Just got off the river after my first day of whitewater kayaking. I can’t believe I haven’t done this before. Sometimes, when I try a new activity, it just clicks right away and I say “I feel like myself when I’m doing this.” That’s how it was for me with yoga, and now this. I figured I’d like it, but not this much.
I’m going to write first about the activities of the day, then in another post I’ll share more about the personal and social experiences.
When I woke up this morning I actually wondered if maybe they’d keep up off the water for the day because it’s rainy and only 55 degrees. I was ok with that idea. I wasn’t clamboring to get out there – but that was just my nerves disguising themselves as some kind of logic trying to hold me back.
We spent the morning meeting our kayaking guides, getting outfitted with all of our gear and getting the rundown on how it would work. My gear bundle consists of a wetsuit, fun neoprene booties, splash jacket, life jacket, helmet, wet skirt, and of course kayak and paddle.
After lunch we walked down to the Clarks Fork River right in front of the Tarkio Lodge. We started by learning how to do a wet exit. One by one, our guides began by showing us the proper tucked position and flipping us over and right away turning us back up. The second time we stayed underwater for 5 seconds. The third time was 5 seconds again but practicing moving from tucked forward to sitting up straight, laying all the way back, then tucked forward again before coming up. The last time we actually did the exit, which basically means pulling a strap to release the wet skirt and pushing your butt up out of the seat.
From there we made our way down river about 3 miles. We learned how to hold the paddle properly, how to turn effectively by using a stern draw, and how to edge the kayak to help prevent tipping over. We paddled on flat, slow water for the majority of the time but went through 4 different sections of small riffles (very low-level, easy rapids). My guide kept telling me that the boat would steer better if I smiled. I was so concentrated on learning the technique that I guess I had a pretty serious look on my face. During the slow parts I did take some time to look around and take in the view. Pictures could never do it justice. We saw several bald eagles.
I felt awkward at first but once I got into it I started to understand the little nuances of how to use my body to do the things I needed to – keeping my upper body straight and letting my hips move with the water, engaging my core to lessen the strain on my shoulders and steer more powerfully. By the time we reached the take out point I was feeling really good.
Then I got out of the kayak.
I couldn’t feel my fingers. My legs felt like taffy from the freezer that will shatter if you try to bend it. But I wasn’t the only one. In fact, we all were sharing these same symptoms to some degree. I imagined myself doing the same activity with friends that do not have MS and feeling those same symptoms, unsure of whether or not to talk about them because it makes me feel weak or just because others really don’t understand what I mean. This was an entirely different experience. After I did my wet exit and had to stand on the beach to get back into my kayak, I was so dizzy and disoriented from all of the flipping that I nearly fell over every time I took a step and would have hit the ground if one of the volunteers hadn’t been standing right by me. My immediate reaction was to try to laugh it off and act like it was one klutzy moment, I’m fine. But no one laughed at me. Everyone looked at me with complete understanding and I felt comfortable taking my time to stand still and let other people empty the water from my kayak while I got my bearings. I understand now why having that community is so important. It’s not just about having someone to vent to about your struggles. It’s about truly knowing in those hard moments that you’re not alone, that you are receiving empathy rather than sympathy.
Kayaking aside – let’s talk about this program.
The intent of First Descents is to give participants an opportunity to learn trust their bodies again and find healing through adventure. It’s about empowerment. One of their themes is “challenge by choice.” They will offer us a challenge, but we don’t have to accept it. We set our limits. We decide what we’re willing to do and how far we’ll go. When you’re diagnosed with MS you are handed a lot of burdens to carry that you did not ask for; there’s no choice in that matter. But if we can find success in these challenges we accepting and build confidence, we will be better equipped to handle those challenges we don’t have a choice in.
One of the biggest themes of the day was mindfulness. You do your best to stay in the moment, not thinking about the past or worrying about the future. I’ve always understood the concept but have had a hard time seeing how that can truly work. How can I accomplish anything if I’m not looking to the future? It became very clear to me on the river. I wasn’t afraid because I wasn’t thinking about the what if’s. I was only focused on what is happening with my kayak and the water and how I can best handle it. I can see that the rapids are coming. I don’t try to avoid them or slow down. Nothing changes. I move with the current and I ride the waves. I remain calm and keep balanced, doing my best to keep the boat straight. If I start to turn I lean into it instead of away then do what I need to in order to get turned back around. What a metaphor for life, right?
I don’t need to worry about what the future holds. I just stay the course and ride the waves. If I stay calm and balanced I have the ability to steer through whatever tough waters I encounter. And, if necessary, I gracefully (or not) exit that situation and make my way to the beach to regroup, empty the water out of my boat, and get right back to it.
#firstdescents #tarkioriverlodge #msstrong