I balance on a boulder the size of a semi-truck, gripped with fear, staring at the jumbled mess of raging water and stone below. I tuck my hands into my life vest to quell the trembling. My legs wobble. My innards liquify.
I steal a glance at my trip mates’ faces as they too attempt to make sense of the surging hydraulics in front of us. Quadrillions of gallons of water squeeze through a pinch in the Canyon that is a complicated maze of rocks begging for the opportunity to tear apart my 16 feet of rubber raft.
We are 24 ½ miles into our 227-mile journey through Grand Canyon and I wonder “S@#$, what have I gotten myself into now?”
I look upstream, to the day before we launched when I was on dry ground and my fears were imagined, anticipatory. Today, facing the mayhem, I now know with absolute clarity what is causing me angst. Fear of the unknown has turned into terror of reality. I either have to maneuver my rubber and steel craft through waves whose sole purpose is to turn my boat upside down or remain on this shoreline until I am dead and gone.
I am 56 years old. I am with my children and their friends on the 23-day expedition of our dreams; a journey that will define who we are as individuals and as a family. My BF will join us in a few days. There are two other women in this group of male river guides. One, recovering from an injury is not on the oars. The other is my daughter-in-law-to-be whom I will follow anywhere. One cheers from the sidelines, the other leads me to places in the Canyon and my heart where I would never have the courage to go alone.
I am filled with gratitude for both.
While the boys on our trip plan their routes through the rapid below knowing they can muscle their way through anything, Jazlyn and I know that our success depends on our ability to finesse a route between, over, and around.
I am both terrified and determined. I came on this trip to row my own boat, to prove to myself that I have the tenacity and mental resilience to overcome my fear and steer my way down one of the most coveted stretches of river in the world. I want to earn my place in this glorious canyon.
I don’t want to be a passenger, I want to be an active participant.
But at the moment, I am wondering why anyone in their right mind would choose to do what I am about to do.
Jazlyn and I have an unspoken understanding that this is our moment. We will run this together. Here, the men on the trip are irrelevant. This rapid, only a few miles into our adventure, is named in honor of the first woman to commercially run boats through Grand Canyon. Jaz looks at me, sparks of excitement flashing out of her enormous sable eyes. Her wild enthusiasm gives a much-needed boost to my limited confidence in my rowing abilities. How can I be scared when this remarkable young woman is leading me down a trail blazed by the legendary Georgie White?
All of the sexism and challenges and heartache that boatwomen have had to navigate in this predominantly male world joins the current, offering us a precious moment to celebrate our own strength, our own individual journeys. It is not the biggest or scariest rapid on the river, but at this moment, it is the most important.
Although there will be moments of such abject terror ahead that I gladly hand my oars over to the tremendously muscled 20-year-old boy on the front of my boat, this is not one of those times.
It’s girl time.
At the scout, Jaz and I choose our line through the chaos based on our skills and our determination. We return to our boats prepared to join the ranks of our heroines, the women who have come before us, who pioneered access for us to be on the sticks on our own crafts.
The men disappear from my awareness. At this moment, we are the only two people on this river.
Jaz backs her boat away from the shore. She looks upstream at me and grins. We’ve got this. I pull out directly behind her, planting my feet solidly on the floor of my boat and standing up to see what’s ahead.
Jaz and I focus on the boat-eating wave of water that we will need to punch through with the bows of our boats lest we get devoured.
I have been offered one invaluable piece of advice for rowing the jumbled masses of whitewater on this river, “When you get to the top of the rapid and stare into the maw of the beast, do not pull back on your oars. Do not try to slow down. Instead, turn your boat into the turmoil and push forward on your oars as hard as you can. Tee up. Meet the danger head-on. Hesitating for even a split second will set you up for failure.”
Trust my own abilities.
The only way out is through.
