Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Getting my mojo back - one rapid at a time

This is a confession, of sorts. But it's also a celebration.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a really cool rafting trip I did on the Youghiogheny River in western Pennsylvania, with Laurel Highlands River Tours.

It was really fun, we had a blast.

But it meant much more than that to me.

You see, for a while now, I've been afraid of whitewater. And not just a little fearful - REALLY fearful.

My fear goes back to a trip I took many years ago on the Zambezi River in Africa. This river forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is also one of the most sought-after trips by those of us who get our jollies "defying death" by paddling through rapids in rafts.

While there are plenty of stats to indicate you're safer whitewater rafting than driving a car, ever since that day on the river, I've been terrified.

The Zambezi was not my first whitewater experience. I enjoyed my first whitewater thrill back in 1986 on the Kicking Horse River near Golden, B.C. There were a few tough class III rapids the days we were on the river  - two successive days running the same stretch, actually - with Mad Rafter River Tours, an Alberta-based company. I found out how much of a pounding you could take in big water by "volunteering" to paddle in the bow of the raft.

Ready to raft the Kicking Horse River (1986).
This river featured icy cold water, glacially fed; you could hear the crackling of the river silt through the bottom of the raft, when you weren't shooting the rapids. So paddling in the front meant you were the first line or wall of defence against the big standing waves that hit the raft when you first slide into them.

It was cold and exhausting, but also exhilarating.

The following year, I rafted on the Thompson and Fraser Rivers; however, shooting Hell's Gate meant we had to be in a motor-powered raft - the hydraulics are just too big and too dangerous for paddle or oar rafts.

It was a great trip. I re-did it about four years later to give the Divine Ms. K a taste of whitewater thrills.

Then came a trip to Africa. And the challenge of the Zambezi.

Rafting companies run about a 25-km stretch below Victoria Falls that includes about 20 or so different rapids, including several Class III, IV and V rapids. There's also a Class VI called "Commercial Suicide" because rafters always portage it. ALWAYS.

I'd seen videos of previous trips on the Zambezi before our day trip, and it looked hairy. I actually did my best to prevent Ms. K from seeing the videos before our trip, as I was afraid she wouldn't want to go. (She confirmed afterward if she had, she probably would have chosen not to go.)

Anyway, we get on the river, we're doing fine, although the adrenaline rushes are coming maybe a bit too frequently...several people from our Sobek raft had gone swimming, but they'd all survived, hadn't been eaten by any crocodiles and we made it to lunch right below Commercial Suicide. After eating, we headed back onto the river and Rapid # 11, a.k.a., "Overland Truck Eater" (it had another name I'll tell you about later).

I remember looking down into the rapid, yelling "Yahoo, Mountain Dew!" - and then I was in the river. In a Class V rapid, essentially a series of boils and whirlpools.

When I initially went overboard, I stayed calm and pointed my feet downstream, as we were trained to do.

When I did not seem to be getting any closer to the surface after several seconds, though, I decided to put my feet to better use, kicking to get to the surface.

Just as I surfaced and started to gulp some air, the river yanked me back underwater. Full of water and now very frightened, I struggled to re-surface. The thought, "Is this how it ends?" did cross my mind briefly.

When I re-surfaced, I prayed I would not be sucked under again. Nyaminyami, the local river god, answered my prayers. Dragging myself up onto shore, I saw the kayaker who was videotaping our trip. The first thing I said was, "Did you get that on tape?" 

His affirmative answer boosted my spirits, a bit. "Good!" I told him. "I would hate to go through that again in order to get evidence to back up my tales of terror!" I was happy I could still joke. 

Into the maw of another Class V Zambezi Rapid.
(I'm second from the right, obliterated by the wave).
I was the only one who went "swimming" in that rapid, which local rafting guides refer to as "Creamy White Buttocks" - because the strong down current often sucks the swim trunks right off anyone who falls in there.

Luckily, mine stayed on, so after making my way downstream to where our raft had eddied out, I climbed back in to rejoin our crew of mixed male and female paddlers devoid of embarrassment, since I didn't have to paddle "au naturel" for the next nine rapids. Whew!

However, climbing back in was one of the toughest things I've ever had to do.

I was terrified. I'd seen others in our group opt to finish the trip in oar rafts, which are much safer than paddle rafts, since all you have to do is hang on to the "chicken line" and ride the rapid in relative safety.

The option did occur to me. But I was more afraid of being afraid - and, to be quite honest, even more afraid of being seen as a "wimp" or a "coward" if I opted for the oar rafts. So I made myself get "back in the saddle" so to speak and finish the trip in a paddle raft.

It was not comfortable, though.

The fear did not end there, either. 

Nine years later, I was preparing for a whitewater rafting trip on a river in Ecuador, a day trip on the Rio Toachi and Rio Blanco. When I'd mentioned to the guides I'd last rafted on the Zambezi, even their eyes got big. "Big water!" were the comments.

Tell me about it.

These South American rivers we were about to raft were (supposedly) nothing like the Zambezi. Still, the fear was there. I chose not to sit at the front ... and I kept waiting for the worst to happen.

It turned out, they really were nothing like the Zambezi. The rapids were all Class III and maybe one Class III/IV. It was just fun!

That was 10 years ago, though. I had not been on any whitewater since then, until I went to Pennsylvania's OhioPyle State Park, earlier this month.

The old fears were still there, waiting at the fringes of my consciousness, sometimes seeping out into my thoughts and feelings. Complicating the situation further was the fact I'd had shoulder surgery for a torn labrum less than a year before, and had not done any really vigourous paddling since then, although I'd rehabbed the heck out of it and got the green light from my physiotherapist.

One of the other people on our trip was nervous - she'd never been whitewater rafting before, so her anxiety was understandable. But I was a "veteran" rafter - I shouldn't be scared.

But I was.

I also never let on. 

We got onto the river, shot our first rapid of the day - which was technically our most difficult, according to our guide - and it really was just fun.

Ditto the rest of the rapids, all Class III and one or two Class IV's.

It was nothing like the Zambezi. I began to realize most rivers are not as dangerous as that river, at least not the ones companies run commercial rafting trips on, although deaths do still occur sometimes. A river is never to be taken lightly.

But I relaxed. I enjoyed it. I had fun.

My mojo was back. Finally.

It was like I had to do a couple of trips to get over the fear of my experience on what is arguably one of the world's toughest commercially runnable rivers, in order to feel free of the fear that had plagued me since that day on the Zambezi.

It was an awesome feeling. I felt a real weight come off my shoulders. 

Some might wonder, "Well, if you're that afraid, why not just skip it?"

But I believe in the essence of a quote attributed sometimes to Mark Twain, other times to Nelson Mandela. 

Essentially, it is this:

 "Courage is not the absence of fear; courage means you don't let the fear dictate what you do, how you live your life."

We face fears every day; we do not always come out on top. However, we always have another opportunity to conquer our fear. Maybe not today; maybe not tomorrow - but it is important to know that we can choose courage, we can choose to not bow down to fear.

Only by overcoming our fears can we really live.

It feels great to be living, again.

Now I can hardly wait to go rafting in Asia and Australia.

Here's some Zambezi action for you (not our trip.)

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