Tuesday, July 15, 2014

May I Have This Dance?

     
     
     In an instant, there is nothing but darkness.  My eyes are open, but they might as well be shut tight.  The only sensation they provide is the feeling of water moving across and against them, causing me to blink again and again.  With each flutter of my eyelids, I hope to see something. Still only darkness.  It is not silent, but the sound around me is dull, muted.  Everything is muffled, almost like a dream where I can’t quite make out what is going on or being said.  I can feel the current swirling all around me and against me, moving me.  The river feels like hands on my back and shoulders, standing over me, pushing me down from above.  My body presses against the riverbed.  I can feel the worn rocks on the backs of my legs and in the small of my back.  I reach out with my hands, out in front of my face and above my head.  It seems that the tips of my fingers have gained some heightened sense of awareness.  Smooth and worn, but not featureless, my hands move across the underside of a large boulder.  I can feel its variations and intricacies.  The more I move my hands, the more of this rock I feel.  Then suddenly, a flash in my mind, a thought, a memory.
     Sitting around a campfire, my bare feet are propped up on a stone fire ring.  Friends are in camp chairs all around, some with beer in hand, their feet mimicking mine.  My wife sits next to me.  Her long, straight sandy-brown hair hangs down past her shoulders, framing her face.  The flames dance in her deep, dark eyes.  We have sat like this a thousand times over: telling stories, laughing, debating.  But this memory is specific, for one of our topics this night happened to be death.  “How would you go, if you could choose?”  Most responded with answers like “quickly” or “in my sleep.”  A climber friend of mine joked about it happening on impact.  Not necessarily the most peaceful, but definitely quick.  But then I gave my answer, different from all the rest.  I knew the ways I did not want to die.  I had seen an aunt die after dealing with cancer for years, her husband and two daughters having ridden an emotional and exhausting roller coaster that I cannot even begin to fathom.  I had a grandparent who physically and mentally deteriorated from Parkinson’s and dementia.  The last time I saw her I am fairly sure she had no idea who I was.  Or maybe she did, but she just had no way of showing it.  Saddening while simultaneously frustrating.  I did not want something drawn out. I did not want to get sick.  So when it came to me around the campfire that night, my preferred method of departure was to drown.  I have spent over a decade, more than a third of my life, working on rivers.  I figured that if I died from drowning, that meant that up until the moment I passed, I was doing what I loved, and I liked the idea of that.  I remember even half heartedly joking that if I lived long enough to be a worn, salty, decrepit old man, that I might just take one last trip down the river and find a rock to stuff myself under.  Well, it was a few decades sooner than I would have liked, but here I was.
     As my hands continued to move back and forth, my fingertips had assumed the role of my eyes and searched for an exit.  The realization came to me, surprisingly matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna die under this rock.”  I did not feel scared or sad.  I did not begin to struggle or fight.  It wasn't that I consciously choose to not feel or do those things.  I just . . . didn’t.  And then, like being awakened from an extremely involved and intricate dream, my now highly sensitized hands felt something new, air.  My eyes quickly opened to notice light shining through the water above, and I went after it with everything I had.  Just as abruptly as it had begun, it was over, and I was breathing deeply again.
     Last night I learned of the passing of fellow paddler, a river guide I had the opportunity to work with and had come to befriend, admire, and respect.  It would be an understatement to say he was well known throughout the “river community.” A guide and instructor, world-class professional kayaker, and mentor to so many, he was diagnosed with cancer, and within a few weeks, suddenly he’s gone.  I remember every time we would see each other out on the river, Brian would make an effort to paddle his raft of people over to mine, and tell the folks in my boat, “You guys don’t know how lucky you are.  You’re getting to boat with one of the best river guides I know.  I really hope you appreciate him.”  Now, there is no telling how many different crews of paddlers he would say that to while on the river, probably more than anything to help out a fellow guide with a tip at the end of the day.  But never the less, it always made me feel special.  Here was this guy, 10 times the boater I’d ever be, and he would make it a point to compliment me, to build me up.
     More often than not, death can be so damn frustrating and seems so pointless, such a waste.  If Brian would have been sitting around the fire that night, I know for sure he would not have chosen “cancer in my 30s.”  I stayed up most of the night, as many others did I am sure.  The recirculating and unanswerable question of “Why?” came back again and again, and with each pass it made, I could feel the tension and frustration build.  My head would spin, mind jumping from one memory to the next, and my chest would tighten and my breathing become slightly strained.  I tossed and turned and sat up for hours, heart heavy and unsettled.  But as the first morning light began to make its way through the clouds and whispers of the night’s rain dropped off the leaves, I began to realize I had been completely missing the point.  Death had become a distraction, and I had allowed it to garner all my attention.  “How would I die if I could choose?” is the wrong question.  The more important, relevant question is “How will I live?” because that I can choose.  I have very little control over how I leave this spinning ball of rock and water, and maybe that is what’s so frustrating about it.  But I have complete control over what I do with the time I’m given here.
     I think back on all the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned from my time on the river.  In the beautiful whirling messes of waves and whitewater, there is way more out of my control than in it.  And yet I know there are a few certain things I do have control over, things that I can do.  Distractions are crashing and calling all around, trying to steal my attention, but if I remain focused on where I want to go, and the little things I can do to help myself get there, then I can find myself so immersed in the moment that time almost stands still.  In the midst of chaos, waves building and breaking and exploding off the rocks of the riverbed, I can dance with one of the most powerful things on earth, and, even if only for a fleeting moment, be a part of something beautiful. 
     There is plenty out there to distract us, plenty to steal our attention away.  To the living, death can feel like an unexpected punch in the gut, the kind that leaves you breathless and helplessly grasping.  Death can drop us to our knees and have us crying out to God.  And maybe, in some final twist, these are death's gifts to us.  For what good is death if it doesn't awaken the living?  That blow to the gut that knocks the air out of us reminds us how precious each breath is.  In dropping to our knees, death reminds us that it is important to stop, to cry, to question.  It awakens us from the complacent lull that we might not even realize we have been in.  Brian left us too soon, there is no question, but that doesn’t change how much he lived while he was here.  The sting of death is a little less when viewed through the context of life.  I grabbed my river gear this morning no longer questioning how or when I will die.  How we die doesn’t really matter.  My concern is how I am going to dance with life today.

