Four girls under age 12 were wrestling in the bow of my boat and laughing hysterically. One more was perched slightly precariously behind me atop my bag stack, flying a sail she created with an inflatable stingray pool toy. She was offering me rowing tips to make my lines through flatwater more exciting.
It was hard for me to decipher all that was being said by the gaggle of giddy girls, but I do know that a “Stingray Swim Club” was formed (you had to be brave, a girl, and know how to swim to join).
These girls weren’t related – they weren’t sisters, cousins, or even friends from home. In fact, a mere three days prior, these girls were strangers.
At Corn Creek, the put-in for the Main Salmon River, individual families stood together, slightly separated from each other. Each family loaded themselves onto separate boats before shoving off, and each family huddled together at lunch on day one.
This was day three, though, and the girls who had once been shy were now goofy, proud, and unafraid. Representative of three families, they piled into my boat after chasing each other, playing made-up games that looked like magic.
Why Connections Made Outdoors Are Lasting…
David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Utah, describes what he calls the three-day effect as the time it takes for one’s brain to naturally reboot. After three days in nature, many reported reduced stress levels, while also demonstrating increased creativity and clarity.
Guides often witness an additional impact of the three-day effect: with that mental reboot comes a shift and easing of the group dynamic. Day three is usually when we start to see the chair circle integrate, the boat groups start to shuffle, and the lunchtime conversations have more mixed-up characters.
A recent University of Kansas study confirmed the feeling guides have about a three-day effect on group dynamics. They found it takes 40 to 60 hours to move from acquaintance to friend, and 80 to 100 hours to transition from casual friend to close friend. Becoming what the study defines as a close friend with someone takes 200 hours of intentional time spent together.
It might be hard to spend 60 hours with someone when you’re raising a family, building your career, or getting a degree. Time can feel scarce, and responsibilities pull us in many different directions. On the river, though, time is in abundance, and distractions dissipate.
By the inception of the Stingray Swim Club, those laughing girls were already 28 hours deep, well on their way from acquaintance to friend. Saying our final goodbyes at the takeout—with almost 80 hours of time under our belts—was heart-wrenching. I’ve never felt so proud as when Stingray Queen called me brave and gave me her stamp of approval for my line through Ludwig rapid.
Outdoor experiences expedite the path toward connection. The layers fall away. Our true selves emerge so much quicker in the wilderness. There’s an intensity to relationships built on the water and in the mountains.
A weekend adventure or camping trip with an acquaintance can tally 60 hours before work on Monday. Eighty to 100 hours (or even 200) can happen on a river trip with someone you’ve never even met before, but are sure glad you did. That’s the magic of the river – there’s a good chance you might be saying “See you soon” to a new, lifelong friend at the take out.