your senses. Finally we got the go signal and headed in. The beginning was just as I expected we were sucked into the vee of water between the two rocks. Then Cathy yelled "Right" and I pried to turn the bow to the right. The rush of water pushed against the canoe causing it to tilt and quick as that, over we went! Cathy and I came up sputtering and called to each other to make sure the other was o.k. I still had my paddle but the boat was long gone. We assumed the swimming positing - feet downstream and toes sticking out of the water to avoid getting hung on rocks and rushed the rapid (butt banging rocks the whole way) until we were clear of the rocks and Jody called out to swim. We then rolled over and swam across the current for all we were worth. It was so much fun!! We both said it was probably more fun to swim through it than paddle through it. It was a good thing we felt that way since that is what we would be doing through most of the rapids!
The rest of the rapids that day kind of all jumble together. We did finally make it through a class two later in the day without tipping, but we were definitely tipping a lot more that the other teams. Normally, Iím such a competitive person that this would really have bothered me, but in this case, it really didnít. J and R had emphasized many times that we werenít here to learn whitewater canoeing, but to learn through whitewater canoeing. I didnít really think I was learning that much. I was frustrated, still having a lot of difficulty with left turns and my arms and shoulders were getting tired. I did feel I was letting Cathy down, but knew I was doing my best and Cathy seemed to be having just as much fun as I was. We felt part of our problem was that Cathy (who is heavier than me) was in the front, but didnít want to switch without giving Cathy an opportunity to practice the stern position on some flat water.
We came to our last rapid - "The Fickle Finger of Fate" late in the day, about 6:00. It is normally a class 3 but was running about a 2 Ĺ because of the water level. It is a two stage rapid. The first, more difficult part of the rapid entails hugging very close to a concave rock on the left - the Fickle Finger. To be able to make the sharp S turn through the first stage, you have to stay as close as possible to the Fickle Finger. After the S turn is about a 2-foot drop that flows out of the rapid. Legend has it (according to R & J) that if you get close enough to touch the rock you will be granted 1 wish. If you get close enough to kiss the Fickle Finger you are awarded 3 wishes. As R & J demonstrated the rapid Jody turned and kissed the rock twice - someone commented they like to keep their teeth so they wouldnít try that.
The rapid, the fastest, most difficult of the day, got my tired heart beating again. We had made it through the last rapid, which had bolstered my flagging confidence. I steered us so close to the Fickle Finger that we rubbed against it and I closed my eyes and kissed it. One heartbeat later I saw the line and pried, then did a sweep while Cathy did a cross-bow draw. We made it through the S and both yelled with exuberance as we went over the 2-foot drop. We had done it and done it well! Then we went over the drop and lost our balance at the bottom. Before we could brace, we were flipped. We were in a long narrow chute that we couldnít swim out of so we had to be thrown a rope and dragged in. Cathy and I both laughed at our stolen victory.
After a short, thankfully uneventful paddle to our camp, Cathy and I switched places and practiced our new positions for about 30 minutes while Raymond went to drive the shuttle for our packs. As tired as we were, we practiced hard. Our first rapid the next morning was within earshot and would be our first class 3 - the Narrows.
Our last full day of OB started cloudy and cool. As we all got back into our still wet clothes, Raymond commented "Hell has nothing to do with fire and brimstone - itís having nothing to wear but wet clothes on a cold morning!"
I had no enthusiasm this morning. Yesterday had been fun but I had had enough. I was tired of the responsibility and constant failure (or at least what I perceived as failure) in the stern position, but didnít have faith that Cathy would be able to handle a class 3 with so little practice. Also, I was depressed that our trip was almost over. Already the pull of civilization was being felt. We knew we would sleep at base camp that night, no longer in even the tamed wilderness by the river. People were speculating about the next morning and were anticipating a return of some comforts. Personally, I felt no desire for any of those comforts - no need to do much more than wash the grime from my hair. I didnít want this trip to end, especially on a river trip that I couldnít quite seem to manage well.
Raymond took us out to practice in some flat water before taking off, to "work out some of the rust." There was a lot of bickering and frustration and Raymond lectured us very sternly about it. It was the first time he had been short with us and it seemed to have its effect. Cathy and I were working well together and both agreed that the comments couldnít have been toward us. We then walked upstream to a small rapid to practice catching the rope. All the rapids today would be too fast to swim out of so ropes would be required. Cathy and I were excused from practice due to our vast swimming and roping experience from yesterday.
Back on shore before setting off I felt much better than I had that morning. Practice had gone well and we had regained a small measure of confidence. I noticed Raymond pulling a few people to the side individually and assumed they were getting pep talks on attitude. I was so chagrined when he called me aside too! He said I seemed frustrated, was I okay? I told him I was having some trouble feeling very enthusiastic this morning, but that I was feeling better since the practice. He said he could hear it in my voice, and that it was important to stay positive. To remember that itís not the skills that are important, but what you learn while practicing the skills. He was very gentle, not accusing at all, but still I felt the way I did in 3rd grade the first time I was spanked by my favorite teacher! I was crushed. When we set off downriver I was trying to be positive, but I was very shaky and tears were already close.
