We were thinking you’d be the one to hitchhike. You’ll probably get picked up quicker than us.” I looked over at Matt and Rowan, the two guys pulling on their drysuits, both muscly fellas I met freshman year of college. I smiled and knew they were right. Matt looked over at me and asked, “Do you find that to be an advantage?” “What? Being a woman?” I laughed. “Well, yeah,” he said, hesitating.
I’d experienced my fair share of chivalry, even as a river guide in Alaska. When it wasn’t chivalry, it was simply men underestimating my ability as a woman to lift beefy double kayaks or unscrew tight lids on thermoses.
But these guys weren’t that way. They respected me but didn’t feel the need for gentlemanliness, knowing it wouldn’t get anyone anywhere on a swollen river, chock full of debris. We joked over stories while we prepped our boats and pulled gear out of my car.
After heading to the takeout, it took me all of two seconds to hitch a ride back to meet the boys. Less baggage? Less threatening? For whatever reason, I did hitch a ride more quickly. I don’t know why, and I don’t really care.
The river was pumping. We were dropping into a run that is class three at lower flows. Today we were running it at 15,000 CFS and it was easily class four, maybe even four plus in one place, which was a new challenge for the three of us and more than a little out of our comfort zone. Rocks that were usually markers of familiar rapids were completely underwater, and logs bigger than our kayaks were charging down in abundance.
The three of us made it through the first few rapids, nailing our rolls, dodging hefty logs, and sticking together. We pulled into a pocket of slower moving water on the side of the river (what kayakers refer to as eddying out) just above “the slot,” which today was no longer a slot, but a massive wave that looked like it could break your boat in two. I watched as the wave tossed my friends ahead of me. We made it through, and I a let out a loud “Woot!” as Matt twirled his hand over his head signaling us to eddy out. We found a calmer spot and as I pulled into the eddy line, I over-braced, sending myself underwater. Don’t panic. Roll.
My arms struggled to do the move. They weren’t working. I tried a few more times, closer. I was running out of my keep cool attitude and I was running out of air. I gave it another go. No dice! One more time and I inhaled … a few inches below the surface. I began to panic feeling the water invade my body. Abort!
I pulled my spray skirt, flooding my boat with water and breaking my safe, dry seal that keeps me secure and inside my kayak.
I kicked my way to the surface, sputtering and coughing, my head came above the water. I struggled to breathe as Matt yelled to me. The waves curled back and dunked my head under, forcing more water into my mouth. I’m a good swimmer. I’m a great swimmer! But I couldn’t get anywhere. Somehow I found the back of Rowan’s boat and he helped me get to shore. Standing up, shaky and nervous, I watched my friends head downriver chasing my boat. The current was so quick that it wasn’t long before they were out of sight. I stood there stunned and began to crawl down the river through the trees and pokey vines in hopes of seeing them eddied out below.
What seemed like half an hour later, the guys showed up on the road above the other side of the river. They cupped their hands around their mouths and yelled over the roaring whitewater. They had bailed on my boat when Rowan had nearly swam himself on one of the rapids farther down.
I knew the current was too strong for me to swim across, and I felt helpless and embarrassed. It wasn’t long before a few more cars showed up and pretty soon the sheriff and some deputies, and river rangers: a group of men, arms crossed, staring over at me.
I felt myself curl inward; I didn’t want to be the damsel in distress! I could see Matt and Rowan explaining the situation to the river rangers and sheriff, eventually forming a plan. The guys would later tell me they were asked if it was a female across the river, their quick and full of attitude response was, “Yes! And she’s solid! She’s totally capable and fit!” It was apparent to them that it could have been any one of us over there.
Two hours later a raft arrived from upstream and I climbed in next to three more men. They smiled at me and assured me that this wasn’t the first time and that they themselves had lost boats on this river. As I crawled up the rocks to the road, the guys wrapped their arms around me with big hugs and Matt peeled a tick off of the side of my face. A few hours later, after we’d thanked the rangers thoroughly, we headed home, with one less boat on the roof of my car.
I am a girl and at times love a good dose of chivalry, but I am not a damsel! I can hold my own and, as a woman in the outdoor world, I know that Mother Nature doesn’t play favorites. When you climb into your boat, tie in your figure eight, or click into your skis, there isn’t any chivalry involved—just toughness, resilience, passion, and grit.