My Summer Vacation Part 2 – First Descents

So here we go with the second part of my summer vacation. Adjusting back to normal life has been more challenging than I expected. I’m not sure if it’s because I had two trips in a row or if this second one just impacted me so much. I’ve been writing like crazy since I’ve gotten home. My head feels like it’s spinning with thoughts and writing has always been my way to quiet those thoughts. I will follow up with pictures to add to both of these vacation posts, but for now I will just leave you with my words. From Monday…

On another airplane. One week has passed since I last wrote and it is almost impossible to express how many things have changed. I sit here so full of hope for my future, proud of my accomplishments and filled with love for so many people I didn’t know one week ago.

When I arrived in Jackson Hole, I discovered that three other participants had been on my flight. I was met by two First Descents (FD) people, one of which I already knew from Denver. I did not know she would be here so that was a wonderful surprise. We all drove back to camp, which turned out to literally be a campground called Broken Arrow. We had a lodge along with cabins for the girls and guys. I had no idea what to expect so this was great, especially after a week of running to the outhouse in the middle of the night. All of the campers (survivors) arrived over the next several hours and everyone was amazing. We had four guys and five ladies, all with different types of cancer. The youngest of us was 20 and I was the oldest at 38. We ate, talked, played with the volleyball and hung out together. We bonded right away. The cooks at our camp were amazing and made amazing food for us right out of the gate. After eating we had “campfire” which is when we have time to talk as a group, express some of our feelings and open up a little. Everyone at FD camp gets a nickname so we had to get that out of the way. The girls were Road Trip, Blossom, Keys, Crafty and Mallow (myself). The male lineup included Spouse, Monchego, Tugboat and Scandal. Our FD directors for the week were TBD and Pleezah, FD staff were Fruit Boots (who I knew previously) and Bandit. Prancer was our volunteer and Chunks was our camp medic. Camp cooks were the amazing Antelope Jamboree and Chamomile.

The camp schedule was cold breakfast at 7 (yogurt, cereal, granola, etc) followed by a hot breakfast from our cooks at 8. We would pack a lunch for the day and hit the road at 9 every morning. When we returned to camp after the day on the water it was usually around 5pm. We would change and play volleyball or frisbee until dinner at 6:30. Campfire was every evening when we felt like starting it, either in the lodge or down at the campfire pit by the river.

The second day, we went to Rendezvous/Jackson Hole Kayak School to get geared up and fitted for our kayaks. This was super fun and felt strange to be in such different equipment and in such a tiny boat. Our equipment included a sleeveless wet suit, booties, kayak skirt, splash shirt, life vest, helmet and of course a kayak. We named our boats and mine was the SS Marsh Mallow. We then went to Slide Lake to eat lunch, gear up, and learn what it feels like to be in the water. Our guides for the week were Doobie (who I called my camp boyfriend), Mama’s Boy, Wild Thing, Awkward, and a special guest appearance for our last day on the water was Bob Barker who was not a man and I’m pretty sure would be my BFF if I lived in Jackson Hole. For the first day on the lake we had Awkward, Doobie and Mama’s Boy helping us get comfortable. TBD and Pleezah as the camp directors were awesome kayakers and also helped as guides. If you are in Jackson Hole, I highly recommend calling Rendezvous and requesting one of these guides. I seriously can not say enough about how awesome they are.

When we got on the water, we first paddled around with our hands and just got comfortable with our boats. We didn’t even put the skirts on for a little while to just get the feel of things. The skirt goes around the kayaker’s waist and then has a gasket that snaps in place around the opening of the boat to keep the water from splashing in. Once that was in place, we were going to learn how to get out of the kayak if we flipped. To start this, they were going to tip us over and we would tap on the bottom of the boat to indicate that we were ready to come back up. Sounds simple. I felt pretty comfortable on the water and while I knew going under would be somewhat of a challenge I clearly underestimated what I would feel when it actually happened. My brain went from wow this is a beautiful lake to someone is trying to kill me in an instant. I’m pretty sure I was under for around half a second and all of a sudden I realized that kayaking is not a sport people pick up casually. This week was going to be hard. I had him try again and yup, just as bad the second time. Also, the lake has basically the effect of 50 Neti Pots so I got to look super graceful while being terrified. The third time I decided to try nose plugs which did improve things a bit. I believe Doobie told me I went from frantically slapping in complete panic to “kind of” tapping. Of course it took a good five minutes for me to psych myself up between each of these three attempts. Even though I was terrified, I was still happy to be having such a strong emotion. It has been so long since I’ve really felt anything, it was a happy experience to even be scared. I was getting the “this isn’t for everyone, you don’t have to stay in a kayak, you can totally do a raft and still have fun” talk. Things were looking grim. We decided to skip the turn overs and go straight for the wet exit. Normally for a wet exit there are four steps. Not sure that I can remember but it’s something like tuck, tap, tug, and get out of the boat (which they had another T word for but I can’t remember). So basically, tuck down close to your boat (not easy with tissue expanders), turn over, tap on your boat and if anyone is close they will flip you back over. If not, pull on your “oh crap strap” which is a handle at the front of the skirt which will pop the gasket off and release the skirt so you can swim out of the boat. Again, sounds super easy. I decided immediately that I would be skipping the tapping and waiting for someone to flip me over and planned to go straight for the tug and exit. Even still, these boats are snug. I wasn’t confident that my hips or feet would just slide out and was pretty nervous. After another five minutes and many reminders that I didn’t have to do this, he let me hold on to the oh crap strap and flipped me over. I pulled the strap and swam out of the boat so hard and fast that I was digging in the sand in about half a second. I flipped around and pushed up with my feet like I was under 10 feet or water instead of three and surfaced so fast I don’t know that anyone would have known I was underwater if they hadn’t seen it, so fast that I couldn’t even stand up straight. It was amazing. I felt the relief, accomplishment, and joy of all of that fear leave me. I laughed for a long time. I felt it all. I did it again. And it worked.

