The first day of the trip I took it easy, reclining on the gear raft watching the kayakers. “I want to learn how they do it by watching,” I explained, a slight fib. Really I was just scared. On the second day I summoned the nerve and clambered into my own kayak (or “duckie” as they called them). We set out immediately ahead of a rapid.
Left, right, left, right, I paddled toward the quickly approaching rapid. Two new friends were headed for a steep drop over a rock ledge. “Help us!” one called. I barely knew how to steer, and bumped into their double kayak, accidentally (but luckily) pushing them into an eddy and safety. And immediately plunged over the waterfall myself, into the swirling frenzy of the rapid.
“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” I yelled, digging in, pointing the tip of my kayak perpendicular to the waves. Water crashed and foamed, tilting my little boat crazily, but I paddled madly and sailed out into smooth current to find a bald eagle perched overhead, solemnly observing my escapade.
I’d done it. And the rush of energy and relief was intoxicating. What else could I do? I hiked formidable trails – with a great deal of trepidation, but I did it. I flung myself off high rocks into swirling water – again, scared silly, but determined not to go home wishing I’d done more. And I climbed a rope to contemplate, trembling, a daunting plummet down a natural water slide. There was no other way down. I shot down the slide, splashing into the clear, dark pool, then popped up like an otter, laughing my head off.
I even swam a “wave train,” an experience surely similar to waterboarding. Pitching myself overboard into a class 3 rapid with just my lifejacket and helmet, I swept downstream, indeed as if I were on a train. A thundering train that held my head underwater and choked me. Barely clinging to this side of full-fledged panic, I told myself I couldn’t drown in the short distance of the rapid. “Just hang on,” I thought. “You can get through this.” And I did. Another raft paddled by. “There’s someone in the water,” a passenger said. “That’s Dana,” replied our youngest camper, a seven-year old boy. “She’s adventurous.”
I’d braved the rapids, the slides, the plunges, but one test remained. Could I pass the dreaded “swim test” required to prove I could handle it if I fell out of my kayak? Before we could tackle the most fearsome rapids on the fourth day, the guides needed to see us demonstrate that if we fell we could flip our kayak back over, keep hold of our paddle, and haul ourselves back into it. The day before I’d been ingloriously heaved back in by a strong fellow in a gear raft when I couldn’t haul myself into my own boat after I’d hopped out for a swim.
The combination of a bulky lifejacket, arms too short to reach a point that I could grasp and pull, and no purchase for my legs to drive off of in the water conspired to leave me flailing helplessly until I was rescued. I was humiliated. I’d become the little group’s workout leader in the mornings, yet I couldn’t get myself back into my own boat. How many chin-ups I can do in the gym didn’t make any difference on the river.
I was determined to pass the test. With a small group of fellow campers watching from the riverside, I tipped my boat and tumbled over. I flipped it back, grasping my paddle, and attempted to clamber back in, with no semblance of grace or strength. I couldn’t do it. I tried until my arms shook, succeeding only in tipping the boat back upside down. Fighting the current the whole time, I was exhausted. I couldn’t fail though, not in front of everyone, but mainly because I couldn’t go home feeling like I couldn’t hack it. Reminding myself of every achievement I’d made in the gym that I didn’t think I could do, I tried one more time. I jammed one finger so hard into a grip that it was numb for days afterward, kicked mightily, and slowly and inelegantly, but surely, hauled myself over the edge to land, paddle in hand, inside the kayak. Everyone else went about their business – I was just another person who’d passed the swim test.
But my smile stayed with me the rest of the day. I’d come on this trip full of fear, and would leave feeling like myself again, feeling like the strong woman who could take on anything.
Photo: Northwest Rafting Company