Ask A River God: How Can We Mentally Prepare for a Rafting Trip?

Ask A River God: How Can We Mentally Prepare for a Rafting Trip?

Hi OARS, 

My wife and I are planning on doing Phantom to Whitmore in a dory in September. As we prepare physically I’m hoping you can help us mentally. My wife is somewhat concerned with rapids. We have been whitewater rafting before, and she loves to go, but the nerves build and build in the week or two before the big day. As this trip has months of time for the stress to rise, is there any reassurance you can give her troubled heart about the rapids encountered on this section? How can we best prepare for the worries that come from being miles from civilization in the bottom of the Grand Canyon and in a drift boat going over some of the best rapids in the whole canyon? Please keep in mind we both can’t wait to get there but would rather not have to take anti-anxiety meds to do it.  -Russ

Dear Russ,

I find the beach at Phantom to be a great place for scanning faces. We hand out sandwiches and apples and Snickers bars, as well as some much-needed Gatorade, teach you how to pack all your gear for the next ten days into a rubber container the size of a shopping bag, pass out the Ibuprofen, and generally let the enormity of the place soak in while you rest your weary knees.

Then, we advise you that you’ve just hiked into one of the biggest stretches of whitewater on the river. The black schist cliffs rise a thousand vertical feet straight out of the water, and the rapid’s roar is right there, sort of in your face.

As you slowly become aware of those tiny little wooden boats rocking gently in the eddy, and begin to notice the scruffy river guides in our floppy hats, flip-flops and gaudy rescue knives, I watch.

I tend to look for the eyes and the smile. The eyes are a little too big to just be appreciating the amazing scenery encompassing Phantom’s “Boat Beach,” looking instead like they’re about to pop out of their sockets. The smile is curled up at the edges and tight, definitely NOT amused. Those are the ones I veer towards with a kind pat on the shoulder or a hug, and a firm, “YOU are coming with ME in MY boat. No arguments!”

Now, I understand that the above isn’t very helpful to your needs, so maybe you won’t want to share that part with your spouse. But I do think it important to illustrate to your lovely wife that she’s not alone, which should help a little. Nothing to be ashamed of, and something we guides cope with regularly. It’s the changeover from one world to the next that gets us—be it getting married, a climber’s first step onto the verticality, or getting dropped off for your first day in childcare (which, come to think of it, isn’t all that different from this). It’s like we always used to say: “The first step’s a Looloo” (whatever that meant). Never easy, always queasy.

But, as always, just barely in the tailwaves of the very first rapid five minutes downstream, everything comes together. Awareness replaces shock. The smile softens. The body and soul lose the feeling of rigor mortis and become supple, ready. This boat’s pretty stable, after all. This is kinda fun. The waves are big, yes, but it’s more exciting than scary. The guide (who might look like the person you’d cross the street to avoid in New York City) is calm, strong, very intelligent, witty, and likely has decades of experience guiding rafts down the Colorado River and beyond. And it’s sort of a WHOOOHOOOOO! moment.

From that moment on, my vast experience tells me that the very person who was most sh!t-scared at first, evolves into the one riding the bow, punching the waves, jumping into the waterfalls, sharing stupid jokes and generally acting like a twelve-year-old at camp, which is sort of what this is all about, isn’t it?

So, whilst there is nothing you or I are going to be able to do to quell the pre-trip anxiety attacks, which are perfectly normal and certainly will result in the equivalent of getting between two fighting dogs if you try to interfere, I’d say be loving, gentle, and understanding. Bring her favorite cup of coffee (tea, Jagermeister), encourage her to conquer her fears, and keep telling her that when all is said and done, she will consider this trip the most fun, most wondrous, most glorious, most perfect adventure of her life. She’ll have made some great new friends, and found that she was capable of feats—of superhuman hiking, camping, and going to the riverside Pooperia—that she’d never dreamed of. She’ll want to come back again and again, spending your children’s inheritance and yes, getting stage-fright before every trip and loving every minute of it.

Cheers,

Jeffe

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