One of the highlights of my summer, and lucky me for the past several summers, was to serve as a medical volunteer on a First Descents week. This summer I was in Hood River, Oregon and magic happened! A group of total strangers, brought together by the commonality of having received a cancer diagnosis, decided to call on their strengths and their courage to try something totally new and yes a bit out of their comfort zone. They ventured to an unknown place, alone, and left with a new “family” and a renewed sense of finding “their flow” after cancer turned their lives upside down.
Part of the beauty of the week is spending time in a wondrous natural place with a group of folks who get the cancer thing. There is lots of laughter and sometimes tears and yes, a bunch of really, really great folks and delicious food. For some it includes the experience of sharing those secret places inside that want to be seen, that want to be heard and that want to celebrate this precious life when cancer has entered into it. For many young adults the week may provide the first time being with other young adults who have also had a cancer diagnosis. A big part of the magic is the lead staff and their skills at guiding each and every participant to the joys, the beauty and the lessons of the river, all the while encouraging the participants to feel the river, feel their hips (we’ve got ya Shakira!) and be open to learning new ways of navigating the flow.
“My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
- Langston Hughes
Lessons of My Summer
Direction of flow
· The current of a river doesn’t like to be diverted. Whenever there is a bend or an obstacle the flow of the river changes.
· We have to learn to navigate this flow, otherwise we just get swept along for the ride.
Things that Obstruct Flow
· Sometimes we see what gets in the way of the flow of the river like a bend in the river, a downed tree or a big rock.
· Sometimes the flow of the river is altered by things we can’t see and this can be especially perilous.
· A place where the current in the river slackens and you are sheltered by the current.
· A place to rest and regroup, to spend some time and be with your mates. A safe haven.
· You can EXPECT eddies anytime something gets in a river’s way, slows it down or forces it to change course.
· To get into the eddy you have to cross the eddy line. Eddy lines are confused water between the current and the calm water. Some eddy lines may be almost imperceptible and others a rush of turbulent water.
· Crossing an eddy line can be challenging. It is a time of instability. Navigating this unpredictable water takes practice.
· Assessing the flow of the river, keeping your eyes and kayak pointed in the direction you want to go, working to maintain that angle and paddling with strength and intention help to get you into and out of the eddy.
· Learning to lean into your entry and exit from the eddy is a definite skill!
· When crossing the eddy line, both going into and out of the eddy, you can definitely find yourself upside down in the river!
Remember the 4 T’s When you find yourself upside down
Tuck: Protect yourself first - tuck your head forward and try to stay calm.
Tap: don’t hesitate to ask for help - take your hands and tap on the side of your kayak so others see you are in need of assistance then run your hands along the side of the boat so you can feel their kayak when it comes up to yours.
Tug: Sometimes others aren’t there when you need them most so ya gotta help yourself! Tug on that skirt strap and get ready to.
Take your pants off: Sometimes you end up in places you don’t expect and you have to do the best you can - slide out of that kayak just like you are sliding out of a pair of pants!
AND sometimes when you are upside down and you are not sure anyone is there a hand might reach over and turn your kayak right side up and all feels okay again! (Lovingly referred to as “The Hand of God”)
I am always in awe of the curious, caring, wonderful and courageous participants who venture out and find new ways of seeing and new ways of being, new friends and new strengths. There are not enough words to express the admiration and thanks I feel for the lead staff as they strive to make First Descents such a fabulous organization. Thanks for sharing your love and wisdom of the river (they also do surfing and rock climbing too), the power of connection and having fun and for giving us cues to guide us through this sometimes crazy life!
If you would like to make a donation, please visit the First Descents website or consider helping one of these two ladies “pay it forward” with their Out Living It Projects, featured below. The Out Living It Project helps to raise funds for a new participant to attend next year. They too are trying to spread the magic!
Sending you all curiosity, compassion, caring and connection,
PS: Thanks to Elizabeth Tobey for her river wisdom and help with terminology and to Enrique Parrilla (@eparrillaphotos) for the photo.