     

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dip & Rise


     The day’s first light graces the highest point on the canyon wall and slowly begins to work its way down towards the river, illuminating layers of rock and time in the process.  Shadows bend and morph by the minute, revealing unnoticed pockets and dimensions, a single sandstone wall becoming many as I drift by and gaze upon its array of intricacies.  Droplets of water fall off the outstretched oars as they methodically dip and rise, dip and rise, dip and rise.  The rhythm of them lapping the water is my morning music, my mantra, my prayer.  Like holy words repeated over and over again, they still my mind and center my soul.  Birds flutter and chirp, and in between spans of tranquility, the river narrows, tumbling over rocks and boulders.  Waves build and break.  Currents swirl and boil in a seemingly chaotic mess of froth and white.  It is written here in the turbulent mess, in the wild and the wet, the language older than time itself. For it is said that even before night and day, before heavens and earth, there was simply water and spirit.  We float along, listening to this language, reading the water.  Treading only along currents that invite us, we are careful to heed the warnings of other paths. The river speaks to us, and by listening we are connected to it and to the beginning.  We travel deeper into the heart of this place, and in doing so travel deeper into ourselves.  In side canyons we rediscover the awe and wonder of childhood, exploring and laughing and loosing ourselves, existing only in the moment at hand.  In others, we find ourselves overwhelmed by emotions we had stored in our own narrow, deep, hidden place.  The language of water is now written on us as tears make their way down our face.  We sketch images.  We write words.  We take photos.  We sit and stare and breathe deeply.  We do whatever we can to hold on to this place.  Though some of us shall return and others never again, we all know there will be times we will long to look back and to remember vividly in hopes of resurrecting these feelings again.  There were moments we felt 
strong, when we pushed ourselves, and others when we simply faced the challenge we had no control over.  Staring up at moonlit canyon walls and a sliver of stars overhead, we realized our smallness and became comfortable in it.  We shared stories and laughter.  We celebrated the days of our birth, and professed our commitment and our love.  We listened and looked each other in the eyes.  We connected.  And maybe in the end, that is the greatest gift of this grandest of canyons.  It inspires and encourages connection, with each other, with ourselves, with the waters and the world around us.  Here, we awake expectantly.  We look forward to that first morning light, excited for the places it shall reveal.  We listen for the soothing rhythm of oars as they kiss the water’s cheek, whispering holy words as they dip and rise . . . dip and rise . . . dip and rise.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Laugh Louder the Harder It Rains

