First Descents Trip: Out Living It

So, now that I gave you the background info and got all of that off of my chest, here’s a recap of all the fun stuff (another long post).

Day 1:  I woke up at 3AM to catch my 6AM flight from Philly to Atlanta and then onto Knoxville.  The 2 program coordinators and volunteer doctor met all of the participants at the airport.  It took a while for other participants to get in, but we finally had enough participants to fill a van by about 2PM.  And then it was a 2 hour drive to our amazing cabins in Bryson City, NC.  A long windy drive – I never get car sick, but this drive was horrible for everyone!  Our van was dropped off at cabin 5 and then we all met up at cabin 11 for snacks, dinner and conversation.  One of the first things we were told was that we could no longer use our real first names and that we all had to come up with a nickname.  At first, I was Jersey.  And then someone thought it would be funny to call me Snookie because I’m far from being anything like that train wreck.  Then someone asked me my name and when I replied with Snookie, they thought I said Snuggie.  So, somehow I became Snuggie for the remainder of the week.  Others included:  Peach, Austin, Stormy, Hollywood, Razor, Patch, Junebug, TBD, Queso, LaLa, Daisy, Swesty, Marco, Jeff, Bells, ChaCha, Tadpole and Uncle G.  After all of this, I was pooped and knew that I needed to rest  up for the long week ahead.

Day 2:  Our first day out on the water.  We first went to the NOC to meet our kayak instructors (Honeybadger, Tiny and Mono) and get outfitted in some really cool gear: kayaks, paddles, helmets, life vests, wetsuits and kayak skirts.

Picking out my kayak!

We started out on a lake to learn the basics – Lake Fontana.  Our first lesson was, what to do if your kayak flips.  We did not learn how to roll back up this day, but we did learn the dreaded wet exit (basically pull up your skirt and get out of the kayak so you can get to the surface).  The entire day was spent out on the lake learning the correct forms to paddle, turn and flip.  Our chefs met us there with our yummy lunch.  Then it was back to paddling and home for dinner. It was overcast this day and we did see a little rain, not the best weather to start out with.

All smiles on day 1…

Day 3:  We ventured out to a small stretch of the Little Tennessee River today.  I’m not sure where I was exactly, but it was slow-moving water and not too much scary stuff.  We spent more time practicing what we learned the day before:  slowing down in an eddy, peeling out from an eddy, paddling, and turning.  I felt more confident on this day and much more comfortable being out on the water.  This was also the day I did something I thought I’d never do…I peed in the woods!  I’m not a fan.  But I was prepared with tissues and hand sanitizer, so it wasn’t that bad.

Day 4:  No kayaking today.  Instead, we broke up the week with a group rafting trip down the Nantahala River.  This gave us the opportunity to see the rapids we would be kayaking down on Graduation Day.  Rafting was fun, but it was kind of boring after you’re used to kayaking and being in total control of your boat.  By mid-river, we suspected that our raft guide may have been hitting some wacky stuff earlier in the day, but luckily no one from our raft fell out!  We finished with lunch after Nantahala Falls, shopping at the NOC (hello new hoodie) and a hike along the Appalachian Trail.   Part of the trail intersects with the Nantahala River crossing.  Each day seemed to get progressively longer and more intense.  By the day’s end, I was officially exhausted.  This was also the hottest day so far and the first day that it had not rained while we were out on the water!

Day 5:  Back in our kayaks!  Today we were out on the Tuckasegee River.  Each day built upon the previous day’s skills, so we were mostly in Class II rapids on this day.  The water was moving faster and there were lots of rocks to negotiate around.  We practiced one-on-one with the instructors how to use our hips and knees to right ourselves back up if we flipped our kayaks.  I was too tense and just couldn’t get it – I stiffened up and freaked out every time my head went under water.  Ironically, this was also the first day that I experienced a low oxygen environment unintentionally – basically I flipped my kayak on a rapid around a rock.  Since I hadn’t mastered the maneuver to right myself back up, I had to do a wet exit.  The bottom was very shallow and rocky, so I managed to scrape up my hands pretty bad trying to get my skirt off and resurface.  My finger was pretty bloody, but I managed to get back in and get back on the water.

