River Blog, Uncategorized

Surviving the Sufferfest

How to keep spirits high when you’re getting beat-down

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My friend Alia staying stoked after we took a very long wrong turn and accidentally ended up at the base of Mt. Baker. (Not taken on the Wonderland Trail)

I was 5 days into hiking the Wonderland trail, a 93 mile loop that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier. My friend Alia and I planned to complete the trail in 9 days, so we were just over half-way done and stoked about the prospects of actually finishing the whole loop. That night we were staying at a camp called Devil’s Dream, “more like Devil’s hell,” two ladies had told us when we passed them earlier on the trail. We laughed and kept on hiking, not knowing that we would soon learn the painful truth behind their ‘joke’. When we got to camp we set up our tent in a nice flat spot and went to bed early. We wanted to get some rest for the big mileage we were putting in the next day. 

My body felt like lead from hiking 5 days straight, but I woke up feeling as if I was floating on air. I blinked a few times as I opened my eyes, unable to tell the difference between the pitch black of night and the dark veil of my eyelids. It was 2am and raining hard. The sound of rain falling on my tent was soothing. But, before I let it coax me back to sleep, I quickly reached out of the warmth of my sleeping bag to check if any water had accumulated in the tent. My hand immediately sunk, completely submerged in water up to the wrist. I suddenly realized that the illusion that I was floating on air was real but, instead of air, I was floating in a big pool of rainwater. 

    I immediately emerged from a state of being half-asleep into a full-on panic. I scrambled to find my headlamp and turned it on, only to confirm my worst assumptions: everything was wet. My backpack, my gear, my sleeping bag — all the things I had strategically positioned underneath the tent so that they would not get wet. This was bad. This was really really bad. The only other time I had been this hopelessly wet in the wilderness was when I got hypothermia, and I was determined to never experience it again.

I looked over to Alia, sleeping soundly right next to me. She was half-submerged in water and totally ignorant to the fact that she was nearly a drowning victim. “Alia,” I half-whispered, half-yelled, trying not to sound as panicked as I felt.

“Alia,” I repeated,

No response.

“Alia wake up!” 

She groaned.

“We are in a pool,” I said, the panic starting to reveal itself in my voice.

“What?” She finally responded. 

“We are in a pool of water!”

In a tired confusion, she suggested that we block the rain from coming into the tent. Considering that we were already practically swimming, I told her that our only option was to move. 

Reluctantly, we both got out of our warm, wet sleeping bags, put on our wet shoes, and went through the painstaking process of moving a tent while half-asleep in a torrential rainstorm. We made it out of the rain-pool, but now faced the issue of how to stay warm in our wet gear. By some miracle, the inside of my sleeping bag was only slightly damp. Alia’s sleeping bag, on the other hand, was completely soaked through. So, in an attempt to get some sleep, I spent the night curled up in the tightest ball possible and Alia spent the night wrapped in the emergency blanket that we threw in our packs last minute (thank god). Somehow, we fell back asleep while covered in wet gear and slept until the first light of the morning. It was still raining. We quickly packed up our wet gear and practically ran 6 miles to Longmire, the nearest ranger station. There, we dried out our gear and enjoyed the rare luxury of indoor heating while on the trail. 

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Warming up and drying off our soaked shoes next to the glorious heater in the ranger station. We are wrapped up in our new favorite piece of gear: our bright orange emergency blanket.

Unfortunately, the rain was not the only trouble that we faced on the trail. In a tragic case of miscommunication we lost our water filtration system and accidentally messed up our itinerary so that we had two heinous days of mileage. However, despite our repeated misfortune, we managed to complete the trail on time. Looking back on it, we easily could have let the trials of the trail put us in a bad mood.  If so, I have no doubt that we would have become frustrated and bailed. However, we didn’t even consider bailing an option. There was really no need to bail because we were still having a good time! 

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Proudly holding the gallon of water that we hustled off of some car campers after we realized that we lost our water filtration system

Now that I consider myself a quasi-expert in getting seriously beat-down in the outdoors, I compiled a list of the things that were critical to keeping our spirits high on the trail. Hopefully this can help others, who, like me, have a deeply concerning version of fun, and often find themselves struggling in the wilderness. 