     Four years ago today, my wife and I began a journey, a long walk north that has influenced us every day since. Here's to long walks, the insights they inspire, and the people and places they allow us to experience.  Looking back through journal entries from our time on the Appalachian Trail, here is one of my favorites . . .


     My feet hurt. My knee hurts. They do not simply ache.  They are not sore or stiff. They hurt. My feet are calloused and blistered. My heels are bruised and tender to the touch. Where the nail of my right pinkie-toe used to be there is now … well, I don’t really know what that is. My knee is swollen; I touch it with my index finger and can feel the fluid that has built up around my knee cap. One hundred and eight days, 12 states, and more than 1,600 miles of walking have taken their toll. I gently massage my feet and knees after another long day on the trail, mainly out of obligation, feeling guilty for what I have been putting them through. Sometimes I imagine them looking up at me and yelling obscenities, asking me what in the world I am thinking.
     As my mind drifts, I remember a story of a woman. She was also attempting to thru-hike the A.T., and, as every thru-hiker is at one point or another, she was asked the question, “Why are you out here?” Her reason was somewhat shocking. Shortly before starting her hike, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her doctor had given her months, a year at most, to live. She said she wanted to be on the trail because every day that she was in the wilderness, every time she struggled to make it up a mountain, every moment of pain, every step, was another moment that she knew she was alive. I have found that I understand her answer a little more each day. It is when I am pushing up the last few feet of a steep climb — sweat completely saturating my shirt and pouring down my face — and just as I reach the
summit, I am greeted by a gentle breeze that manages to send a chill down the length of my spine. It is when I am bending down over the coldest, clearest spring I have ever seen, cupping my hands, and tasting its refreshing purity. It is standing atop an exposed ridge, trying to comprehend the magnificence of the sunset that is on display before me, and all I can do is throw my arms out wide and scream. It is waking up to the beautiful songs of birds and falling asleep to the soothing hoot of an owl. It is when it rains so hard that all there is to do is laugh. It is getting to wake up on the morning of our fifth anniversary and look at my wife asleep next to me. We are in our tent, on the Appalachian Trail, living out a dream that was just some crazy idea we began talking about when we were engaged. These are the moments that remind me that I am alive, the moments that remind me that I am blessed.
     A friend of mine once shared with me his analogy for life. He explained  to me this idea of how life is like a big sponge that is totally saturated, and that the harder we squeeze, the more life pours out onto us. I have thought about that image for a while now. Often times I have envisioned myself squeezing every last drop of life out of that sponge, squeezing so hard that it even begins to hurt. I look back down at my feet, realizing I have a new understanding of my friend’s analogy. Maybe they are not yelling obscenities at me after all. They are simply reminding me that I am alive. Maybe life is less about being comfortable and more about learning to thrive in the uncomfortable. Maybe sometimes we need to embrace the struggle instead of trying to find an easier way. As I lay back and slowly begin to drift to sleep, I think about the experience, the moments, and the adventure that still lies ahead. Such a gift life is. I hope I will always remember this truth. I hope I will always remember to live life ‘til it hurts and to laugh louder the harder it rains.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fragile Beauty


