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What I Learned at Young Adult Cancer Camp

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How did I get myself into this? Shooting down glacial runoff in class four rapids with nothing between me and drowning, but a plastic orange kayak? Me, whose idea of an athletic challenge is taking an intermediate yoga class instead of beginner. Obviously, I misunderstood when I signed up for kayaking camp. I had envisioned peaceful excursions along a gorgeous coastline. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our first view of the river was from a bridge, where kayakers-to-be, including me and a bunch of my new camper friends, only know each other by nicknames. I’m Twisted, and there’s Herb, Peach, Wacky, Zena, Popcorn, Hendrix and Gadget. We looked down the ravine, water gushing, frothing around huge boulders. Herb looked at me and raised her brows, a cartoonish expression of exactly what I was thinking, “No way!”

The next morning, I stuffed both legs into a black neoprene suit that was tighter than any pair of skinny jeans.

“First we’ll learn how not to tip over,” instructed Pleaser. Keeping my body centered and still – that I could do. That I practiced weekly in yoga. But doing it in a rubber wetsuit strapped to a kayak, in water, was different. Be still, I thought. My body and the boat swayed from side to side. Calm. Steady. The water rose on one side, then the other. Find a spot on the kayak and concentrate on that. Near the head of my kayak were two words, First Descents — and I focused and breathed in.

We floated at the bottom of mountain canyons, the sound of birds drifting above, the snowcapped peaks glistening, producing the liquid ice that became our river. I could have stayed in those moments of bliss observing the sky reflected in slivers. Then our guides wanted us to move.

“Baby steps,” Slash said, showing us how to paddle, first one side, then the other, to go straight. I mimicked her motions, sliding my paddle in a gentle sideways eight pattern and glided a few inches, following Wacky and Zena through the sky’s mirror.

“Great job Zena, Twisted! Next step, turning.” Slash demonstrated again. Wacky, who’d been here before, followed in a graceful arc.

Shifting my bodyweight to the left, I mimicked Wacky, stabbing my paddle in the clear water. Immediately I began to tip, swiveled my middle, and returned upright. “Try again.”

Again, tilt, stab, swivel, upright. Again. Tilt, stab, SLAM. A thousand icicles pierced my cheek.

“Ok, this is how you get up,” Slash fell over gracefully, jabbed her paddle into the water and pushed herself back up in an instant.

“You try.” I pulled my paddle down into the water with me and tried to flick it up with enough strength to right myself. Nothing. “It’s in your body, you have to move, like you’re dancing — thrust!” she called. I stabbed, twisted and thrusted. Nothing but an inch or two. “Again!”

Three, four, fives tries and on the sixth, I flung upright. Then, just to be sure, I fell over again, and again, and shot myself up, practicing this strength I never knew I had.

You want me to purposely capsize, trap myself under my kayak? That was the next step. Slash and Pleaser made it look so easy, like a somersault, only sideways down through the frigid, suffocating water and back up to oxygen and clear skies. One tilt, a slight muscle shift and I plunged into the cold. Like jumping into unknown, time slowed as swirls of water rushed all around. The world above, wooshing sounds and floating words from distant conversations, disappeared. Pleaser had encouraged us to hang there for a moment, holding our breath. “Learn to get comfortable, so you don’t panic.”

Don’t worry about not breathing? Here, not breathing, taking a moment to pause, listen, feel, assess felt oddly luxurious. Like I had all of the time in the world.

What bolstered my courage while underwater was the distress signal, clapping the underside of your kayak. It made a hollow, echo-y boom. Our guides promised they’d be there within five seconds, grabbing a strap on the front of the kayak to roll us back over. Hendrix tried easing into a fast current. The tip of his boat sliced, he flipped. He was under, one, two, three, then boom, boom, and Pleaser was there, rolling him over.

“If Popcorn can do it with only one leg,” I told myself, “You can do this.”

We practiced capsizing, rescuing ourselves by kicking out, and rescuing others by rolling them over for the whole day. By the time we emerged from the water, I knew one thing: I was not going to die on this trip.

On day two, we tried some short white waterish rapids. Like going over a series of small speed bumps while riding a bike, they tossed me around a bit, pushed me forward and made me giggle like I was on a Tilt-a-Whirl.

“That was fun! How long until the next set?” I called over to Herb.

“You’re getting to like it, Twisted!”

Slash’s and Pleaser’s killer skills were matched only by their knowledge and experience of the river. We spent the next three days exploring different sections where the rapids range from class one, easy, to class four, difficult. Each morning, we started at a section we mastered the day before, then moved to bigger challenge.

The last day we started at the beginning, at that section of the river that we saw from the bridge. The jagged water ran two football fields. All of us floated, holding on to each other’s boats, at the top. One by one, we broke off. Each of us rode the rapids, as our fellow kayakers and guides clapped, hooted and hollered as we lorded over the river and our fears.

We came here to get out of our comfort zone, to learn something new about ourselves, and what we can accomplish. That’s the reason we all know each other only by our nicknames – to escape our usual lives for a while. My fellow campers and I were bald, chemo-addled, disabled in a variety of ways. And by graduation day, each one of us rode down something we thought was impossible only five days before. We took control of our bodies and our destinies in a way that we hadn’t been able to in years. At a closing ceremony around the campfire, we tied red string around each other’s wrists before we returned to doctors’ appointments, scans, blood tests and the uncertainty that lay ahead. Perhaps that was the greatest part of kayaking camp, feeling excited by the rough water ahead, maneuvering through everything blocking our paths, and seeing the calm waters ahead where we knew that we could just float.

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Thinkstock Image By: robynleigh

Originally published: February 28, 2017
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