Scouting the Narrows, I tried to pay attention but just couldnít seem to focus. I couldnít see the line and just couldnít quite seem to care. I felt anxious and worried and just wanted to curl up on a warm rock and sleep. Still, I went through the motions, knowing from experience that sometimes pretending can help make it happen (at least more so that just giving up.)
Itís true that action can cure fear. We went through the Narrows, a 3 stage rapid, without getting wet. We negotiated the first stage like pros but go grounded hard on a rock when we couldnít make a sharp right turn. (Cathy paddles on the opposite side as I do in the back so she was having the same problem with rights as I had with lefts.) Still we managed to push off and finish the first stage of rapid facing backwards, but upright. Graceful it wasnít but we were dry! We then eddyíd out to scout the second stage where this rapid gets its name. The entire river narrows to about a 4-foot section - the speed and power are intense. This time we made it through the narrow section, but flipped right after. Still, this would be the most technical rapid of our trip and we felt we had made a good showing. Confidence resurged - maybe today would be our day on the river!
As soon as youíre feeling good, the river seems to have a way of knocking you back down. What followed next was a long stretch of low, rocky river. It was so incredibly frustrating to paddle a few feet, get stuck, about kill yourself trying to climb over slippery rocks with a 40-ton canoe, only to paddle a few more feet and get stuck again. Cathy and I were both missing the left kneepad in our boat and we were in excruciating pain. I had also scraped my knee on a rock the day before and was openly bleeding from kneeling in grit. Even more frustrating was seeing the instructors get through the obstacles without hardly a scrape. No matter how hard I tried to follow their lead we still got stuck
By this time, Cathy and I had made a pact not to take personally the snarling and snapping we did at each other and it was a good thing. We may not have been the best canoeing partners as far as skill went, but we really made a great team. We vented our frustrations freely, but were still able to laugh together and there never were any hurt feelings - something I doubt any of the other teams could say. At one point I was so tired, and in so much pain from knees and hands that when we grounded again I just sat there for a moment in disgust. Jody was close in front of me and said sharply "Shannon, youíre letting it happen!" I thought that was an incredibly unfair thing to say! First off, how was it that just I was letting it happen? Cathy was in the boat too! Secondly, if there was some way to stop this constant torture, didnít he think I would have? I retorted back in total frustration - "I donít know what else to do!" Jody, obviously equally frustrated, just replied back slowly, "Yes you do, problem solve." - and left. It was at this point, at 2:00 in the afternoon with no lunch in my belly, frustration at an all time high, and confidence at an all time low that we approached Second Ledge.
Second Ledge is a very simple but very formidable class 3 rapid. It requires a sort of C shaped approach to a waterfall with an 8-foot drop. I had seen this done on Discovery Kids and knew the canoe more or less goes airborne before tipping over the drop. Excellent balance and bracing skills are required to stay upright on landing.
Already in tears of frustration I joined the end of the group in scouting the rapid. Raymond explained that we could chose not to take the rapid but he strongly encouraged us to. As Jody explained the line all I could think of was that I really did NOT want to do this. I couldnít exactly say why. I wasnít afraid of tipping, or getting hurt, I was just absolutely miserable and did not want to go through this torture any longer. Jody saw how much trouble I was having and came to ask me if I was okay. I found I couldnít talk and was having trouble breathing. I could only take in air in these deep convulsive breaths. I guess I was hyperventilating, but it only added to my frustration and embarrassment and my overall misery. I unbuckled my life jacket and sat down while Jody quietly talked me down. I can only remember one other time in my life, even in my childhood where I let down my guard and let somebody help me. I always fell this need to be so self-reliant.
During the backpacking part of the trip I had experienced a twinge of need for the reassurance of Raymondís expertise when we were short on water and not sure of where we were. Even then, I learned the value of recognizing that I had that need, that I wasnít truly self-reliant, at least emotionally, but still I did not reveal my need, only took what support I could without it being noticed by the person giving it.
Now here on this rock, having this anxiety attack, I truly felt how badly I needed this emotional support. Jody just satthere, sometimes telling me to take a deep breath, but mainly just sat there. When I finally leaned against him and felt his arm support me - it was amazing how I could feel his strength, almost like something tangible flowing into me. Finally, I could breathe normally and start to think straight again. I knew that not doing this rapid would be the true failure. Jody left me to mull is over as he climbed out on a rock to assist the teams in making sure they went over the falls straight.
Cathy and I talked it through as we watched others go over. Neither of us really wanted to do it but knew that this was the moment of truth. Jody kept looking back over at me, and finally I gave him a thumbs-up. The grin on his face alone made it all worthwhile - and I now knew I would do it. I could not let him down any more than I could let my partner or myself down. Later he told me that Cathy and I going over Second Ledge was a high point in the course for him. It is amazing how a man of just 26 can have such a store of strength and the compassion to use it wisely.