     The flames from the fire dance back and forth with the slightest ebb and flow of the night air. It’s not even a breeze per say, but more so as if the desert is breathing, taking in and then exhaling long deliberate breaths as it slowly falls asleep.  The juniper and sagebrush crackle as they burn, their heat warming our outstretched hands.  It is not a cold night, but the crispness in the air is distinct, and the warmth of the fire softens its bite.  We stare at the fire, often for long periods of time without saying a word.  Its movement is so captivating, making me wonder if flames are what first taught man to dance.  
     There is no moon tonight.  From this high sandstone outcropping, where hours ago the vast desert was laid out before us, now there are only vague hints of the mesas and canyons that lie below.   The stars, so plentiful and brilliant, reveal the line of the horizon and the subtle features of the landscape that surrounds us.  Some of us begin to lye on our backs, relinquishing the warmth on our faces to instead gaze upon the grand display above.  Cassiopeia, The Pleiades, Orion . . . those and many more shine their age-old light down on us.  It is a humbling and inspiring thing to look and to realize that this light has traveled for hundreds or even thousands of years simply to meet me right here, in this moment.  As we look up at the endless array, I notice a student reach up with her arm.  Still lying on her back, she stretches out as far as she can, her fingers grasping into the night air towards the stars above.  After a moment she stops, letting her arm fall and rest again at her side.  I hear her take a deep breath, and then she says to me, “Bryant, I’m so glad no one can ever touch the stars.  That way they can never get messed up.”
     Beauty is such a fragile thing.  I have been blessed over the years with the opportunity to spend time in the wilderness with many students like this young girl, and whether male or female, early teens or late 20s, they have all taught me about the fragility within us. The heroine addicts and the meth heads, the girl who sells herself, the alcoholic, the ones who make themselves throw up, and the ones who cut; I’ve sat around a campfire and slept under the stars with them all.  Those same dancing flames have become blurred as my eyes well up with tears from stories shared.  I have spent many nights laying awake in my sleeping bag, trying to process the things I had heard.  Raped, bullied, abandoned, or molested, as the stories unfold and the brokenness begins to reveal itself, the behaviors begin to make more sense.  Anything to numb the pain.  Anything to fill the void.  Anything to make them forget. 
     I have no answer tonight. No wise response to this depth of insight from a 15 year old.  I am an ill-equipped instructor.  It is a humbling feeling.  Nothing I can say will make things right.  But out of that humility and inadequacy has come a realization.  People who are hurting often do not need answers.  People who are broken often do not need advice.  They need someone to feel the pain with them.  They need someone to sit around a fire and listen.  There is a time for saying and doing, but there is such deep value in simply being for someone.
     The chill in the air has become more pronounced now.   As I sit up, I notice our fire of flames is now but a pile of coals.  They still warm my hands when I bring them close, but looking at the coals is not nearly as entrancing as the movement of the flames.  I stand and take a look around at the huge expanse of darkness and silence.  The peace out here is something I shall never grow tired of.  “You’re just as beautiful as those stars.” I say.  “And nothing anyone can do or say can change that.  People can wrong us, they can hurt us really deep.  But just like those stars, they can never touch our beauty.”  Beauty, as fragile as it is, cannot be taken away or lost.  Often we simply need to be reminded that it is still there.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Exposed

