Friday, June 15, 2012

Stay Calm Under Water

I am finally getting the time to write about my amazing time white water kayaking in Bryson City, NC!!

I was very busy the few days before my trip trying to pack and make sure I had everything I need. I have to admit the night before I was a nervous wreck! Not some much about the actual white water kayaking but more that I was getting on a plane, heading to a different state by myself and entrusting all of this to happen on people that I have never met. It freaked me out! However it didn't stop me I still got on that plane Tuesday morning and headed out on my journey. Let me tell you it was the best thing I could have ever done!!

When I arrived at Knoxville Airport I founded Pleezah and Sunday waiting for us wearing their FD t-shirts. They were welcoming and reassuring the minute I met them.
Fast forward 3 hours (The airport is 2 1/2 hours away from camp) we arrived at The Watershed Cabins where we would be staying for the next week. Before we went to our cabin we got to meet everyone else that was already there, Spoonberg, Frieght Train, Mia Rut, Pigskin, SPF, Big Toe and Kevlar! Spoonberg immediately put me at ease, his personality and outgoingness reminded me of a good friend of mine and made me feel like I had brought him along. It was extremely comforting!

After all the introductions we got to go to our cabin.

As you can see it was amazing!

That night we all met down at the main cabin for dinner. It was nice to be able to sit around with everyone, eat a delicious meal and get to know the people we would be spending the rest of the week with!

After dinner we had our first camp fire which would prove to be a huge part of the whole experience!

Day 2: Kayak 101
This was a fantastic day. We all went the NOC and met with our instructors for the week Mano, Brown Claw and RPM! They told us all we needed to know about the gear we would need. We got fitted for skirts, helmets, PFD's, spray jackets, water shoes and neopreen vest and long pants. It was great to know what we needed and what it's purpose was. Then came the really fun part getting into the kayaks to see which ones were the perfect fit. There had to of been 20 kayaks laid out and we took our time with getting one. I tired several and although I would be able to get into them I have very long legs considering I am not all that tall so that proved to be a minor problem. There was one kayak that Mano and Brown Claw thought would be perfect but it was on reserve. After some investigation it was discovered that it wasn't reserved and ended up being the perfect fit for me. Not only was it extremely comfortable but I was wearing my tie-dyed shirt and the kayak just happened to be was meant to be!

After we were all fitted it was time to head to the lake! It was by far the most fun I had had in a long time. The very first thing they teach you (aside from how to use your gear) is what it's like and what to do when you flip over. The key to "surviving" is to stay clam under the water. That ended up being a piece of advice that held true for so many other aspects of not only our adventure but life in general. I couldn't wait, I drove right in literally! It was awesome to be able to learn and experience all of this knowing you were in safe hands (Thanks Brown Claw)!
Then we learned the basics of paddling, turning and some rescues to help out fellow kayakers. We even got to play some really fun games. Which helped me a lot because you are so focused on playing that you don't realize how much you are honing your kayaking skills.
After all that fun we headed back to camp to relax and then of course have another great meal prepared by Mia Rut! I feel as though I should have mentioned that two campers were MIA because their flights were cancelled so they had finally made it to camp by late afternoon so this was the first dinner and camp fire that our whole family was together.

Day 3: Experience The River
We were all super excited to head out to the river! I was trying to imagine what it would be like to be kayaking on moving water vs. a lake but I couldn't wait to find out! It was more than I expected! It is actually a lot easier kayaking on a river than a lake at least physically because the current does most of the work for you, you just have to put yourself in the right direction. The absolute coolest thing we got to experience was river surfing. I never thought I would be able to surf in a kayak but I did it and I did it well!
That night at the camp fire we talked about how we could relate our journey on the river to our life or our cancer journey. That was a great way to put it because I think about how anxious I was about the unknown in regards to the river. Where were the rapids, what would it be like, was I strong enough to do it. Life as well as cancer is the same, but if you let the fear over take you what kind of life will you really be leading? I see this as the perfect way to grab what ever life gives you by the horns and do the best you can with what you know and try to have some fun while you figure out the unknowns! I also won the water award that night for my river surfing ability so I thought that was really fun too!

Day 4: Introducing The Nantahala!
This is our day "off" which is funny because it still involved all of our gear and being on a river. We got to go white water rafting!! Not only was this loads of fun but it was great to be able to go down the Nantahala in a raft and see what it was like before we were going to be doing it in a kayak. My raft certainly had a great time! It included myself, Gridou, Runt, Sukey, and Big Toe. The group in itself was fun but we also had a guide that was fun too. He made sure we got a ride, spinning us around in the river, going up on rocks! It was awesome and helped with that fear of the unknown because now we got a chance to see the future so to speak. It was really a great day and it was very team building because we had to work together to get to where we needed to be which involved communication as well!
After rafting we had the choice of hiking or going into town to do some shopping. Considering it started to pour as soon as we finished rafting we opted for shopping. Going into Bryson City was lots of fun. It was a cute little town and although there was not much there it was still nice to walk around, shop and of course get some food!

This day was fun but we were a little sad because our FD family was not together. Pigskin was not feeling well and stayed at the cabins and SPF had the misfortune of dislocating her knee while kayaking the day before and ended up at the hospital to see what kind of damage had been done. SPF was able to join us for camp fire though and despite her injury and not being able to kayak anymore she still had her great lively spirit!

