Vacations are a time to take a break from the grind of everyday life. They are a chance to see new sights, taste new foods, explore new cultures and have new experiences. Something about leaving comfortable surroundings makes me willing to try things I wouldn’t normally do at home. Maybe it is the idea of broadening my horizons or maybe it is the idea that I can make an absolute fool of myself in front of people I will never see again. Whatever the reason, vacations seem to be the perfect opportunity to step outside of the comfort zone.
I would not call myself adventurous by even the mildest standards, yet somehow, whenever I leave my environs, I seem to be willing to do things that I would otherwise not do. I don’t love to fly, yet I have taken a helicopter to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I’m terrified of heights, yet I climbed to the top of the Mayan pyramid at Chichen Itza. I dislike swimming in natural bodies of water because I might encounter a fish, yet I clung to the dorsal fin of a dolphin while being towed around a lagoon in the Gulf of Mexico. On our latest trip, I decided it was time to give whitewater rafting a try. When I approached my husband with this idea he was surprised by my suggestion. He was willing to undertake this new experience, but asked me if I was sure I wanted to do this. I am never sure I want to do these things and fear always lurks in the rational part of my brain, but there’s a part of me that won’t let that fear keep me from experiencing something new. That is the part that usually gets me into trouble.
The extent of my whitewater experience was limited to a few rough patches during an afternoon of tubing on the tranquil Delaware River, so I began doing some research. Rapids are rated from class one to class six. The probability of bodily injury or death increases with each class. While class one is relaxing and mild, class six is a near death experience. It was with this newfound knowledge that I was firmly committed to riding rapids no higher than class three. Our hotel recommended Wild Water Adventures in Yoho National Park, British Columbia. I combed through every page on this company’s website to gather information about a rafting experience and selected the “gentle river journey” or as my husband and I came to refer to it, “rafting for dummies.” Aside from the fear of being tossed like a rag doll from the raft was the added bonus of the possibility of hypothermia since the river water, supplied by melting snow, is just a few degrees above freezing. Luckily, Wild Water Adventures takes that into consideration and provides their rafters with wetsuits and other insulating attire.
Before the rational part of my brain could stop me, I booked our rafting trip and completed the emergency contact information. Nothing announces impending fun like providing the name and number of the person you want to be contacted in the event of your disappearance, injury or death. What I should have noticed during all of my research was the name of the river on which we’d be rafting. It wasn’t until we were booked and confirmed that I realized we’d be rafting on the Kicking Horse River. That name didn’t bode well for a calm experience. I would have been more comfortable with a river named Lame Mule.
On a cloudy, forty degree morning, we put on our bathing suits and headed out for our adventure. When we arrived at the river lodge, we were greeted by the friendly staff. They were encouraging and assured us that this would be fun and exhilarating, then asked us to sign a waiver. After a quick overview of the morning’s events, we were handed our wetsuits, booties, fleece jackets and splash jackets. I have worn a wetsuit before and wasn’t really looking forward to squeezing into one again. A less flattering garment has never been created. If you have never put on a wetsuit, it is akin to putting on pantyhose that go all the way to your neck. Getting into a wetsuit is not a quick or attractive process; much tugging and contortion is required. I know the purpose of the wetsuit is to keep me warm, but couldn’t there be a less embarrassing way to go about it? Sweaty from my battle of the bulge, I emerged from the dressing room; a vision in neoprene. Thankfully, the addition of the fleece and splash jackets hid most of the unsightly lumps created from squashing all of my assorted parts into the wetsuit. To help save my life in the event of an ejection from the raft, a life vest and helmet were the accessories that completed my outfit. By the time I was fully dressed for our departure I could no longer put my arms down at my sides.
On the river bank we were given a thorough safety briefing on the finer points of swift water rescue. While the knowledge and experience of our guides was reassuring, this is always the part when my brain screams, “What have you gotten yourself into?” Before we had even pushed off from shore, our guide, Dave, told us that they had room to move us to one of the other rafts that was continuing on to the class four rapids. This was our first time rafting, so we told him we’d have to see how we survive this part of the journey before making any decisions. Then, I was given the option to paddle or hold on. I was already firmly committed to not letting go of the raft for any reason so I chose the hold on and scream option rather than paddling.
As we entered Alarm Clock Rapids we were hit with a bracing blast of icy water. Dave deftly and safely negotiated us through several more rapids with non-threatening names like Palliser and Hopi Hole. When we reached the end of the gentle river journey, all of the rafts came to a calm bend in the river and pulled ashore for a brief break. Again, Dave asked us if we’d like to continue. We were jostled, soaked and loving every minute of it so we opted to tempt our fate with class four rapids.
Once on dry land, we were given a granola bar and an opportunity to go to the bathroom. This was probably the most harrowing part of the trip. Trying to remove the life vest and various other layers to get down to the wetsuit before stepping into a port-a- potty was as much a challenge as the rapids were. Every woman there was laughing as we wriggled ourselves into and out of our rafting ensembles as fast as we could.
Once we were fully dressed again, Dave told us we’d be in good hands with our new guide, Bruce. Everyone in the raft was encouraging and supportive of the rafting virgins who had just joined them. They let us sit in the back of the raft where things are a bit less intense. Bruce reviewed the commands he would be calling out and made us practice them. They were all simple and obvious: get down, hold on (which I had already mastered), jump left and jump right. We crossed the river, disembarked and clambered up a steep bank to get an aerial view of the class four rapids we would soon be traversing. These rapids had names like Shotgun Portage, Table Saw, Pillow Rock and Rollercoaster. Bruce identified features we’d be trying to avoid, like a dip that was nicknamed “the terminator.” Though I didn’t think it was possible, the guides tightened our life vests even more. Bruce explained that the vests needed to be tight so that if we were ejected from the raft, someone would be able to grab the vest and yank us back in. A vest that was too loose would be pulled back into the boat while the former wearer of that vest continued to float downstream. As I stood there trying to breathe in my tightly cinched life vest, I realized I had not made an informed decision.
With the nimbleness of a three-legged mountain goat, I slid back down the steep bank and got into the raft. I tucked my foot tightly in the foothold, grabbed every rope I could reach and perched myself on the side of the raft. As we hit the first of the rapids Bruce yelled, “GET DOWN!” We all slid off the sides of the boat and tucked ourselves inside as huge waves crashed over us. Bruce then yelled “GET UP!” That was easier said than done. All the insulating layers I was wearing diminished my agility and getting back up while being bombarded with cold waves was quite an undertaking. I was reluctant to let go of any rope, but needed my arms to hoist myself back onto the side of the boat. It was quite the dilemma. As I was considering how to propel myself back onto the edge of the raft, we bounced over a wave and my center of gravity shifted. I found myself curled in a ball on my back struggling like a turtle that had been flipped shell side down. By the time I finally righted myself and managed to drag myself up to a sitting position on the side of the raft, Bruce was once again yelling, “GET DOWN AND HOLD ON!” After going through this exercise a few times I was exhausted and opted to just stay down.
As the intensity of the waves declined, my heart rate and body temperature returned to normal. In the dressing room, as I was unpeeling myself from the wetsuit, I was happy that my fear had not prevented me from having such an amazing experience. I realized that sometimes it is fun to push the edge of your comfort zone just a bit farther out. On the drive back to our hotel, my husband pointed out a zip line tour he thought would be exciting. Every comfort zone has its limits.