    
     Clouds begin to appear, ever so slightly revealing themselves just beyond the next ridge line. In what was once an ocean blue sky stretching out to every horizon, clouds like puffs of cotton the color of charcoal are seemingly stacking atop each other with each passing minute. It is as if they have climbed up the backside of this mountain, now anticipating our meeting at the upcoming high mountain pass. The surrounding peaks are slowly becoming swallowed like boulders in a swollen desert stream, inundated by the rushing flood of dark churning clouds. As look up, my head unconsciously turns with my wandering, widening eyes and I realize this flood, this storm, has now encompassed me as well. In the fine line that exists between paralyzing fear and overwhelming awe, I find myself . . . exposed.                
     It is a place I have found myself many times before, and oddly enough it is a place that I long to find myself again and again. As someone who has spent the last 10 years working as a river guide, I have found that there are many parallels between the river and the trail, but none more special to me than those moments of exposure. Whether it be in the midst of chaotic whitewater or the humbling power of a storm, there is a certain sacredness in realizing you are in the midst of uncontrollable grandeur. Some of the most impressive, unnerving, and awe inspiring storms I have ever experienced happened while thru hiking the Colorado Trail with my wife last summer. Lighting bolts darted back and forth across the sky. Hail pelted us along treeless ridges, one day in particular assaulting us on four separate occasions. Rain fell in sheets, completely soaking us through multiple times. For the first time I can remember, thunder pounded so close and with such force that I felt it inside me, like my heart was the epicenter of this deep, echoing boom that was making its way to my fingertips and toes.
Immediately following some particularly impressive displays, Laura and I would eerily turn towards each other, eyebrows raised and eyes wide and round as if looking through a magnifying glass. We would not say a word.     
     While in the Weminuche Wilderness, making our way across an open, high stretch of trail, we found ourselves once again in the midst of the madness. It was just before making the steep drop into the Elk Creek drainage. Thunder bounced off towering rock walls, and the wind made the rain and hail fall horizontally. It was intense. Lightning began flashing all around us, to the point that it became impossible to tell which direction the storm was coming from or where it was going. We kept going back and forth as to what our next step should be. Do we hunker down and wait it out, or make a push for the Elk Creek descent and find some cover? No matter what we decided, what we did know is that there would be no spectating here. This would be felt.
     Finally there was a lull, just enough of a break to make a dash down into Elk Creek. The worst of the storm had passed, and as we made our way down the steep, winding switchbacks, we began to realize the rain had left us a gift in its wake. The sheer, vertical rock walls that line the sides of the drainage were now the birthplace of waterfalls. Every few steps seemed to reveal another one, thin streaks of water tumbling down barren cliffs. The following few miles became some of the most memorable of the entire hike.
     There is a deep truth in these moments of chaos and terror, in the awe and humility. So often life can be insulated and predictable. Whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, it is always easier to hold back. In the “real world,” we do not have to put ourselves out there. But in holding back, we miss out on a chance to learn a little more about ourselves. A large part of my passion for the rivers and wild places of this world is rooted in the fact that nature exposes me. In the torrent of storms and raging rapids, there is no place to hide. There is the element of risk. Not the vain risk that is taken solely for the sought after reward, but the humble risk of seeing what we are made of for our own sake. The humble risk of being ok with not having complete control. It is the humble, seemingly nonsensical risk of putting “life” on hold to walk 500 miles through the mountains. It is the risk of finding yourself in that fine line between paralyzing fear and overwhelming awe and realizing . . . this is sacred.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Desert Lover

     