How to Stay Stoked on Your Sufferfest 101:

1. Singing songs: my personal favorite is making trail-themed parodies of popular songs. There’s nothing like the reassuring words of your favorite pop artist to keep you going on the trail. Some of our greatest trail hits included: 

  • “Take Me Home, Wonderland” – John Denver
  • “Rolling in the Deet” – Adele
  • “Woman of Constant Sorrow” – The Stanley Brothers
  • ”Baby got Pack” – Sir Mix-a-lot

2. Laughing at yourself. Laughing at yourself when you trip. Laughing at yourself when you spend an hour filtering water just to get ¼ liter in your bottle. Laughing at yourself when you spill piping-hot oatmeal all over your lap. Laughing at yourself when you sit down at the place you were convinced was top of a gruesome climb, only to discover that you were at the false summit. Laughing at yourself a lot.

3. Chocolate. Lots of it. As often as possible and in as much quantity as you can possibly carry.

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Fruit snacks also kept us motivated on the trail. Here I am holding our prized last package.

 

4. Brainstorming lists of all the things that make your sh*tty situation great, in order to pass the time spent in said sh*ttiness. For example, we kept a list going for a couple of days about why hiking in the rain is great. Here is a sample:

  • The rain cools down the hot air.
  • The humidity soothes our scratchy throats that had been dried out from the thin alpine air. 
  • We get to see new wildlife that come out only when it rains, like frogs and slugs!
  • We actually get to put to use the rain gear that we were carrying all this time.
  • We get to find out/test by force which pieces of our gear are actually waterproof.
  • The cooler temps means that we don’t have to drink as much water. . . i.e. we don’t have to treat as much water. . . i.e. we don’t have to boil as much water (our solution to losing our water treatment system).
  • Our chocolate won’t melt.

5. Bursting out in random exclamations of “WHOOHOO!” when you’re feeling your worst.  In this case, “woohoo” is a call and response which your hiking partner repeats back. A response indicates that, they too are in great suffering, but, they too are stoked to keep going. Suffering in solidarity is much better than suffering alone. 

6. Taking a break when you feel your worst, and looking around to remind yourself of the beauty that surrounds you. Your issues suddenly don’t seem so bad when you let yourself feel small and be humbled by nature.

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Stopping to smell the alpine air.

There’s many more things that I could add to this list, but, overall, they come down to the same thing: attitude. One of the biggest lessons I learned on the Wonderland trail was that when you face great difficulty, your attitude can make or break your success. In this case, our positive attitude was the key to our success, especially when we were suffering the most. At the expense of sounding like a corny high school football coach, I truly believe that a positive attitude is one of the most powerful means to achieving your goals. 

It is important to note that a positive attitude won’t get you through every challenge, so it is crucial to know when to bail. Also, I recognize how hard it is to maintain a positive attitude when you are being physically and mentally challenged to your max capacity — I, myself, have bailed out of multiple epic outdoor adventures due to my own negativity. Furthermore, I am not the kind of person to think that there has to be epic suffering involved in order to have a legitimate wilderness experience. There’s many ways in which we can meaningfully engage with the wilderness at no expense to ourselves. However, the more you engage with the wilderness, or any unpredictable experience, the more likely it is that you will face a situation that will make you uncomfortable. So, when that time comes, it is good to be prepared not only with your gear, but also with your attitude. The sufferfest may be inevitable, but you can choose how to respond to it. If you respond with optimism the suffering may feel less painful, and the memories will definitely be sweeter. 

River Blog, Uncategorized

In-tune or Ignorant? The danger of escaping to the outdoors

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A relaxing day on the Salmon River

Between raging whitewater, harsh weather, and the existence of possibly every poisonous critter imaginable, there is no doubt that rivers are a dangerous place. So, naturally, river guides are highly attuned to danger. Most of our job involves mitigating risks on the river, from knowing every rock and wave that might flip our boat, to memorizing practically every patch of poison ivy we might encounter in the long stretches we guide. However, when it comes to current events, politics, or knowing the latest Kardashian drama, we are useless. To a certain extent, being hopelessly out of tune with the rest of society is a natural side effect of being a river guide. Normally, we go days without technology. Our only access to civilization is usually a spotty Satellite phone and the occasional back-country general store, so there is no way we could keep up with current events. 

