Years ago I had the opportunity to go whitewater rafting with friends in Alaska. It was my second time whitewater rafting; the first on a cross-country Amtrak trip while in high school. We had stopped in Glacier National Park on the way for hiking, camping and rafting. I was young, fit and fearless. We got soaked and loved every minute of it. I still remember the cute rafting guide who made me feel brave.
Decades later the commitment seemed far more daunting. When you have a circle of friends who are adrenaline junkies who have traveled the world, it can be hard to match their fearlessness. They’ve seen so much, it takes more to impress, more to make them afraid.
Meanwhile, I often feel like I’m swallowing my own tongue in fear.
We camped the night before our half-day rafting trip in a little town called Hope, Alaska, on the stunning banks of the Turnagain Arm. We were surrounded by mountains and woodland, and I felt totally exposed…vulnerable. It was a new way of camping for me. Perhaps it helped prepare me for the next day in some small way.
Nova River Runners led our team to Six Mile Creek, where we slid into full wetsuits and booties. Only then did I hear one of the guides say, “No one has ever said they wore too many layers.”
What? No one had mentioned this. My anxiety spiked as I looked down. i was wearing a single layer of clothing.
Six Mile Creek boasts category IV and V rapids, and the river was at its highest allowable level for rafting. Guides gave us a brief lesson as we sat on the river bank, then told us to swim across the churning waters and practice our “rescue floating technique.” This is a technique you would use when tossed out of the raft and rolling down the river, waiting to be rescued.
I was scared, but like that rafting trip in Glacier, I didn’t know enough to be terrified. The fearlessness of my teen years had gone missing. The well-worn travelers around me hopped in the water, floated like bobbers through he choppy waves, and made it to the riverbank on the other side. I held my breath and hopped in.
A funny thing happens when you jump into freezing water; everything seizes up. You stop breathing, the shock of it takes your breath away. You lose the ability to move for a moment. And in this case, you realize that you are being swept down a rapidly-moving river and you have to fight the current to get to the other side or you will continue to float into the rapids downstream.
I paddled and paddled. The river current was so strong one of my wet suit booties slid off my left foot, leaving my cotton sock-covered toes exposed to the icy drink. It stung. My fingers ached. My skin throbbed. But panic drove me to keep swimming toward the other side.
I made it. The guides congratulated us. I was shaking uncontrollably with a mix of terror and cold. I leaned over to a friend, “I can’t do this. I don’t think I can do this.” They looked unfazed, bored even. And suddenly we were piling into our rafts, and there was no way to duck out.
The guides had coached us on what to do in the event our raft hit a rock. If the guide yelled “high side!” we were to all jump in that direction, throwing our weight to the high side of the raft to even it out. At the time, when on the banks, it seemed like a safety measure, something that would not likely need to be called into play. You know, like when the flight attendant does the double point at the exit doors and everyone is still texting their friends.
We began floating down the river. From the raft the waters seemed calm, docile, compared to the swim across this so-called creek. I shivered and clutched the side ropes. We navigated rapids and eventually came into a canyon. The chops threw us around, bounced us into the air like tethered popcorn kernels. Our frantic paddling was insufficient for us to avoid a rock wall of the canyon – our raft bumped it, and like a pinball striking the side of the game board, we ricocheted to the other side of the canyon.
The paddling was more frantic, but the raft slid up the side of the other rock wall and over the rushing waves the guide yelled, “High side! High side!” Several of us leaped up, but the inertia pushed against us.
Somehow, magically, we righted the raft and avoided flipping, just as two of our riders slid into the water and floated away.
“Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!” We had been trained for this, but who knew we’d need it? We pushed toward the riders, and one grabbed hold of rope on the side of the raft. She later said she felt so relieved in that moment, only to realize she was still in the rapids.
Two men from our group leaned over and pulled her into the raft.
We pursued the other rafter, caught up to him, and were able to pull him into the raft as well. The adrenaline rush was acute.
We navigated the rest of the rapids and pulled the raft to a quiet bank.
My foot and hands were entirely numb one minute and painful the next. It was unbelievably cold. I was shaking from the mix of the icy water and the adrenaline. The next rapids, the guide told us, were category V with a steep drop off. If we were game, we could continue on, but if we wanted to step off and go back to the bus, this would be the place to do it.
My younger self might have continued on, but my older and less fearless self had had enough. I disembarked and stood alone on the bank of the river as the three other rafts for our group, filled with fearless travelers, continued on.
I felt instantly warmer, safer and wiser, as I waved goodbye to my youthful fearlessness floating effortlessly downstream.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer, food-lover and award-winning travel and food writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, providing strategic communications, media relations and writing support to individuals and organizations.
Find Charish on Twitter: @charishb.
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at rollerbaggoddess.wordpress.com.