    
      As the sunlight makes its way to my face, I can see my breath as it leaves my mouth and slowly rises into the crisp, cold air.  From atop this sandstone dome, my 360 degree view is uninterrupted.  Wilderness stretches out across the horizon in every direction.  There are steep, narrow canyons and broad, sandy washes.  Yucca, with their long, wind-battered stalks, cling to small patches of dirt, while the sweet smell of desert sage accompanies the slight breeze.  Mountains rise in the distance, the Henrys to the west and the Abajos to the northeast.  Directly south, the mystical and sacred Navajo Mountain stands alone.  It is a rugged place, this canyon country.  Vast and expansive, while on a high point like this one, it could easily be mistaken for endless.  The sun is cresting over the horizon to my left as the full moon slowly drops out of view to my right.  In this first light of morning, I sit suspended between these two heavenly bodies.  This is a magical place.  It is a place that I, as others before me, have fallen in love with.
     The desert is not an easy place to love though.  Upon first glance, many consider this expanse of red rock to be a wasteland, far too harsh to inhabit.  The canyons are too steep, the soil is too dry, and the distances too great.  Interestingly enough, these are some of the same character traits I have become so enthralled with.  There is an untainted beauty that lies at the heart of its ruggedness.  It is a deep beauty, the kind that is often felt before it can be seen.  Unrecognizable to the passing glance, it will not be found through the windshield of a car.  This is a beauty that takes time.  There is comfort found in the harshness here, a comfort that is birthed out of the uncomfortable.  To know solace, one must first know distress.  Here, I experience the blazing summer sun as well as the soothing shade a tiny juniper.  I feel the bombardment of sand filled winds and the encompassing peace of a still, moonlit night.  I know the taste of parched, chapped lips and the sound of a trickling, life giving spring.  Hidden seeps, where water slowly sweats its way out of rock walls, can be found throughout this land.  There are flowing springs to be tasted if one knows how and where to find them.  Potholes and tinajas, natural water jugs, lie waiting to be scooped with a cupped palm.  This is a dry land, no doubt, but it is not a barren one.  There is not an abundance, but instead enough.  The desert is a mentor in the ways of simplicity, reminding me of the importance of having only what I need.  These canyons are continually revealing to me the truth that differentiates between essential and extra.
     My wife and I have found ourselves once again following the floor of a winding canyon, exploring and discovering a new sliver of this land we long to learn.  Towering red sandstone walls engulf us on either side.  The leaves of the cottonwoods are a golden yellow, fluttering with the sporadic brush of the wind. Perfectly symmetrical splitter cracks run from canyon floor to rim, interrupting the otherwise blank vertical walls.  A passionate climber could spend a lifetime scaling the fissures found here.  At sharp bends are huge, amphitheater-like alcoves that have been slowly carved and shaped by the floods of time.  Sound reverberates off the rounded walls with a sharpness and clarity not to be outdone by even the finest of venues.  More proof that man still has a lot to learn from the earth.   We find ourselves at an unnamed, unmapped spring.  Crystal clear water is gushing out onto the canyon floor, spreading and forming smaller, braided streams that weave in and out of each other as they glade over the dark, sculpted sand.  Kneeling down, I cup my hands, bringing the clear, cold water to my sun dried lips.  We notice animal tracks spread throughout the surrounding wet sand.  Mule deer, raccoons, coyotes, a mountain lion; this place provides life for many.  Looking around while listening to the gurgling water, we notice figures drawn high on a ledge.  Staring more intently now, we began to make out human representations with arms and legs.  In other clusters, we see mixtures of handprints and spirals.  On the high bench above, remnants of a dwelling are now visible.  Simple stone and mortar walls, these are all the handiwork of a people long passed. These were the first desert lovers.
     Ancestral Puebloeans, Anasazi, the Ancient Ones.  Over time, I have been blessed enough to see much of what they left behind.  Cliff dwellings ranging in size from one room to fifty, kivas with wooden ladders leading down into the earth, and intricately decorated pottery.  I have found arrowheads and spear tips and the chipping beds where they were formed and have held 1000 year old sandals fashioned from yucca fibers.  We scramble up the loose talus for a more intimate view, flooded with feelings of wonder, excitement, and reverence.  I study the pictographs and petroglyphs while trying to imagine the stories they long tell.  Pieces of pottery and corn cobs were strewn next to the fire pit where charred wood still remained, as if it had been sat around, casting shadows on the wall the night before.  In the grass and mud mortar that held together stone walls, fingerprints were still evident from the day the mortar was pressed and shaped.  Staring at a set of these timeless impressions, I notice a slight inconsistency in the wall.  There is a small opening just big enough to fit a hand.  Not able to make out what is in the shadows of this nook, I blindly reach in.  Looking down at what I now find resting in the palm of my hand, I am nearly overcome with emotion.  The carvings on the handle are intricate and the tip chipped and formed of chert, the two pieces being joined together with pine pitch.  I held a totally intact, perfectly useable knife.  Suddenly, the gap of time that separated me from them seemed to dissappate.  I stood there, wondering who was the last person to grasp this tool?  Looking back down the canyon and off into the wild landscape stretched out before me, I felt as though I was taking in the same view as they had so many years before.  It was as if we stood there together, this family of hunters and cultivators, artists and dreamers, once perched high on this canyon wall.  More than anyone, these people knew this place.  Their understanding was intimate and their connection mystical.  The spring below was a gift from the earth, the full moon part of the heavenly cycle, and vastness and beauty of the land characteristics of the Great Spirit.  Were these any less true today?
     For this rugged, wild landscape I am grateful.  There is no pavement here to disconnect me from the land upon which I tread and no sky scrappers to incumber the view across the vastness.  In this desert country I am able to feel.  The harshness and the solace I experience here are humbling.  I am able to connect with what is and what was.  I realize and remember the gifts of the Great Spirit and the sacred quality if his creation.  Just as the sand seems to find its way into every nook and cranny, every crack and crevice, it has also made its way into my blood.  It has found its way into my soul. This land has fascinated and captivated the hearts and minds of many before me, and now I find myself as they did, powerless to its draw .  .  . just another desert lover.

