mad dog river rafting
I Risked My Life Whitewater Rafting to Prove to My Ex That I Could
I'm not an Amazon. I'm not some hard-bodied athlete who hits the streets at 6 a.m. every day to run 10 miles. I don't do yoga. And I'm not what you'd call very graceful, either. In fact, I spent most of my life ridiculously uncoordinated. I drop things and trip over things and walk into things. Elevator doors close on my head. I fall into giant mud puddles. This stuff used to happen to me a lot — it still does fairly frequently, although less so since I started preparing to climb two of the world's Seven Summits this year. My trainer has been working with me on improving my balance along with strength and endurance and it's helped make me less clumsy.
Right now I weigh, give or take, 170 pounds. I'm 5'9", with broad shoulders and long legs and arms, so I don't really look fat even though I suppose according to fashion magazines I am. More importantly, I feel healthy. I lost about 30 pounds eight months ago, after my boyfriend split with me. I was so unhappy with Wayne that during the three years I lived with him my weight kept creeping steadily upward. I stopped exercising. I started eating straight out of the refrigerator late at night, stuffing cold pasta and the like in my face. I guess I was looking for the pleasure from gorging on carbs I wasn't finding anywhere else.
Then Wayne left and it didn't matter how unhappy I'd been with him, because I still loved him more than I'd ever loved anyone. I started having panic attacks that alternated with despair so deep and painful it felt like I was burning alive from the inside out. But slowly, as I started healing, I began to understand that Wayne never really wantedme. He wanted some idealized version of me, someone who was calmer and not so demanding. Someone quieter, less temperamental, a woman who would stick by his side and not go off and do things like sled down volcanoes in Nicaragua and paraglide from Tetons in Wyoming.
"As soon as I moved in with Wayne he began to object to my more perilous ventures, and even traveling, though it was my job."
Which is strange because that's who I was when he met me. Despite my awkwardness I have a love of risk-taking. I've grown to cherish the outdoors, too, and as a travel writer I'm lucky to be able to indulge that devotion, to pull it close to me and nourish it, let it grow and flourish. But as soon as I moved in with Wayne he began to object to my more perilous ventures, and even traveling, though it was my job. It wasn't long before my first thought upon receiving an assignment offer was, "How am I going to tell Wayne?"
If he was usually irritated by my journeys, Wayne was gentler when discouraging my adventurous pursuits. Whether it was sky diving or hang gliding, he'd pull me close and say in his soft, low voice, thick with the Georgia accent that had both soothed and beguiled me, "Baby girl, I don't really know how I feel about you doing this…it worries me."
I loved Wayne for that worry. It made me feel protected. Cherished. I wanted more than anything to make him happy, so every day I tried a little harder to be someone I wasn't and hated myself a little more when it didn't work. When Wayne would tell me, as he did from time to time, that he wanted to make me a better person, I thanked him. It never occurred to me that what he was really saying was that I wasn't good enough for him as I was. It was a long time before I understood the damage living with someone who loves you conditionally can do. By the end of our relationship the strong, confident woman I'd once been had almost disappeared, lost under a sea of fear, guilt, and anger.
"It was a long time before I understood the damage living with someone who loves you conditionally can do."
A few weeks after Wayne left I decided to climb Kilmanjaro, in Tanzania, and Argentina's Aconcagua as a way of finding a path back to who I once was. I knew that in addition to training physically I'd need to prepare mentally. I would have to prove to myself, probably more than once, that I still had a little grit left in me. Even so, when I received an invitation to raft the legendary Gauley River in southern West Virginia I didn't accept the offer right away. About 10 years prior I'd rafted the New River, the Gauley's milder sister. I'd fallen into the rapids and been swept under the boat, a horrifying experience I imagine is somewhat akin to getting tossed into a giant washing machine. It had left me jumpy about getting into any body of liquid deeper than a bathtub.
