This day was deemed “alternative crafting day”. I’ll admit, I got excited when I thought we’d be doing some arts and crafts. However, it turned out to be floating down the river on an alternative craft – a raft.
Our kayak instructors became the guides for our trip down the Alberton Gorge. We quickly got the lowdown on safety and paddling instructions, then got on our way. The day was a nice mix of very slow, calm waters and some class three rapids that were significant to have names.
Being in groups on the rafts and not having to paddle so much made for a more relaxing, social environment. Others that had been struggling in the kayaks and had reached their point of exhaustion were able to enjoy the river in a different way. I heard more laughter and saw more smiles on this day than any other.
I wasn’t satisfied though. There were three instructors that were still in kayaks, as opposed to on rafts. For this trip they had each brought a double kayak to share with one of the participants. I made sure I got my chance to paddle in one after lunch.
Each person in a double kayak takes on a different role in controlling it. The person in the front is essentially the motor, using strong paddle stokes to propel the boat forward. The person in the rear focuses on steering. However, balancing the kayak is dependent upon both people working together to lean the right way at the right time.
I got in the front seat with the instructor we called Gnarby. Although still in college, not yet 21 – I knew I could trust her with my life. For such a young age she carries herself with incredible confidence and composure, communicating effectively with even the most inexperienced paddlers.
Gnarby and I took on our first rapid almost immediately. This one was called Triple Bridges. My instructions were to just paddle hard through it and try to keep balanced. The waves felt enormous. One after the other they crashed into the front of our kayak and, consequently, into my face. I can only imagine what I must have looked like when we made it to the end of the rapid. I turned around and said to Narby, “there’s nothing in the world like that feeling, is there?” If I wasn’t hooked before, I was now. As we moved down the river we practiced ferrying from eddy to eddy, left to right and back again. This was a wonderful learning experience to feel the timing and degree of tilt when edging in and out of the current.
The second rapid of this experience was called Tumbleweed. The most challenging of the day, it threw a little bit of everything at us. It consisted of a wave train, large downward slope, and finally a section of whirlpool-like current. The directions were exactly the same. Line up to the waves head-on, keep balanced, and power through. At the bottom of this rapid there was a section that could be surfed, meaning that if we got the kayak properly aligned facing upstream in this section, we could stop paddling and let the water hold us in place. We tried and almost succeeded. We tried again. And again. Each time we were pushed out, we simply paddled into the eddy and back upstream. The strategy was simple but required hard work. I paddled my heart out and pushed myself to a feeling of exhaustion for the first time this week. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Even though we never did surf successfully I felt satisfied. Proud.
At that point I switched out of the kayak and back to a raft. We went through one more rapid named Fang and then were able to spend the rest of the time chatting. We talked about geology, insects, traveling, outdoor sporting, psychology, books, and mead (just to name a few.) I was fascinated to hear not just what information was being shared, but the spirit with which it was communicated. I had found myself surrounded by like-minded people, whom had a passion for learning and the world around them. Our conversation flowed easily from one topic to the next, everyone given equal opportunity to share and to be heard. How refreshing it was to enjoy the company of others without any agenda or stress, to feel respected and appreciated, and to feel connected – with people I’d only known for three days.
This would become a theme throughout the week. I shared very openly about my life and experiences with a compassionate and understanding audience. I did my best to receive what the others entrusted me with in the same manner. Coming into this, all we knew was that we all are living with and battling MS. And that’s all we needed. It gave us somewhere to start and we took it wherever it led. Some of the greatest bonds were made through ideas and experiences that didn’t have much to do with MS.
One of the most poignant questions of the week – an eye opener especially for staff not dealing with an illness like ours – what do you most love doing, and who would you be if you couldn’t do that anymore?
We have a habit of defining ourselves by what we do, either for work or recreation. This becomes a problem when we realize that we all reach a point where, little by little or all at once, we start to lose the ability to do those things. For many, this doesn’t happen until old age. But for those with MS the timeline can be drastically different. We are forced to acknowledge and accept our mortality much earlier in life. Looking at it from the outside this could make people very sad for us. Maybe they even pity us for what we have lost or will lose in the future. But it is not such a bad thing. We get to look at who we really are and what we want out of life while we still have time to make it happen. It may not look the way we had imagined before being diagnosed, but there is certainly hope for the future.
Having MS does not define us. We are all more than our illness, more than what we do or what we have. It’s about who we are and how we choose to share that with the world.
#firstdescents #msawareness #tarkiomontana