A New Perspective

     
     We make our way along the New River's bank, cautiously stepping from one boulder to the next. Bundles of driftwood and debris are scattered in random pockets amongst the rocks and trees, evidence of the last high water event. Our boats are securely tied just upstream, near the end of a relatively slow moving flat-water pool. As we boulder hop further down stream, the chaotic mess of whitewater that minutes earlier existed just beyond the horizon of current is now coming fully into view. I discreetly glance at the facial expressions of the others, trying to gain some insight into their initial feelings without being noticed. Some eyes are wide, bouncing from place to place, over stimulated and not knowing what to focus on. Others are sharp and intense, glaring out at nature’s display. The once smooth, glassy water has now become a whirling mess of water crashing over rocks and waves that build and break and fill the air with mist. I position myself closer to the water’s edge and turn so that the river is at my back. Eyes now shift their focus to me, staring intently, expectantly. “So,” I say as I begin to break into a big, bearded smile, “this is our first Class V rapid. Let’s talk about it.”
     This is another day in our first week of guide training. These 15 people from their random walks of life and various parts of the country have all come here for one common goal, to become a river guide. As we scout, or study a rapid from the riverbank, I point out differing current lines and features. The trainees take time to look and begin to implement their “water-reading” knowledge, asking questions and developing ideas for how to run the rapid. We talk about hazards and the different pros and cons to varying routes. Scouting gives the opportunity for questions and clarification, something that can be hard to find time for in the midst of a rapid a few hundred yards long, containing 8 to 10 foot waves and a must miss feature known as the Meat Grinder. 
     As we head back upstream to our boats, I notice a few trainees stop to look back, trying to pick out the line or certain features from a slightly different vantage point. It’s interesting how what we see and the way we see things has a lot to do with where we are standing. The world can look completely different from a different point of view. There remains a lot for this training class to learn, with skills to be honed and a relationship with this wild and wonderful river to be fostered. But perhaps their greatest insight will be into a new point of view. A perspective that many people will never have. The view from the back of the raft, the perspective of a river guide.

