River Family

Some days will be harder than others. This is a unique life we live, that of a guide. Many folks work hard and make sacrifices, driving since dawn in a hot car with screaming children, leaving behind romantic dreams of being an artist or a life of traveling, spending eight hours a day plus overtime in a felt-sided plasterboard cell partitioned from other plasterboard cells waiting for the day their savings account and retirement plan forgives them enough so they may walk away from the humdrum and be too old to have the life they saved up to live. Some are suffering unimaginable hurt, some have never truly seen the stars. As for the teenagers who join us, adolescence is trial enough, but some face tragedy, unreasonable burdens of responsibility, diagnoses,  or have never been given a hand up in life. For each of their souls, this is the one week they have to experience this existence, this place, this sense of self when all identity washes away in the free-flowing crash and surge of the Salmon River. Patients become teenagers again. Hearts filled with grief are filled with the kind of laughter that takes your breath away. Doctor, widow, drop-out, starving grad student, drug addict, survivor, burnt-out social worker, executive director, supervisor, 23rd Infantry Division veteran… these definitions, our self-proclaimed destinies, become fluid, transparent, as we enter the first canyon and the walls rise up and we are vessels for that silent moment when there is nothing in this universe but for that bend of river and that camaraderie we carry with us.

We are home. Green Canyon, Cougar Canyon, Snow Hole Canyon, Blue Canyon bless us with silence, a brief, insatiably loud momentary stillness in which our pain, our grief, our regrets and shame, fears and insecurities, are replaced by the vast bleeding, beating heart of the river.

And it is hard for them, as it is for us, and rewarding all the same. Yet we toil at our lifestyle, as they toil at theirs, get paid little for hard labor, long days, specialized skills honed by time and embarrassing mistakes, all to be here, live here, and give this to anyone willing to paddle out into that first wave. To make a home for our participants between chert rock canyon walls and columnar basalt cliffs, to fall asleep to the melody of canyon wrens and eddy lines. To lead others through the green lines hidden in wet white chaos, to feel their awe as they watch an eagle unfurl its ebony wings and dive and ride up towers of wind to an outcropping overhead.

To remember our first time trying to feel the river with our paddle, failing, and learning more from the failure than from any success. To let go and play with the river, to let the river play with us.

To know reverence. To share a sense of freedom from the struggle of identity; to revel in solidarity and solitude, loneliness and companionship; to be obsolete and all there is, and to be content with it all.


2017 LEAP Guide

Kicking off the season

Packing up and heading out for our first trip of the season, Dougy Center adults, I was full of curiosity. Having never been on a LEAP program before, let alone guided one, I was anxious to meet and get to know the participants, and to witness first hand the positive impact that our program would have on their lives. Meeting these participants and learning pieces of their stories absolutely blew me away. I was amazed by the fact that, with all they had been through, they were still standing. These are people who have lost husbands, wives, children - their worlds have been turned upside down. The fact that they even worked up the courage to come out on the river and brave the rapids, leaving their remaining children or spouses at home, just goes to show how strong and resilient the human spirit is.

I remember them all arriving that first night, they were kind of quiet and shy. They’d spent 9 hours in a van together driving from Portland to Hammer Creek, but you could tell they hadn’t really gotten to know each other yet. There were a few participants returning from past years, but for the newbies I think it was kind of a “I signed up for this but I don't really know what I’m getting myself into” feeling, lots of nerves. Well, that changed practically the minute we got them out on the water the next morning. Yes, it took the first couple of rapids to get warmed up and used to their new modes of transportation, but once they got comfortable, there was this noticeable change in confidence and attitude that I’ll never forget. They were happy even if they were swimming rapids. I remember this one instance in what I’ll call a case of major whiplash, in which the woman in front of me went straight through a nasty hole located on river-left (we were supposed to be running the rapid river-right to avoid that particular feature) and fell right out of her boat. I paddled in behind her to try to get her and ended up taking a “guide swim” myself. After popping back in my boat I turned around to see her floating with the biggest ear to ear grin you have ever seen plastered across her face, “you just couldn’t resist hopping in with me, huh?” she said through laughter. That same participant later told me that experience eliminated any fear she had of the water, permitting anything and everything on that river to be fun rather than scary because she knew that she was going to be okay no matter what happened.

To witness this same change in every single one of the participants over the course of that trip, whether from taking a swim themselves or from watching others do so, was incredibly moving. It’s weird to think that something that has the potential to be so scary can be so overwhelmingly positive, but it’s the truth. It’s a way of getting them to be comfortable with one another, open up to each other, and create bonds and connections with people who have had similar experiences. If you ask me, that’s what LEAP is about and that’s what these programs give to people. It eliminates their fear and instills an unbreakable confidence within them through connection with the river and with one another. And it’s incredible to be a part of. I signed up or this wanting to help change people’s lives, little did I know that these incredible individuals would be changing mine.

- Hanna

2017 LEAP Guide