I spent a couple days thinking about what it was like in the New's whitewater all those years ago. I thought about how ever since Wayne had left I'd felt unsteady, damaged, failing, like a bird that had flown into a window or a wooden ship coming apart in a hurricane. And I thought a lot about how Wayne had rafted the Gauley. He was really proud of that; years after he'd done it a poster of the river had still hung in his kitchen. He'd always dissuaded me from taking on the Gauley, though I used to try to tell him maybe it would be best to tackle my water phobia by facing it head on.
I accepted the invitation.
For six weeks annually beginning in early September, during what is known as dam release season, the Gauley turns into one of the best rivers in the world for whitewater rafting. The Army Corp of Engineers cranks open Summersville Dam's valves and the lake pours into the river, spawning five Class V rapids, the most intense commercial rafting guides are permitted to navigate, on the upper stretch alone. I would be rafting with Adventures on the Gorge, the area's premier guide service/outfitter/resort, as part of a team made almost entirely of women. Even our guide, Jo-Beth Stamm, was female.
It was Jo-Beth who gave me the confidence to not only step into the raft, but sit in the front of it, where paddling is the most arduous and the water more merciless. Jo-Beth had competed as part of the U.S. women's team at the 2015 World Whitewater Rafting Championship in Indonesia and she projected the kind of self-assurance and might that's contagious. When we hit big water — those infamous Class V rapids that'd earned the Gauley the nickname "Beast of the East" and roared like massive things, vicious and alive — Jo-Beth stayed calm, barking instructions intended to keep the boat upright and us tucked into it. All forward, she'd yell, and I'd paddle as hard as I could, setting the pace until she screamed for us to stop or paddle backwards or sometimes to just do it with even more force. "Dig in! Dig in! Dig in!" she cried. And then somehow I'd paddle harder.
"Somewhere in the midst of the first Class V, a monster ironically dubbed 'Insignificant,' I realized that I was no longer precisely afraid."
I'd paddle until my shoulders burned and my breath became ragged with the effort. Until my feet, braced with desperation against the bottom of the raft, spasmed and my hands ached. And all the while the river would churn and thrash, pummeling my body, trying with a force that seemed almost sentient to knock me from my perch and drag me into its depths. But somewhere in the midst of the first Class V, a monster ironically dubbed "Insignificant," I realized that I was no longer precisely afraid. I still felt some fear, but it had been mostly supplanted by determination and even elation. By the time we reached the end of the rapid and the river slowed, turning lazy and benevolent, I was laughing out loud. For the first time in months, maybe years, I felt exactly like myself.
I discovered something else, too – or rather, Jo-Beth did. All that training I'd been doing for the past few months had made mestrong. So strong that I kept pulling the raft off course, to my side. Jo-Beth spent a lot of the day switching people into different positions, trying to find the combination that balanced out the power with which I paddled. I guess she finally had it figured out by the time we hit our last Class V, Sweet's Falls. The 14-foot drop the rapid is named after, high enough that when we went down it I felt like my body became airborne for about an hour, tossed a lot of people into the river that afternoon. But not only did we stay in the boat, we managed to snag a couple rafters who had gone into the drink, pulling them to safety.
That's a good memory, but the one that makes me smile the widest happened during a quiet moment. We were in between rapids, languidly watching damselflies flit and flirt in the sun, when someone asked what we'd do if we won the lottery.
"I'd go into space," I'd said immediately. "I'd buy a ticket into space."
"That's perfect for you, Jill," Jo-Beth had replied. "You'd make a great astronaut."
"Because to go into space you have to be brave. And you're fearless."
And with that, Jo-Beth dubbed me Astronaut. When I start to miss Wayne, or wonder if I'll really be able to climb those mountains, or feel lonely or afraid, I think about that day on the Gauley. Wayne never wanted me to raft it. He never wanted me to do a lot of things and even though those concerns came from love, trying to live the way he demanded almost broke me. But I think every time I heard Jo-Beth holler "Hey, Astronaut!" at me, I might have healed just a little bit more.
Video: WE MADE IT ON THE NEWS! (rafting down the LA river) | Garrett Ginner
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