This was my first day in the water. I couldn’t believe how much I felt. I encouraged others who were having a hard time and watched them have similar experiences. I watched the people who had no problem going under and hanging out upside down underwater with amazement. I was so proud of all of us. We learned some paddling techniques and played Ultimate Sponge in the water which was super fun. That was our water time for the day. The guys from kayak school came to hang out with us in the evenings so we had about 20 of us at camp. We played volleyball every evening for an hour or two and then had dinner and campfire. This night, they gave out camp awards. There were three awards for us – The On Land Award which was given to the person who helps out on land and was a pair of huge and super tacky swimming trunks; The On the Water Award which went to the person who had beaten obstacles (of any kind) on the water and was a huge fish necklace we called Mr. Sparkles; and The Entertainer award which was a large felt black and white diamond top hat. The directors gave the awards the first night. The recipients must keep the award on them at all times (including on the water) and pass the award on at the next campfire.

The schedule basically stayed the same so I’m just going to talk about our time on the water for now. The second day we were on the Snake River for the first time. I was surprised how nervous I was to get in the moving water. They tried to teach us how to paddle down in the current and then go into an eddy on the side. Much easier said than done at our level as this included going from fast moving water, doing a 180 on the eddy line and having the boat face upstream in the eddy. To get out of the eddy you do the opposite, paddling at an angle into the current and letting it bring you around in another 180 to face the right direction. There were many swims as well as even more close calls. I managed to keep it together and not have to practice my wet exits this day.

Friday was our “off” day. We got up at the same time and went to hike at Jenny Lake. The Tetons are beautiful and we had a great hike. We ate lunch with an AMAZING view on the mountain. Then we headed back to town to walk around, shop and be general tourists for the afternoon. I also had a Face Time date with the family that evening so I got to feel the love from home and watch the kids eat Chick-fil-A with ketchup all over their faces while competing for my attention on the phone. I saw a lot of really close faces and got a reminder of what the walls and ceiling look like. It was super cute. It rained that evening so we weren’t able to play volleyball. Instead we played games. I discovered this week that I am really bad at Apples to Apples but apparently strangely good at Taboo. Or else I was just unlucky/lucky.

We got back out on the water on Saturday with a put-in on the Hoback River just above where it feeds into the Snake. While the team was working on moving the vans to the take-out point, we were able to get in the water and practice eddying over and over. I felt like I had just been getting the hang of eddying the previous water day so it was great to just be able to work on form for a while without any pressure. Mama’s Boy had us really work on turning our head and body to come through the turn which not only helped, but reminded me of my hockey days. That is what we always worked on to make the fast turns. It didn’t feel quite the same, but definitely a similar lean of the body and position. It reminded me of what I did before cancer. It made me feel like me again. When we got on the water, we had some small rapids and faster moving water. It was an amazing day. I had so much fun and was seriously disappointed when we got to the take-out earlier than I expected. These days on the water were filled with challenges, but also had areas that we could literally just float along and not have to paddle. We could talk to each other, joke, splash, and just have an amazing time. Again, no wet exits for me this day. I knew that meant something big for Sunday.

