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.