The barrier that the river provides from the rest of society doesn’t bother most guides. In fact, many of us seek out this kind of escape from the constant buzz of depressing news cycles and political turmoil. Many river guides go so far as to pride themselves on being “out of tune” with greater society, and often disregard pressing socioeconomic and political issues as a dramatic nuisance. And, I don’t blame them. Coming back to civilization after a relaxing trip down the river can be overwhelming and disheartening. The second we turn our phones back on we are immediately bombarded with notifications and news-feeds showing all of the hardships and ugliness of the world. Instead of engaging with these issues, we often choose to tune it all out until our next escape to the safe-haven of the river. As a result, one of the biggest dangers that guides face on the river is not one that we can easily see, navigate around, or treat with ointments. Instead it is the danger of an escapist mentality, rampant throughout the guide community, that makes us ignorant and complacent to the important issues affecting our own communities. 

That being said, not all river guides seek to ignore the problems of modern civilization. Many guides that I know regularly engage with complex sociopolitical issues through activism and community organizing. However, discussing race, gender, socioeconomics, and politics becomes taboo when we are out on the river. Much of this is due to the fact that river guiding is a customer service job, and, in general, these subjects are taboo in the customer service industry. Many of our clients are drawn to the river for the same reasons we are: to escape the dysfunctional reality of the world. So, in an effort to help them recharge their spirit and soul, we don’t talk about those issues. But, unlike guides, our clients don’t remain out of touch with the world for extended periods of time. By the time they reenter civilization and face all of the complex problems it holds, we are back out on the river, once again reveling in our ignorant bliss.  

Something that many guides fail to see is that our ability to easily escape from the world’s problems is a huge privilege. We have the choice not to live with, engage with, or see the hardships of the world everyday. Some people have no option but to struggle with these issues by virtue of their race, gender, or religion. And no, I’m not saying that river guides don’t deal with significant issues in their personal lives at home or even while they are on the river. What I’m saying is, our job makes us out of touch with the institutionalized barriers set up in society that harm minority groups in our communities. This disconnect is amplified by the fact that river recreation is largely a white, middle-class bubble. Many of the guides that I know come from white, middle class backgrounds, and the majority of our clients are white upper-middle class folk. Because there is very little nuance in this demographic, our worldview is rarely challenged by the conversations we have and the people we interact with on a regular basis. And, even if we have conversations about issues like discrimination, people who hold those lived experiences are rarely present and a part of the conversation. 

Overall, the reality we live in as guides isn’t reality at all. River guides readily admit this in the language we use. We often refer to the world outside the river as the “real world,” as if river life is disconnected from reality. Although the river and the experiences we have on it aren’t “fake”, they definitely are not a representation of the true state of the world. Instead, the river is an altered reality, where the days are measured by sunlight, where ice and beer are more valuable than money, and where your biggest problem is running out of coffee and toilet paper. 

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Letting loose and playing dress-up is a common sight on the river

The river is the reality that most people want to live in — an example of perfect paradise, where people live in sweet simplicity with nature. In a fear-filled world where people rarely let their guard down, the river gives people a rare chance to unwind and connect to their surroundings without worry. In this way, escaping to the river has incredible value. It provides a safe sanctuary that allows for a spiritual recharge. Although the river makes us out of touch with the outside world, it allows us to tune in with ourselves and the higher spirit of nature. 

The river is a powerful force that can either put us more in touch with the world or distort our reality. When we use it as an opportunity to recharge, then we can come back and face our problems with more grounding in ourselves. However, when we seek out the river as an escape, we live in an egocentric reality where we do not acknowledge problems outside ourselves. Sure, it is easy and comfortable, but being completely ignorant to sociopolitical issues does not make them go away. The truth is, even when we are on the river, these problems directly impact our lives. We have to stop pretending that river life is reality, for when we do we are no better than the jaded politicians and shallow celebrities that we criticize for being out-of-touch with the world. Instead, we should begin to embrace the river as a way to practice peaceful living and kindness, so that we can bring the values of the river back home with us and engage in meaningful change. 