Saturday felt so bittersweet to me because I knew we were almost at the end. I didn’t want that to happen, but I also couldn’t wait to get back on the water. Sunday was our last day. It was much bigger water and our graduation. I went through some super fun rapids, definitely bigger than the day before. I was once again having an amazing time. And as the saying goes, pride goeth before a fall. After some rapids, I got caught by some swirly water. I know if I had just paddled it would have been fine, but I didn’t and I went over feeling like “well shit, I’m going swimming.” The problem came in when I didn’t have enough logic left in my head to tuck and couldn’t find my oh crap strap. It became even more of an oh crap, I realized, when you don’t have the strap. Now there are many other things I could have done – lean forward, feel the edge of my skirt and move up to where the strap is, grab the top of the skirt and pull, etc. What did I do? I opted for panic. I did try three times to grab the top of the skirt but wasn’t able to get my hands to purchase. Finally, as I was really panicking, I got out. I’m not sure if I finally pulled the top hard enough or pushed my body far enough out of the boat but eventually I was free. I sucked in a good amount of water and came up struggling pretty hard. Wild Thing was right there and Doobie had me hold his boat to tow me in. By the time we got to shore I was breathing a bit better and was able to empty out my own boat and get back in the water, albeit a bit shaken. But, all in all I’m sure I was under the water for a very short amount of time and just panicked way too much. The guys were right there and I was totally okay. As soon as I got my wind back I was ready for more. Plus, I got a good lesson on where to put my paddle when I start to tip as well as tucking forward so I can feel the strap.

Onward and upward, we had the big rapids ahead of us. I can’t explain how amazing and exhilarating it felt to see these big rapids in front of me, to plow into them and get pounded with water, and come out the other side. Actually, amazing doesn’t come close. This was me who four days ago was panicking just trying to be in the water. Me who not too many months ago couldn’t stay out of the hospital. Now I was comfortable, relishing the challenge, and even taking the dunking as a learning lesson rather than being afraid of the water. When we got the the Big Kahuna, I was the first kayak to volunteer to go in. It was unbelievable to see the huge drop as I got up on it, and go in being pummeled by the sheer volume of water. But I never felt afraid. I felt empowered. I felt like me.

We had several larger rapids the last day and I completely enjoyed each one. We had our graduation where we each went solo down a part of the river and through some rapids using what we had learned and our own desires to guide us. We reflected. I splashed and got splashed, I laughed and played and paddled all day. I was so sad when we got out of the water. We had a researcher at camp so we did paperwork and interviews after the river instead of volleyball. We had an amazing dinner and campfire.

The things that I can’t really blog about are the relationships. They are too complicated to explain and obviously I won’t tell people’s personal information. Every one of us had a different experience both in our cancer journey and in this week, but I don’t know if there has ever been a group that bonded so completely as ours did. Every single person there is like my brother or sister. Every single one. There were no clicks or issues between us. They are amazing in ways I will never be able to describe.

This morning I woke up and took a walk by myself. I went down to the fire pit by the river and cried my face off. I cried for this week being over, but mostly I cried for me. This is only the third time I’ve cried since my diagnosis. This week has made me remember who I am. Who I was before I was the sick, fat, weak, tired, bald girl. Before I needed help from everyone. Before I had to make choices based on my survival rates. Before I was scared all the time. Before I became a victim of cancer. When I was just me. Being on the water made me feel so many things, but the most important was myself. I know that cancer has changed me forever, but this week was filled with people telling me I can instead of I can’t. It was filled with me accomplishing things and making progress rather than being a patient. It was filled with belief, and hope, and more laughs than I can count. It was filled with people I love and goals attained. It was one of the greatest weeks of my life. It was more than I could have imagined.

P.S. Here are the pictures!

This is Slide Lake, where we learned wet exits and I got scared out of my mind but had a fantastic time. Not much to look at, huh?

And here I am in all my gear.

Getting instruction – here’s a shot of our whole group.

And here I am after the first dunk, gripping my kayak for dear life.

And reminding myself that I survived. I did get better.

I have to give props to Keys though, she had by far the best photos of getting dunked.

Then we were ready to get out on the water for real. We were some good looking survivors.

And the Snake River isn’t too tough to look at either.

There isn’t a much better way to spend time than being with friends on the water.

Here we are on our “off” day in the Tetons.

Back on the river, lunch break.

And more good times with amazing friends…

And our amazing crew when we got off the water

Our daily entertainment, watching the kayak crew tie up the boats. Or something like that.

Here is a shot of our semi-pro volleyball

And before we knew what happened, it was the last day. Bigger water, more splash fights and one of the best days of my life. I didn’t realize how much I smiled that day until I saw the pictures.

Oh, and I think this is me upside down. So that happened.

But it was just as much fun after the swim.

And we got to go in the big water. Yup, that’s me. Trust me, I am smiling.

And then, graduation. We went down a stretch on our own, reflected on the week and went in some rapids alone.

And then it was over. I was sad to get out of the water for the last time that week. But I know I will be back. With friends.

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4 Responses to My Summer Vacation Part 2 – First Descents

  1. Melanie says:

    Sounds like you had an amazing week! Hang in there! Miss ya!! xoxo

  2. Kathye says:

    Jenn….you are amazingly inspirational and my new hero…….fight hard, beautiful lady !

  3. Nancy says:

    This is awesome and I wish I was young enough to go. Love you!!!!

  4. Cancer News says:

    hey lovely, keep it up.

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