Wednesday, August 3, 2011

FD 70: Day 5, The Last Day

The last day on the water at First Descents, we returned to the site of my breakdown Wednesday. It was cold that day. For July, it was freezing. I wore about three layers of clothing underneath my waterproof suit. A few of our guides donned button down collared shirts and ties over their waterproof suits, under their life jackets-after all, it was graduation day for us. Before we got in the water, the rain started coming down, and there was nowhere to hide. Not from the rain and not from what was about to happen. I was going to run the rapids that gave me so much trouble two days before.

Once we were all in the water, I focused my attention on maintaining spacing between myself and the other kayakers in my group. My careful reflection over the past two days led me to the conclusion that I flipped the first time because we were too close together. The one boat I wanted near me was that of Pleaza, the guide who had accompanied me through several rapids after my freak out. Just as much as I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this, I wanted to show him I could do it, too.

I rode out the first several rapids without any trouble, including the first one that got me on Wednesday. I felt empowered when I eddied out after finishing that rapid, and cheers from the safety raft echoed through the canyon as it passed my group. I don't know if they were cheering for me, but it felt like they were.

As we continued, I also conquered the second rapid that swallowed me up. After that, we pulled into an eddy and the guides informed us that we were now going to run graduation rapid. This is the challenge for the day, and normally for first-time FDers, it's just about accepting the challenge and attempting a class III rapid. But for us, it would be more than that. The guides would meet us at the bottom. We would run the rapid on our own, devising a plan as a group of kayakers, choosing our own lines, and running the rapid, not as campers, but as true kayakers.

As we discussed our approach getting through the rapid, which was hidden around a bend and out of sight, I realized this was the rapid I freaked out on. The one I ran latched to Pleaza. I had no memory of the rapid, no idea what features it contained. Luckily, another group member did. Butta confidently described the rapid to me and explained what her approach would be. There were large rocks, water running over them and creating a hole in front- a place you don't want to flip. She said to stay in between the rocks, although it would be difficult because of the bend, the water would suck us to the right. I wasn't completely sure I understood what the rapid would look like, but Butta seemed so sure, I decided to follow her.

What happened next was amazing. I kept my distance but followed Butta. Other boaters took different lines, one flipped, another got sucked into an eddy before the rapid. The water was so loud. I couldn't hear anything over the roar of the river. The water pulled me hard to the right, like Butta said it would, so I fought back as much as I could, but the current moved me quickly toward through the fast water moving over the large rocks. I couldn't get between them, so as I went into the rapid, I owned my line and flew over one of the rocks, splashing into the swirly white water below. I paddled hard and entered an eddy where the other boaters who had just graduated sat. We were all grins and buzzing about our lines. Who boofed the rock? Who actually went between the rocks? Had anyone flipped?

As we sat there, I noticed the mountain goats watching us from the cliffs above, and then realized- the sky had cleared the sun was shining on us. It was perfect.

The next curve brought us to a rocky shore where we stopped for lunch- not sandwiches like usual...The guides grilled us steak on the beach. A true graduation celebration.

The rest of our journey was a breeze- we had run these waters before. We were graduated kayakers. When the guides signaled us to shore, there were already a few out of their boats. The majority of the cars were not there, they were further downstream. As it turned out, our lunch and the wind moved us more slowly through that stretch of water. The cars were a few miles downstream at the alternative take out. As all eleven of us slid into shore, we sat in our boats. None of us got out.

We wanted to keep going. It was almost five, the guides said, and we wouldn't get off the river until 8 if we kept going.
We all looked at each other, continuing to sit in our boats. So what?
The guides continued to get out of their boats. Can't we keep going? We're real kayakers. We don't really need you to go with us, if you want to go back...
After much convincing, we all got out of our boats and the other vehicles arrived to take us back to the ranch.

The rest of the night was a blur of dinner, awards, packing, and savoring the last hours of our week together. At 6:00 AM the next morning, my suitcase was packed. My mind replaying the memories of the week, in awe of the magic that can happen when 11 strangers from across the country come together, sharing on day one just a single common trait: Cancer. But leaving six days later with a myriad of memories, an appreciation for nature, our bodies' ability to conquer the river, and a familial bond that didn't exist just a week before.

If you are a young adult cancer survivor, go on a First Descents trip. It will change your life. Forever. If you're not, support the organization- join Team FD and challenge yourself physically. Better yet, volunteer for a week. See the magic first hand. I promise, you will not be disappointed.

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