I can’t swim. Growing up in Montana, swimming just wasn’t a priority. The lakes and streams spend half the year frozen solid, and the other half of the year they are icy cold. The summer was mostly spent honing my skills as a naturalist, hiking through the forest, keeping dry. So when faced with the daunting idea of kayaking the great Colorado River, I felt my life long fear of water shiver inside my soul. My responsibility as a presenter is to represent to the world to the best of my ability and to experience the adventure. To represent the Grand Canyon without including floating the Colorado would be impossible so I had to make a decision: why not tackle one of my biggest fears on international television in front of millions of viewers? Well, I can think of about a hundred good reasons not to.
I remember when I first saw it–the Colorado was as beautiful and majestic as advertised. Then, I heard it. A thunderous roar, destroying rock, and owning the earth. What the heck is it going to do to me? Rapids as tall as my house and whirlpools sucking everything into its depths like a black hole. I’m toast. If I wasn’t sweating from the already 90 degree temperatures, I was then.
Thankfully it all comes down to watercraft. National Geographic would certainly put me in a worthy vessel. Heck, I am the host of the show; they can’t afford to lose me! A sturdy iron-sided ship would certainly guide me safely down the river. Then I saw her. Small, Inflatable, and PINK! I’m dead. Yep, this river rookie, no swimming, scaredy-cat, was about to take on one of the most notorious rivers in the world–in a hot pink, blow-up kayak! YIKES!
Trembling enough to register on the Richter scale, I strapped on my helmet, grabbed my paddle, and slipped off the shore into the water. I picked a calm area in the river for building confidence and some instruction from a guide. After a few clumsy hours, I got down the basics, and now it was time to face a little whitewater. Nervous, I edged toward the rapids, my guide rooting me on. The river took control, and I desperately tried to take it back. Clinching the paddle with my life, I frantically tried to maneuver the boat. I awkwardly made it through the rapid, and found myself in total fatigue. Using muscles I have never used before coupled with intense fear and anxiety. I hadn’t paddled a mile and I was already done kayaking on this trip.
For the next couple days we picked our way through the canyon, taking moments to gain some kayaking skill. With a significant amount of time spent, I was feeling only slightly more confident but what I faced next took all that away and then some. It’s called Bridge Canyon Rapid, and our guide Scotty told me it would be the biggest rapid we would encounter on our trip. We pulled out above the rapid to make camp. I walked to the shoreline and stared. It was gnarly and the wave train smashed right into a cliff wall near the bottom. This was all of my nightmares coming true. I needed to back out. This was certainly too much for me. There is a time and a place for bravery but this wasn’t going to be the time or the place.
That night next to the river, I laid awake in the moonlight, listening to the rapid roar. The words of the Hualapai guide native to the area echoed in my head. He said “If you fear the river, it will kill you. You have to dance with the river, and it will embrace you.” I laid awake rehearsing what he said over and over. While the stars moved across the sky, a peace crept over me. I wanted to dance —I wanted to embrace my fear.
The next morning came with newfound confidence. It was time! The crew took its places; lights, camera, and now it was time for some action. I jumped into my kayak and turned toward the rapid with purpose. The Hualapai voice grew stronger in my heart and the dance began. Fear was replaced with excitement and awkwardness was substituted with grace. The river embraced my soul and we moved together as one. I got lost in its rhythm, and before I knew it, I was through.
Safely at the end of the rapid, I pulled out in an eddy. The song and dance was over and reality set in. Only at that point did I truly realize what I just did, and fear attempted to creep back in. Shaking with excitement, I took a deep breath, and let the river’s power erode away my fear. When you look at the Grand Canyon, you can see evidence of how powerful the Colorado River is. Deep chiseled walls, a vast gouged expanse. But inside of me, the Colorado River has moved so much. It has carved and shaped me in a way that will change me for the rest of my life.
Be sure to tune in to America the Wild: Grand Canyon Safari tonight at 9P et/pt