I pull the strap through the buckle, tightening down the last bit of equipment into the raft. I check my gear once more . . . carabiners are locked . . . my PFD is snug. As I look out on the gentle current moving by, I can hear the trip leader finishing up their safety talk behind me. I take a long, deep, deliberate breath. Every spring, there is always that “first trip back, ” and with it usually comes some nervous energy, an anxious anticipation. But this year’s first trip carries with it a little more weight. I have been thinking about this one for a little bit longer than usual.
Last year my river season came to an abrupt end in the form of a dislocated right shoulder at the bottom of a Class V rapid on the Upper Gauley. Thanks to friends and fellow paddlers, I was safely evacuated from the river. While on the river bank, guides used their Wilderness Medicine training and were able to reduce the dislocation. Although there were moments of extreme pain, what was actually more intense was the creeping thought that my shoulder might not ever be the same. The off season consisted of 7 months of rehabilitation and strength training, working to regain full range of motion and mobility. But even after all the rehab and the winter paddling and the fact the my shoulder was feeling really good, I knew that none of it would compare to that first trip back. It was not only a physical hurdle, but more so a mental one that I knew I would have to face.
One of the most important lessons I have learned from my years of guiding and spending time out on these wild rivers is the importance and the value that exists in pushing myself both mentally and physically. There is so much that can be realized about oneself through the act of taking risks. For the last 11 years, I have had many opportunities to be a part of other people pushing themselves and taking risks as well. Guiding my guests down world class stretches of whitewater and seeing how empowering it is for people to engage with nature is the most rewarding part of my job. There is something that exists in the wildness of a river and in each of us that often does not get tapped into in everyday life. It is what I come back for year after year. It is why I find myself rigging this raft and standing at this put-in this morning.
Hours later we have run the last rapid and are at the take out. The boats are loaded and high fives have been given all around. I can hear the boy scouts and troop leaders reliving their day as they get on the bus. I look out on the gentle current moving by and take a long, deep, deliberate breath. This has been a good first trip back.