Jaz glides across the smooth, calm waters of the pool that forms at the top of our rapid. The river through the Canyon has a way of slowing you down to a snail’s pace just before plunging you over the lip into the next 10 seconds of fighting to stay upright and on course while distractions and dangers roar at you from every direction. My job is to meet those dangers unflinchingly, and emerge safely on the other side.
I watch Jaz’s boat drop over the lip of the pool and for a split second eighteen feet of rubber and one hundred pounds of woman disappear under a wave that could push my boat back upstream to the put-in. Just as I reach the tipping point, her blond head pops into view as she continues towards the rock that can grab a boat and never let go. I have one eye on the hole in front of me and one eye on her watching which way she will go to avoid the danger.
I have forgotten the men on my trip. It is only Jazlyn, Georgie, and me.
I gather the strength of those women who have come before me, stand up, and push with all of my might directly into the hole, the danger, my fears.
I fight the power of the Colorado as it tries to steer me off course, but I will not let it win. I see Jaz spit out at the bottom of the rapid, her joy mine, mine hers. I work my way to the left of the rock. If I miss it, I will have succeeded.
When I reach the tailwaves at the end, heart racing, adrenaline surging with the eddies around me, Jaz and I high-five across the river. We say a silent prayer of gratitude to the ghost of Georgie White and all of the other boatwomen who navigated the tumultuous waters of the river world, inspiring us, so that here we are, in this moment, savoring our success and honoring the strength and tenacity that got us each here today.
I am soon to discover that downstream from this moment, I will tee up to currently unforeseen challenges that will threaten to turn me upside down, to sweep me away in currents that I cannot control. The courage, resilience, and unflinching determination that I gained in the belly of the earth will keep me afloat through it all; will see me successfully flush out into the calmer waters beyond the turmoil. The only way out is through.
Let's raise a glass to the power of the river and to the women who are fearless enough to swim with the currents.
To Jazlyn, Georgie, and me.
When you set out on a boat, you leave behind the land,
the trees, the bustle of the community.
Your senses begin to merge with the experience of the river.
"Yoga is the poor man's drug"
So says Katherine Murray, Kat. Kinetic Kat.
Raft guide. Yoga instructor. Artist. Friend.
Last year, I had the great pleasure of spending three weeks floating the Colorado River through Grand Canyon with Kat, Everett and Jazlyn, and a handful of their closest river guiding friends.
Kat was recovering from a head injury and focused on healing, both mentally and physically. Along with sunshine and fresh air, part of Kat's journey included her daily yoga practice.
Sandy beaches, warm breezes, and the currents of the Colorado on her journey to the sea, provided the perfect setting to let go of the trappings of our modern day world. No work. No 401Ks. No phones ringing or zoom calls.
I watched as Kat stretched and meditated. I witnessed a great peace flow over her as she communed with the natural world around her, healing with every breath.
She seemed in sync with the moving waters, at one with the trees and stone. Grounded. Confident. Strong.
It became obvious that yoga and flowing water go hand in hand.
Kat says, "There are energy channels in the body that mimic the braids of a river. The energy needs to flow as freely as untamed waters. Debris blocks the current of the river and the currents of the energy inside each of us. It is up to us to find a way to remove those dams, to keep our emotions and experiences alive and unhampered as they move through our minds, bodies, and souls."
Some, like Kat, see yoga as the union of man and nature; that our breathing mimics the flows of the natural world. Animal poses remind us that we are connected with all creatures of this beautiful planet.
Yoga and mindfulness, especially when practiced somewhere outside, allow us the primal experience of connection with the trees, the waters, the birds, our own creativity, and, each other.
Just witnessing someone else, lost in quietude, in a pose on a stone ledge, gave me a sense of peace.
I could only imagine what actually participating might do for my addled brain.
So, this summer, I have the opportunity to do just that.
So do you.
Kat and Idaho Adventures are planning a yoga, writing, and whitewater trip down the River Of No Return, the wild and remote Salmon River, and you are invited.