Wetting The Dries

     A light fog slides its way in and out of the river’s gorge, drifting through the trees and then down to the water’s surface.   We push off from the rocky bank and drift as well, our path almost as unknown as that of the fog around us.  There is over 100 years of collective whitewater rafting and river running experience in this raft, but as we move further downstream, the six of us are not relying on our familiarity with the rapids.  Instead we are continually looking downstream, reading the water and paying close attention to what it is telling us.  The river often seems to disappear into a garden of car and house sized boulders.  It is a maze with different chutes and channels of water, some offering a runnable line over a steep drop and passage onto the next set of rapids.  Others simply lead to a dead end, allowing your raft to find itself atop shallow rocks where the water is no more, and now considerations must be made as to how to get back to try a different channel.
     Aside from finding ourselves stuck in one of the previously mentioned channels, being out here on the New River “Dries” is quite the treat.  The riverbed itself is gorgeous.  Though the six of us have each paddled this section of whitewater many times before, no one had ever seen it at this low of a flow.  As we move through boulders standing 10 and 15 feet overhead, we reminisce and trade stories about times we had paddled this section when those same rocks we completely submerged, creating huge waves and hydraulics.  We joke about how we had never noticed the beauty of the cliffs, the waterfalls, and the natural arch like we were today, largely because at high flows we were white-knuckle paddling for our lives through a rapid aptly named Mile Long.

     Not only is it a treat to simply experience this rarely paddled section of whitewater, but today we are also getting to be a part of what could be the next step for the whitewater industry in the area.  For many years now, this part of West Virginia has been famous for its commercial whitewater runs on the New and Gauley Rivers.  But now, with the Hawks Nest Dam approaching its relicensing date, there is an opportunity to establish a new stretch of whitewater for commercial rafting.  Though still in its early stages, this trip down the “Dries” marks the beginning of a feasibility study which will help determine what flows are viable for whitewater rafting.  The ultimate idea is that if we can determine what our necessary flows are for boating, and then during the relicensing process those flows can be factored into scheduled releases, similar to the scheduled releases we enjoy on the Gauley River.  In the not too distant future, a whole new stretch of world class whitewater could be available to take people rafting down, giving us even more opportunities to share the beauty and the thrill of paddling these special places. 

First Trip Back


     I pull the strap through the buckle, tightening down the last bit of equipment into the raft. I check my gear once more . . . carabiners are locked . . . my PFD is snug. As I look out on the gentle current moving by, I can hear the trip leader finishing up their safety talk behind me. I take a long, deep, deliberate breath. Every spring, there is always that “first trip back, ” and with it usually comes some nervous energy, an anxious anticipation. But this year’s first trip carries with it a little more weight. I have been thinking about this one for a little bit longer than usual.
     Last year my river season came to an abrupt end in the form of a dislocated right shoulder at the bottom of a Class V rapid on the Upper Gauley. Thanks to friends and fellow paddlers, I was safely evacuated from the river. While on the river bank, guides used their Wilderness Medicine training and were able to reduce the dislocation. Although there were moments of extreme pain, what was actually more intense was the creeping thought that my shoulder might not ever be the same. The off season consisted of 7 months of rehabilitation and strength training, working to regain full range of motion and mobility. But even after all the rehab and the winter paddling and the fact the my shoulder was feeling really good, I knew that none of it would compare to that first trip back. It was not only a physical hurdle, but more so a mental one that I knew I would have to face.
     One of the most important lessons I have learned from my years of guiding and spending time out on these wild rivers is the importance and the value that exists in pushing myself both mentally and physically. There is so much that can be realized about oneself through the act of taking risks. For the last 11 years, I have had many opportunities to be a part of other people pushing themselves and taking risks as well. Guiding my guests down world class stretches of whitewater and seeing how empowering it is for people to engage with nature is the most rewarding part of my job. There is something that exists in the wildness of a river and in each of us that often does not get tapped into in everyday life. It is what I come back for year after year. It is why I find myself rigging this raft and standing at this put-in this morning.

     Hours later we have run the last rapid and are at the take out. The boats are loaded and high fives have been given all around. I can hear the boy scouts and troop leaders reliving their day as they get on the bus. I look out on the gentle current moving by and take a long, deep, deliberate breath. This has been a good first trip back.