Day 6:  Graduation day and our official last day on the water.  We kayaked the Nantahala with an optional class 3 rapid at the end.  We entered in really choppy water – my kayak was all over the place and I really did not feel confident starting out.  Commence freak out mode!  And the river wasn’t the only water flowing that day – my freak out mode also included major tears and I just couldn’t stop crying.  I was really scared that I was going under and the icy cold water was going to shock me.

I was really surprised by my reaction and I think I surprised everyone else too.  All week long, I hadn’t really shown any emotion like that, but all of a sudden I just became a baby.  However, by lunch time my nerves had settled and I was back on track somewhat.  I made it through “Graduation Falls” (class 2 rapids) without any problems.  We then “parked” our kayaks and walked down the river to scope out the optional class 3 rapid.  I stood along the shore for a long time contemplating what I would do.  Once again, I was scared, but thankfully no tears.  I watched others take on the challenge.  Some made it, some flipped.  I decided to go for it – I knew I would come home with regrets if I didn’t at least try.  Also, another BC survivor reminded me that it was just water and if I made it through chemo, the rapids should be easy.  How true!  So, below is the rapid that I attempted.

Nantahala Falls – I didn’t quite make it, but I tried!

I make it through the first part fine, but I got my kayak turned around and before I knew it, I was under.  I’m so glad that I at least tried to go for it!  And not to worry, there were plenty of instructors and guides at the end just waiting to fish us all out of the water!

For some reason, I cannot upload MP3 videos to this blog site…So, if you haven’t seen my wipeout video, check out my Twitter feed on the right hand side of this blog.

After we finished up our last day of paddling, our NOC instructors presented us each with an award.  My bloody finger earned me the “carnage award” because I was the only to participant to shed blood all week-long.  We also received a nifty NOC t-shirt that only graduates get.

Before I knew it, the week on the water was over and we were heading back to our cabins to pack up and enjoy one last meal together.  But first, it was hot tub time.  Did I mention that all of our cabins had hot tubs?  I was definitely spoiled all week.  Our Friday night dinner was pizza.   Fridays are always pizza party night at home, so I thought this was awesome (only thing missing was a glass of wine – it was a dry week).

Each night at our camp fires, our program directors asked us an open-ended question or to reflect upon something specific…At our last camp fire on Friday, we were asked to use 3 words only to summarize our week.  I can easily describe the week with these words:  Challenging, Exhilarating and Healthy!

Trip highlights/my favorites

  • Getting my face wet and trying to be less of a girly girl!  Hanging out in a wet smelly wetsuit is not my thing, but I didn’t complain too much!
  • Meeting some amazing people!  Each person was genuinely nice and unique in their own special ways.  We also had quite a bit of talent in our group.
  • Finding a stray doggie at one of our load-in sites (couldn’t bring her home)!
  • Singing/jamming to Zac Brown’s song “Chicken Fried” to get ourselves pumped up each day.
  • Waking up feeling exhausted, yet refreshed every single day!
  • Amazing food – did I mention that we had personal chefs all week?  And that each meal was so healthy and nutritious!  Here is a link to the organization that handled all of our meals and kept us feeling good.

Would I do it again?  Sure!  There are options for future trips – FD2 and FDX…We’ll see where life has me next year!  What would I do differently?  Well, as I say when I return from every other vacation/trip, I would definitely pack less stuff!  I’d also try to relax a little more.  If any other young (18 – 39 years old) cancer survivors are reading this, I’d definitely recommend that you try one of the FD adventures!

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One Response to First Descents Trip: Out Living It

  1. Erin says:

    Alexis, your trip sounds amazing. That is so wonderful you got to participate and experience this despite the emotional feelings you expressed in your first post. I think I will be the same way you are when I am done and not wanted to talk in detail about it all the time. I already feel like that sometimes now and I still have a long way to go. Thanks for sharing this with us.

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