"We are all called to adventure; a call that we must heed. Whether that is running rivers or climbing mountains or facing the mental log jams that are keeping us from being our fullest selves, it is important to carve out time to create deep connection with nature and our strongest and best selves."
Creating space to quiet our minds gives us the opportunity to learn new skills, develop resilience, and create peace and patience that we can take with us back to our ordinary lives, hopefully helping us to move into extra-ordinary futures.
Sitting on a beach watching moving water slows down time, allowing us the chance to truly relax, giving our overtaxed psyches the opportunity to re-calibrate, settle down, balance.
Who doesn't need THAT right about now?
Can you imagine the serenity of quietly sitting by a campfire, developing friendships with new people and new perspectives on life; taking the time to contemplate your own potential and remember that there is more to life than a mile-long to-do list?
All of us in this magical world of river running believe that once you find that bond with the earth and each other, it imprints on your heart and you carry that peace with you through the inevitable turbulence of life.
Yoga opens the door to that connection and learning.
And therein lies the drug.
Peace, contentment, physical movement, joy, all yours for the taking. Combine that with sunshine and laughter, beauty and good food, new friends and adventure and you are bound to go home a happier human being.
We are also including a creative writing component to the trip. Writing exercises will help create the space to put your experiences into words in ways that will help you recall the joy when life's turbulence tries to push it into the background.
The best thing about an Idaho Adventures Yoga Float is that we don't require any prior experience - with yoga, writing, or rafting. You don't need to touch your toes or twist your body into a pretzel. It's okay if you've never slept under the stars at night or splashed through whitewater in a remote mountain canyon, sky filled with eagles and osprey.
You don't need all of the trappings of commercialized yoga - the right leggings, the cool water bottle, your own mat tucked into a fancy carrier with "Namaste" embroidered in rainbow lettering carried over your shoulder.
None of that matters here.
Kat will make sure that you are ready for your very own personal experience with energetic flow. I will encourage your creativity to run with the waters of the Salmon. Idaho Adventures will guarantee that you are ready for your river journey.
All you need is your sense of adventure.
The dates for the trip are not yet set. We are putting this out there now to garner interest. If this is the kind of trip that interests you, please leave us a comment below or even just a thumbs up. You can also reach out to Everett and Jazlyn at IA.
This is not any type of commitment, only information gathering.
If the idea of eating well, nurturing your body and mind, making new friends, and seeing one of the most magical and remote places on this planet interests you, this trip is a great place to begin.
Come spend your days with Kat and the good folks here at Idaho Adventures.
I promise, it will be a life-changing adventure.
Suzanne Strazza is a boater, former guide, award-winning writer, and Mama Suz to many of the Idaho Adventures crew. Her writing has appeared in High Desert Journal, Paddler Magazine, Mountain Gazette, and Inside/Outside Magazine. Her work is included in the recent book, WET: An Anthology of Water Poems and Prose from the High Desert and Mountains of the Four Corners Region, and in the upcoming DIRT. She lives in a remote canyon in Southwest Colorado but spends as much time as possible in Salmon with her kids on the River of No Return.
Rafting down a river, as sumptuous as it is, involves an immense amount of work. Just getting ready is a feat of epic proportions.
(Which is why it's a great idea to do a guided trip.)
You have to pull your boat out of storage, blow it up by hand, rig it, load it on the trailer, rig that, then drive to the put-in, de-rig the trailer, de-rig the pick-up onto the ramp, load all of that onto the boat, strap it all down, clean up the trash, run a shuttle to the take-out, and fill water bottles before you can even launch.
But BEFORE that, you've had to plan food for however many days and however many people will comprise your adventure. Then you have to coordinate food and gear and vehicles with everyone else. But that's a challenge because you (and they) are also busy getting all of your ducks in a row so that you can leave town without your life imploding while you are gone.
Like herding cats, really.
You pull your river clothes out of your drybag and remember that you forgot to wash it all after your last trip.
You're making lists while attending zoom meetings, and driving to the City Market at midnight to buy pop tarts, which are traditional river food.