Itís true that the most difficult part of any feat is deciding to do it. Once the decision was made I immediately began to feel better. True, my hands were shaking and now Cathy was crying, but Jody was grinning like a kid and rolling his eyes in sympathy when we had to wait for the team at the bottom to clear. Finally, we paddled hard at the falls and I heard Jody and rest of the team cheering as we went over. It seemed like we had good speed, and at first I thought we would make it. I braced hard when we landed, but in the blink of an eye we were flipped! Raymond threw us a rope and my first words on reaching shore were "I want to do it again!" What a rush!
The rest of the day went great. I felt so emotionally drained after charge of Second Ledge, but that actually seemed to help with my paddling. I quietly soaked in a sun-warmed pool during lunch. With all the emotions drained away I could think a little more objectively about my earlier frustrations in the rocks. I could finally see that the frustration itself was the obstacle - not the rocks themselves. As we continued downriver, I stopped fighting the river and instead tried to feel it. When we did get grounded I used it as an opportunity to take a close up look at the water and tried to plan out the best path instead of disgustedly getting off the rock and barreling on. In hindsight it seems so obvious, but the emotions and frustrations had been making it impossible for me to function rationally. Yet another lesson learned!
Little by little my confidence increased. Not the false jumps I had attained earlier by being lucky enough to stay upright through a rapid, but the hard earned confidence of diligent work and learning new skills. I began to be able to see paths through the rocks that were invisible before. To be able to judge from a distance if there was enough water to hold us and anticipate what the river would do next. My biggest feeling of accomplishment the entire trip was when I called a direction to Cathy and she said "Shannon, I canít see the line, but if you say left, by God Iím going left!" We were truly functioning as a team, one bound by trust and tears.
There were no more major rapids that day, just some very technical class twos, which we ran with style and grace. I even sometimes chose my own line instead of following the instructors. Sometimes my line was wrong, but sometimes it was okay, and once even better than the line Raymond had taken.
It was a grueling, exhaustive day both physically and emotionally and we were all glad to reach the takeout point. But it wasnít over yet - the canoes had to be carried Ĺ mile to the vans, uphill. We tried every way we could to carry those canoes. Sheryl amazed me by flipping it upside down and portaging it with the thwart across her neck while Kathy and I carried the ends to take some of the weight off her shoulders. She is truly amazing. We passed 6 people carrying one boat that had to keep stopping to rest. We made it to the top and went back down for more - Sheryl making 3 trips in all. When we were finally in the van and ready to go, it was 8:00. We hadnít had dinner yet and we had over an hour drive ahead of us.
Returning to base camp was like coming home. We had come full circle, and here we were battered and bruised, but without a doubt stronger and healthier than when we started. While some people started cooking - soup ala everything left over, the rest of us separated group gear and personal gear and sorted it in preparation for clean up tomorrow morning.
Our last dinner circle was pretty bedraggled, but we were able to say with pride that we did have the perfect camp. We rejoiced to learn that we wouldnít have to clean up our dishes that night - we could do it in the morning. We finally turned in after midnight. Cathy, Sheryl and I foregoing the wooden platforms for a final night on a sloping hill under the stars.
It was 5 hours later that we dragged ourselves from our sleeping bags for the last time. Gear was collected, counted and scrubbed. Packs were brushed and disinfected and hung neatly on pegs. We did not lose or damage any gear except one water bottle (mine) which was washed away in a rapid.
After everything was deissued we went up to Base camp for the first time for a fresh hot breakfast. Basecamp and the almost communal lifestyle there enchanted me. There was one main house with kitchen, living area, and a wonderful porch. Group restrooms were nearby. Scattered throughout the rest of camp were cabins where the staff lived and a store where they sold OB T-shirts, books and gear to raise money for grants and scholarships. The atmosphere contained such a sense of fulfillment and strength at that moment. Borne of accomplishment and hard work, I knew that this was a place where I could belong - where I could not only fit in, but I could thrive. A place where I could heal myself and others and where I could make a difference. It was with sadness that I laughed and rejoiced my way throughout the rest of the morning. I joked and laughed at the showers (a rush of icy cold stream water from a sluice built about a quarter mile from camp.) I joined in the astonished remarks about how different everyone looked clean, and was my usual efficient self - organizing the effort of sharing everyoneís addresses and phone numbers. But through all the fun and laughter I felt oddly detached. Almost despairing that I could finally reach this spot, this perfect combination of place and self that I had been working toward for my entire life. That I was finally here, but would have to leave and try to find someway to take this with me. To maintain this balance, this center of spirit through all that would come.
I hugged Raymond and Jody goodbye, thinking how lucky they were to be able to have such a profound affect on peopleís lives. What a great team they made - sensible and strong, wise far beyond their years and living their life to the fullest. A perfect example of what can be achieved simply by living your life honestly and never compromising your beliefs. "To serve, to strive, and not to yield. May I someday walk again in their footsteps."