Day 5: Tuckaseegee Gorge!
This was a beautiful day to be in the smokey mountains!
Our day on the river was amazing. The river itself was out of this world we got to experience some class II rapids which was nice to be able to see what the next level was. When we stopped for lunch we all took part in a very self realizing activity. We each took two rocks, one you wrote things you liked about yourself, the other you wrote things you wanted to change about yourself. When we were finished we threw our rocks with all things we wanted to change about ourselves into the river to rid ourselves of our past negativeness and we held on to our rock with everything we liked about ourselves so that way we would never forget what we need to hold on to. I kept my rock in my PFD pocket until we had to return our gear! Now that I am home I keep it with me! The whole day really helped me further develop my connection to the river I think this may have been the day I feel in love with kayaking!
That night at camp fire we talked about who our safety boaters in life are. When you think about it in that context there are so many people that stepped up and did exactly what they should when you needed them but also the other two extremes, those who could not meet your expectations and those who went far beyond your expectations. I have MANY saftey boaters in my life but the top two would have to be my mother and my husband. They both have done amazing things for me both in my cancer journey and in my new life after cancer. This was a very awakening night for me!

Day 6: The Day of Reckoning!
Oh today was the day! Not only was this graduation day where we all got to go down a class three rapid but it is also our last day together out on the river. Our family was all back together for our last day, SPF was rockin' a raft down the river and Pigskin was feeling well enough to come back out and join us! We were all ready and excited to face what lied ahead of us on the Nantahala. I will say that up until that day I had been able to stay upright and had not had to stay calm under water however that was about to change. The river itself was pretty cold so we were all dressed appropriately! As we started off it went well we were doing well communicating and giving each other space. I managed to just about complete a class II rapid when on the last turn I went into it sideways and flipped myself. Luckily for me I was able to stay calm under the water and I was rescued by RPM!
 Then take two of that happened about 20 minutes later a little further down the river, let's face it I got Spoonberged! (We started calling it Spoonberged because everytime Spoonberg would be near me or start talking to me I would either spin around or get stuck on a rock or in this case flip over).  Right after my second flip we were heading down to do our graduation rapid which was a class II rapid that we navigated all on our own. We had to read the water and pick the right route without any help, I thought for sure I was going to flip but sure enough I was able to read the water fairly well and made it all the way through by myself.

We stopped for lunch right before the Nantahala Falls which was the class III rapid we would be going down. I would have preferred to just keep going and eat lunch when we got back to the NOC. But it was nice to be able to see the rapid from above and have a little time to regroup and really make a plan as to how we were all going to tackle this. Rizizzle and I decided we were going to tackle this together and some how we got paired up with Spoonberg as our guide. I originally thought "Oh no this cannot be good!" given my Spoonberged past but I went with it anyway! We were the second group to go. We paddled out and headed down stream. It was probably the most anxiety/fun/exhilarating 5 minutes of my life but I made it all the way through without flipping and was so proud of myself for being able to not only accomplish that but for being able to accomplish everything I had done that week!

We were all able to go down the rapid despite the fact that some flipped we still all did it in one way or another and that is a huge accomplishment in and of itself!
That night we all ended up having dinner outside which turned into a big party. Crispy even taught us all how to do some greek dancing!
Needless to say we got so wrapped in up in all this that camp fire was a tad late. The night before we had all received FD t-shirts so I decided to bring my shirt to dinner and have everyone sign it. Which in turn had everyone else getting their shirts. It is a really great memento to have I am glad I did it! When we got up to camp fire we all put our shirts on and took a group photo with the sun setting over the mountains. It was actually very fitting because we had been trying to do it all week and it just so happened that it worked out perfectly for that night because the sun was setting on our adventure that had just given us great tools for the rest of our lives. And since we are all cancer survivors and it was national cancer survivors day, it was nice to have our final night have a group shot that we all also survived our white water kayaking adventure!
Even though this picture is a fun filled sight the night was very somber. We were all sad to be saying goodbye to each other but thankful for everything we had gotten from our adventure. There were two things from camp fire that have really stuck with me. The first being the Baci ceremony. It is where you take a piece of cotton thread and give it to someone else by tying it aroung their right hand. The thought behind it is that by doing this it symbolizes you giving them back spirits to their soul that will bring them good luck! I loved this ceremony and had the pleasure of sharing mine with Big Toe! The second thing that night was a kayak candle light ceremony we did. They have a hollowed out kayak that is filled with water, everyone had a lit candle and the candle served as a way to honor someone else in your life as well as honor past FDer's who are no longer able to come to anymore FD camps. The site was absolutely beautiful!
Although I was extremely sad for the week to be over and to be saying goodbye to all the new friends I had made I am forever grateful to Brad for starting this organization. As well as all those who fund-raise and volunteer their time because it has changed my life in so many ways! I am not sure I can ever really have the words to make anyone understand the FD magic!

Having said that I would love for everyone who knows a young adult or is a young adult with cancer to partake in this astounding experience. Please also help support First Descents by donating and maybe even volunteering your time if you can! I will be starting my own FD challenge and Team FD very shortly and would love anyone to join me and help support something that really is a huge part in getting back a little of yourself that is lost to cancer!

I would also like to say a special thanks to Jam our camp Photographer for having such amazing skill in a kayak that he was able to get most of these action shots of all of us in the water! His photos rock!!

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