Because you had to work all day, drop your dog off at your friend's, and get your new car tags before you could leave town, you have to drive through the night in order to arrive in time to launch.
But here's the thing...
As hectic as it is, no one really minds because it all leads to The One Perfect Moment.
The moment comes when it all gets left behind. It is the proverbial carrot that motivates even the laziest of river folk.
An exact split-second of time so magnificent that you feel it in your bones and your soul.
That moment comes when the boat ramp is clear of flip flops and cam straps and unwanted layers of clothing.
You, the captain of your own private, 16-foot, rubber domain, settle into your captain's seat. You give everything within reach a tug, mentally questioning whether it will hold if the boat is upside down.
You secure your Koozie into your cup holder, tuck the map under a strap on your deck, and cinch up your PFD straps.
All launching rituals have been attended to.
You are ready for this. It took so much to get here and now it's time to reap the rewards.
No lights. No noise. Immersed in beauty beyond compare.
Your hands grasp the oars and gently place the blades in the water. You can feel the first inklings of current tugging at the boat. Your heart pumps a little bit harder. Your muscles remember how to do this without thought. You look at each other in anticipation. And then...
You pull on the oars and glide away from the shore and into the current.
Pure. Unadulterated. Joy.
This piece was previously published in Inside Outside Magazine, Summer 2004, as "River Socks"
While recently discussing logistics for an upcoming river trip, a friend asked me, “Is there any environment better for kids than the river?”
A river trip has all of the necessary elements for an ideal kid-trip: sand, mud, water, motion, adventure, excitement, exploration, sun (hopefully) and good friends: the same things that I crave for a good adventure.
For my first river experience with child, I was 7 ½ months pregnant with E and as part of my job, we ran a guided trip down the San Juan. Trying to prove that I was cool, competent, and as river savvy as any of the guides, when we got to camp, I volunteered to jump to shore and drag the boat up onto the beach. My graceful leap ended with landing headfirst in the deep mud, a foot shy of shore.
A couple of years later, we decided to try it again. I thought that things might be a bit easier with children on the outside, not the inside. The boys were then 1 and 3. I planned a three-day trip when the weather was sure to be good and went with other friends who also had small children. It was a raging success. After figuring out how to keep the wee ones cool and hydrated, in addition to bribing them to keep their PFD’s on all day, we had an amazing time. My boys loved everything about it. They loved the sound of the water and they loved splashing in it. They played in the sand, crawled after lizards, slid in the mud and threw rocks for hours on end. Taking the boys on the river became my new favorite pastime.
After getting really comfortable on shorter trips, we decided to venture out: new river, longer trip, bigger water and most importantly, more remote. The remoteness became a driving force behind my decision to explore new territory.
I missed being truly “out there.” My days of spending thirty days at a time in the wilderness had been cut short with my first pregnancy, but my cravings had yet to abate. I also wanted my children to experience real wilderness. They loved stories about adventures in the wild, and I wanted them to have their own tales to tell.
Now, I know that 10 days on a river in the middle of absolutely nowhere is not that appealing to many people, especially those with small children. I have to admit, that as we got closer to going on our first big trip, I began having visions of rattlesnakes, broken bones, allergic reactions and drownings:– all happening 50 miles from any sort of help. I did have moments of panic, but once we got to the put-in, I was overwhelmed with excitement and forgot most of my fears.
Over the ensuing years, we went on this stretch of river in big water and almost no water. We have had party members wrap boats, flip duckies, and swim rapids. We have had 16-hour days in 100-degree heat, and 4-hour days of rapid after rapid. We have dragged boats over sandbars, walked children around whitewater, and lost oars. We have had bear walk through our camp, seen baby birds hatch from their eggs, and watched a snake eat an insect bigger than my hand. Yes, we have also encountered rattlesnakes, scorpions, and very large kitty tracks. E and B have a basic understanding of the high desert and riparian areas. My kids have experienced true wildlife. This is a trip full of adventure, excitement, wonderment and learning.