River Blog, Uncategorized

Overworked and Undervalued: the survival story of a female raft guide in a macho industry

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Photo by Tom Robotham

I first entered the whitewater industry the summer after my freshman year of college as an unassuming, 120-pound, 19-year old woman. As you can imagine, this is not the typical demographic for river guides — an occupation that is dominated by big, burly, self-assured men. Right off the bat, I was intimidated by this macho-charged work environment. I always felt as if I was falling behind by default of my small size, unable to lift as much weight or move a large, heavy boat as quickly down the river. The inferiority I felt from feeling like I was too small, too weak, and too slow to keep up with the guys quickly translated into me compensating by working my a** off, trying to prove that I too, am a valuable employee, that I too, can hold my own, and that I too, am capable and strong. And, as time went on, I started to get compliments from my male coworkers for my strong work ethic. But, for me, working hard never felt like an option, instead it felt like something that was expected of me, something that was required in order to prove my worth as a female guide. For me, this wasn’t working hard, this was survival in a male-dominated work environment. 

Over time, I started to notice that, despite our smaller size, my female coworkers and I could run laps around the guys: continuing to work when they stopped, noticing details that could be improved, taking initiative to do the grunt work that no one else wanted to do, and going out of our way to help and take care of other guides. I can’t speak fully for other female guides, but I think we are subconsciously motivated by deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. This overcompensatory work ethic is driven by a patriarchal belief taught from birth that we are not good enough, strong enough, or as naturally fit for a physically-demanding job as our male coworkers. So, we work hard even when we don’t have to, go above and beyond even when we are not called to, and take on the work of others even when they don’t ask us to, all in an effort to prove our worth. 

Our male coworkers, on the other hand, act as if they are entitled to the job and take full advantage of this dynamic. There are multiple times where I have found myself working under the blazing hot afternoon sun or late into the night while the guys sit around, drink beer, and tell me to “chill out” and “stop working so hard” because it makes them uncomfortable. What they don’t understand is that I am caught in a double standard where women have to work twice as hard in order to be considered valuable. If I were to sit down and drink a beer while there was still work to be done I would be confirming stereotypical assumptions that I am weak, worthless, and incapable of hard work because I am a woman. 

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Rowing the gear-boat down the Snake River

 

However, after three years as a guide it is becoming apparent that proving your worth through hard work does not gain you any more respect as a woman. I find myself continually frustrated that, even though my female coworkers and I continually go above and beyond the call of duty, we are still underestimated and put-down by our coworkers and clients. These put-downs usually come in the form of back-handed compliments and snide comments that belittle our capacity for strength. I regularly receive comments such as:

“You’re so tiny, how do you move that big boat?”

“Wow, these oars are actually really heavy, you’re a lot stronger than I thought”

“With how small you are, I am surprised you can carry those big buckets of water up and down from camp”

I have come to find that when people call me small and tiny, they are really calling me incapable. Because I am a woman, when people see me working, they assume that it is not hard work. Instead, they assume that any physically demanding work I do, such as rowing a boat or lifting gear, must be easy. So they are surprised when they feel the weight of the oars or see the amount of water I carry from the river in the washbucket. It amazes me that, even when people see a woman working in a highly non-traditional occupation, they still assume that she is adhering to traditional roles, and that, even when a woman is performing an overtly physically challenging task, people still assume that it must not be taxing. In essence, any work a woman does is undervalued until proven otherwise. 

This all being said, I am very lucky to work at a company that values women, hires many female guides, and where my boss responds and takes action to complaints of sexism. I have heard many horror stories from female guides at other companies who have experienced sexism in much more apparent, and life-threatening ways than I have. So, I am grateful to work in a mostly woman-friendly work environment. However, I think it is important to point out that even in a work environment where sexism is actively called out and looked down upon, women still experience a great deal of it, just in less-apparent ways. Female guides are some of the strongest, no-nonsense people I know, so the fact that sexism still creeps into their lives shows how powerful and sinister it can be, even in less-apparent forms. Until we become aware of the veiled sexism that exists in the whitewater industry, these incredible women will continue to be overworked and undervalued.

River Blog

The Worry Warrior: inside the mind of an anxious raft guide

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Me and my paddle raft crew going down Snow Hole Rapid on the Lower Salmon River. Photo by Jordan Manley

Looking down at Snow Hole rapid my heart is racing. I have pulled over above one of the class IV rapids on the Lower Salmon River with three coworkers and a group of 15 guests. Standing on the rocky shore, we scout our line down the rapid.

