Serenity in the Big Ditch

by Nader JamalSurvivor, Colon CancerFebruary 23, 2022View more posts from Nader Jamal

Adversity creates a yearning for serenity. With struggle a calm moment is desired, and the appreciation for when it occurs is significant.

I first found whitewater learning to kayak in Glacier National Park with First Descents. Anxiety was a real concern I had with anything done around that time. I had been an avid skier and had an absolute passion for being outside, but my body had a set of unpredictable variables as a stage III colon cancer survivor and I had no idea what to expect with whitewater. Would I be on the verge of hypothermia the entire time? What if I get too hungry to keep going? What if my anxiety affects my appetite? The variables that I could not control and had no grasp on made me extremely nervous.

When finally on the water I was introduced to a passion that ran through my soul. Soon after that trip I found whitewater stand up paddle-boarding and began guiding trips on the Upper Colorado River. The urge to get more time on the river did not and has not subsided much since that initial kayak trip. After a few years working as a whitewater stand up paddle-board guide, I decided to go through raft guide school and began working multi-day trips on the Yampa River and Gates of Ladore on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. I spent as much time on rivers and in the backcountry as I could. After working in Dinosaur for the last three seasons, my knowledge of whitewater and confidence guiding myself and others has grown exponentially.

This past October with a group of friends and friends of friends based in Colorado I was able to take the trip every boater dreams of — 24 days and 280 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. This was a ‘private trip’ which meant that this was a group of friends and like-minded people, albeit with different levels of river and camp experience, working together as a team to have a safe and fun trip. Although everyone rowing had some level of familiarity with rafting, this is very different to a commercial trip where guides on the trip are used to rowing an 18 foot boat and know every hazard in every rapid. We were all figuring things out together and as individual oarsmen. Bad weather, flash floods, carnage on rapids and difficult social dynamics had to be addressed between the 16 of us as a cohesive unit.

Although we hit some precipitation, disagreements with each other, and extremely close calls on water through the beginning of the trip, by our ninth day on the river we were hitting a stride and building confidence as a group. After everything was packed that morning, we scouted the rapid near camp, Grapevine, with a simple walk downriver of our rigged boats. Just past the entrance of the rapid I avoided a rock on the right but tracked too far towards the right side of the rapid and spent a lot of effort correcting the boat. At this point I was feeling really good about my position and my setup for the rest of the run. As the rapid moved from right to center, the nose of my boat smashed a huge wave and spun me 90 degrees. All of the sudden my perfect setup turned into one of the worst ways you can hit a class VII rapid (rapids on the Grand go by a different scale than most in the U.S.) in a 2000 pound raft — completely sideways. This happened in a matter of seconds, and I went from a confident smile to getting tossed downriver of my boat in an instant. There was no time to brace for impact or highside to try to keep the boat upright. With a blink of an eye I was swimming a massive rapid, looking for my boat on the way down river. When I finally spotted my boat upriver, I frantically started swimming as hard as I could towards it, still mid-rapid. I managed to grab onto the downriver line that runs around the raft. Between getting smashed by wave after wave, doing my best to just keep my head above water and myself visible to others, I somehow managed to climb back into my boat just as the final wave train was coming to an end. As I tried to catch my breath and regain my composure, I looked over and saw my wood oar was completely broken in half right down the middle, undoubtedly the same culprit responsible for my out of boat experience.

When it comes to technique, this was my biggest mistake of my trip. This was my only swim and it came in a class VII rapid. As one of the more experienced boaters and the safety or ‘sweep’ boat, I felt like more was expected of me, and I was embarrassed. The reaction I got from my fellow trip goers felt different. They were shocked I got back in before the rapid ended. It wasn’t about what went wrong in that moment but what was done after that point.

My first time down the Grand Canyon, there were not many times we pushed off our rafts in the morning and I knew what to expect. I had never seen any of the rapids, and I was not sure how myself or my boatmates would fare our first time through. We had the potential to flip or get stuck, lose personal possessions or supplies that we needed to survive 24 days straight in the backcountry and encounter weather that could make an easy day tough and a tough day dangerous. Every day started with excitement and a level of uncertainty with what lay ahead and finished with a sense of relief and accomplishment, creating a huge level of appreciation of where we were and what we were experiencing.

Calm water has been a source of serenity for me, but it’s not the calm water itself that is the source of this. It is what preceded this calm stretch. The raging, wild, scary, exciting section before the calm water; the not knowing if I could do this until I do it; the times where things don’t go how you expect but you’re okay anyway. Those are the instances where we reflect on what we have learned and how our personalities react in those moments.

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