I come from the background of Outward Bound and experiential education. I have seen the value of being a part of a group in a foreign, demanding, at-times-unforgiving environment. Every river trip that we embark on is like an Outward Bound course for my kids, and for me. The bonds that my children have formed through shared adventures and reliance upon the families that we travel with will last for years to come. There is nothing like a mutual wilderness experience to create community.
Part of that community experience is the entertainment factor. My children don’t need toys or T.V; they are just too busy to get bored. There’s always something new to see or explore or try with a friend.
E and B have also become completely self-sufficient. They know how to entertain themselves when they need to. They know how to rig and row a boat. They can read water; understand what creates currents, eddies and rapids. They have a healthy respect for the hazards of water, sun and dehydration. They help unload, set up the kitchen, do dishes and set up their tents. (Yes, my boys even sleep in their own tent.)
Within themselves, E and B have developed self-reliance and self confidence. They trust their instincts and are learning important skills. They know to pee in the water, not to litter, and that dipping a hat in the river before putting it on your head will keep you from getting over-heated when the temperature reaches the triple digits. They know to eat on a regular basis, sleep in a warm hat, and get out of wet clothes when the sun goes down. They help stake out the tent when the wind is blowing, put the fly on if the sky gets cloudy, and keep the tent zipped to keep out the scorpions.
They can’t add 2+2 but that’s not that important, is it?
It’s not that I think my kids are any better than the next (although I really do). It’s that I see the effect that being on the river has had on my boys and I think that it’s invaluable. My children have learned so much by doing and being rather than having me or a teacher yakking at them.
Most of all, when we are on the river, my boys are happy. What kid doesn’t love playing in water, building sandcastles, and having an entire pack of friends at their disposal? No time constraints, no cleaning up their room, no baths, just one fun day after another. The same friend that I was talking to earlier said last weekend as we watched our kids joyously play in a pothole in Canyonlands, “Splashing in the water and playing in the mud, that’s what rafting is all about. Day in and day out.”
It’s nothing but fun.
Admittedly, we’ve had some rough times on the river too. Inclement weather (including snow, sleet, hail, rain, wind and freezing temperatures - all at the same time), sibling battles, lost hats, and biting black flies, to name a few. But the good times always outweigh the bad. You know kids, if something makes them miserable, they won’t do it again. So, even when reminded of the days of sunburn, fighting, and head to toe bug bites, the boys still count the days until the next trip.
During the non-river months of the year, the boys talk incessantly of trips past and trips to come.
Recently, I really got how valuable these experiences are for my children. E was having trouble in school. One day he refused to wear his favorite fleece socks to school because they were purple, and the other boys were teasing him. I mentioned that they were his river socks and that perked him up instantly. Then, very compassionately, he said, “Mom, those guys have probably never been on a river trip. That makes me sad for them.”
After that, off he went to school, purple socks sticking out from the toes of his Chacos.
The Salmon River, which runs through the Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness is one of the longest, free-flowing rivers in our country. 425 miles of fast, clear, mountain water runs across Idaho without a functioning dam in sight.
No dams means bigger whitewater. No dams means more fish.
But "Why is it called the River of No Return?" one might ask.
When Lewis and Clark and their Shoshone guide, Swooping Eagle, got to the banks of the Salmon, they took one look at the raging class IV waters cutting through the mountains creating gorges deeper in places than Grand Canyon, and said, "No thanks," and went elsewhere.
Then, in the 1860's, miners and lumberjacks came to the area in droves looking for gold, silver, and...trees. More determined than their predecessors, they built heavy "sweep boats" to take them, and their wares, downstream to sell.
A sweep boat is like an enormous wooden bathtub with one long oar off the back used for steering. They took serious skill to run. Many of the miners developed those boating skills but there was still one problem: after getting downstream, the water was too turbulent and the landscape too rugged to get back to the starting point.