15 people, I think. That’s 15 people to get down the rapid safely.

I have run this rapid before. In fact, I have run this rapid many times with no issues. 

We pick a line. It’s the same line we always run. I don’t even have to look at the rapid to picture the line in my head: enter right facing the left bank and move left.

I know exactly what to do. But, staring at the rapid, my heart pounds faster while I think of everything that could possibly go wrong. I ask myself why, after so many times on this river, I am still nervous to run this rapid. I close my eyes, take some deep breaths, and try to envision myself getting down the rapid successfully.

Suddenly, I am jolted out of my little moment of meditation by a loud voice, “Do you ever get scared to run the rapids?” 

I open my eyes to see a guest staring at me so intensely that it startles me. It’s almost as if they know I am about to lie, and are looking for any small sign of fear on my face to confirm their suspicions. 

I suddenly get self-conscious. Can they sense how nervous I am? I hesitate for a moment, questioning whether or not I should tell the truth. The truth being that yes, I do get scared. That, no matter how many times I run a big rapid, I wonder if this is the time I mess up, flip a boat, or get hurt. That, to me, it’s only a matter of time until the river teaches me a lesson. 

Instead, I stand up tall, smile confidently, and say “We have a clear line set on this rapid that we run successfully every week. I have never had any issues running this rapid. And, if anything happens, we have an experienced team of guides that are trained in river safety and rescue” 

Thankfully, this response seems to satisfy them and the interrogation is over. But, my sense of relief fades fast, and my mind begins to race with worst-case-scenarios all over again. 

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Scouting Wild Sheep Rapid in Hells Canyon. My coworker Robin is pointing out the line to me. Photo by Samuel Hinerfeld

I have always been a worrier. In fact I would say that most things I have done in my life have been driven by fear. This may sound contradictory — to see fear as a driving force. We tend to see fear as a bad thing, something that paralyzes us from action. Something that makes us weak. However, I see my fear as my superpower. The times I have felt the most fear in my life are the times I have been the strongest. 

Being a chronically fearful person I have two options: to either let the fear completely consume me and force me into inaction, or to confront the fear head on and get it over with. I have always preferred the latter. I hate feeling anxious, so I generally do anything to let it be over as soon as possible. This means directly confronting the thing that scares me instead of sitting in anxious agony. The result is a weird paradox of personality where people see me as “badass” and “tough” when I take on risky situations, even though I am seriously freaking out on the inside. 

I cannot think of a time where this superpower manifests more concretely than while raft-guiding. No matter how scared I am to run a rapid, I have no choice but to face it head-on and “send-it”, all the while acting as if it is no big deal. It is literally my job to confront my fears. 

So, being the professional raft guide I am, I hop in my boat with my heart racing, repeating the line over and over in my head as me and my paddle raft crew float slowly toward the rapid

Enter right, move left

Enter right, move left

Enter right, move left

Once my boat is situated above the rapid, I yell “ALL FORWARD” and my paddle raft crew bursts into action, sending us full force into the waves. A sense of calm rushes over me. It’s game time and I am completely in the zone. Everything slows down and all of my worries melt away. It’s just me and the water. I know instantly that I am on target. With seemingly effortless movement, my boat glides through the rapid, perfectly situated in between two huge holes. We get to the bottom and everything speeds up again. We made it through safe. A sense of pride and relief washes over me, but not for long. This same process of worrying repeats itself when we get to the top of the next big rapid. 

With all of the safety concerns and risk associated with whitewater, you would think an anxious person like me would hate running rivers. But, I actually thrive in it. Rivers, unlike most everyday anxiety-producing experiences, have a clear beginning and end. This is a key aspect to why anxious people like me enjoy running them. Big rapids allow me to see my fears, directly confront them, and leave them in the past. At some point, you have to let go of your worries and just go down the freakin’ rapid. In this way, rivers provide me one of the most tangible and satisfying ways to conquer my fears. And, in conquering them, I am beginning to realize that I am a lot more capable than I give myself credit for. Perhaps the fear is not of the river itself, but instead based in my own self-doubt. Perhaps the greatest lesson I have learned from the river is not about the river at all: it is about my own self-sabotage. Maybe if I stop getting in my own way, I can conquer a lot more than running a rapid.