Humbled, the miners would instead float downstream, then take apart their boats board by board, which they then used or sold as lumber.
And they called this tumultuous river, the River of No Return.
The Frank Church - River of No Return Wilderness was established in 1980, and at well over 2,000,000 acres, is the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower forty-eight.
The miles of wilderness surrounding the River of No Return has been inhabited since at least 8,000 - 11,000 years ago. Some recently discovered artifacts may be as old as 16,000 years. The Nez Perce People are some of the descendants of these ancient residents.
It is sacred land to the Nez Perce tribe as well as home to deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, black bears, moose, river otters, mink, bobcats, and maybe even wolves. Chukar, grouse, and partridge line the shores while cutthroat, steelhead, sockeye salmon, and whitefish swim in water so clear you can see their individual scales.
Rafting through a wilderness this big on water this pristine is an adventure and a privilege. Not many people can say they have done it. Those who have will surely say that it is the trip of a lifetime and to do it without hesitation.
Let Idaho Adventures take you down the River of No Return.
You won't regret it.
“Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything.”- Henry David Thoreau
It is June, 2021. I have just arrived in Salmon for a break from the stress of my job, Colorado wildfires, a global pandemic, and the hatred and divisiveness tearing through my hometown that began with Covid.
I need a break.
I came here with the hope of escaping the heat of the southwest, yet, it is hotter here than at home. The temperatures in the northwest are pushing the hundreds, shining a glaring and disheartening light on global warming.
My heart is heavy with the weight of the world.
When I pull into town, I stand on the bank of the river, feet immersed, letting the cool water swirl around my ankles, swirl through my brain. My body relaxes after 16 hours of driving. My breathing slows.
I dunk my head, feeling a momentary brain freeze that wakes me out of my haze of anger, grief, frustration, fear, exhaustion.
The river says to me, Let it go...let it all go.
I sleep that night with the river's voice in my dreams telling me that this too shall pass.
The next day, I arrive at Idaho Adventures along with 6 other people who I have never met but with whom I have one important thing in common; we are here to commune with the natural world and maybe share laughter with new friends.
Our guides place paddles in our hands and our bodies on a cheery yellow boat. One moment the boat is holding still on a sandy beach, then, with a little push, I feel the water swim under the raft, lift it off the ground, and pull it into the current. We are afloat.
The water is clear enough to see fish swim among the multi-hued rocks decorating the bottom of the river. I want to fill my pockets with beautiful Idaho stones so different from the sandstone of my home. Turns out my guide wants to do the same.
As we splash through rapids and drift lazily in the flatwater, we see an osprey flying from a tree to the shore and back again. He is building a nest for his new family. He passes directly in front of the boat, close enough to see his yellow eye and the small ponderosa branch in his talons.
He has not given up on the world.
Within minutes we see a juvenile bald eagle, curious about our craft, about humans. He stares as we pass by. We stare back in awe.
The big horn sheep and deer that line the shore are not afraid. Instead they are as curious about us as we are about them.
Suddenly, we hit a big rapid. Paddling as hard as we can, we splash through the waves and grab a man by the foot as he threatens to bounce out. In the disconcerting 100 degree heat, we welcome the cold water.
We spend several hours on the river and the take out comes too soon. It has been a perfect day and no one is ready for it to end. We have made new friends and had a grand adventure.
More importantly, in the midst of all that is beautiful, encouraged by the osprey and the bighorn, we have put aside the fear and angst and despair of what life has felt like for these last months. We have shared a few hours of lightness and joy and normalcy.
On the bus drive back to town, our charming guide turns on the radio and Kenny Rogers' melodic voice gives us advice, not only on gambling, but on life itself.
"You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold, 'em..."
We all join in, singing joyfully out of key, celebrating the freedom that we each felt on the river and reminding ourselves that the world is a good place and we are so very fortunate to be surrounded by the beauty and resilience of the natural world.
Mr. Thoreau was right - when you are on the river, there is no room for despair.
And that's why we do it.