by Jessie Cubberly
“First night on the women’s trip. We are all going to bed and it’s not yet 9pm. I want to know what has made these women feel wild.” – From my waterproof notebook.
We are driven to bed that first night not by fatigue, but by massive, vicious, visible swarms of mosquitos.
It is an August day in Ruby/Horsethief Canyon—about 66 miles upriver from Moab, Utah. Temperatures soar in the hundreds while the sun is up and the river, steadily shrinking throughout the summer, bears a striking resemblance to a giant stream of coffee that someone has just added cream to. Muddy, fine sediments create spiraling patterns where the water churns and boils over boulders hidden far below. The river is hardly cool enough to be refreshing, but it is calming to float down. The first twenty-five miles of our trip are designated flat water, so the only necessary oar strokes are directional: landing and launching, avoiding trees and boulders. Otherwise, we are leisurely carried downstream by the current. Only when the upstream wind starts pushing against me do I have to muscle the oars. Today the challenge is welcome and I settle into the smooth rhythm of my strokes.
Their surprise is colored with laughter, even pride – they are aware of the years behind them and this week they are here to revel in the wildness that those years have helped cultivate.
As the season progressed, I gradually developed confidence as a boatwoman. I am growing in strength as well as grace. At first, I was terribly intimidated by the muscles of fellow raft guides compared to my tiny arms. But I have learned to appreciate my smallness as it has forced me to focus on technique, while the big muscled folk can get away with practically zero skill apart from rowing like mad. In my humble opinion, this lack of pure strength has made me a better boater.
We pull into camp that afternoon with ease. A beautiful camp with enormous cottonwoods provides our primary need: shade. After tethering our boats, anchoring them with a strong knot, I help the ladies out of our red rubber rafts. Getting in and out of a fifteen foot oar-rig is not a graceful affair for anyone, but even less so for a group of women all over fifty, who spend most of their time moving in the ordinary human ways. They act surprised at their own bodies, surprised at their recent loss of balance, their added fear of slightly risky maneuvers. But their surprise is colored with laughter, even pride—they are aware of the years behind them and this week they are here to revel in the wildness that those years have helped cultivate.
As we float and swim and eat and laugh together, I realize how little time I normally spend with women of this age group. I am fascinated to hear their stories. I am the guide on this trip and while it is my job to cook for and care for the group, I find myself feeling cared for by them, nourished by the presence of women who have seen the world more than twice as long as I have. I want to know what they were like when they were my age, what kind of choices they made and when, what they think about love and work and family and literature and nature. I resist the urge to grill them and we relax into the shade of the cottonwoods with fresh cracked beers from the cooler.
Hours later, the sun begins to loosen its hot-iron grip over the desert and the air becomes breathable. I walk alone to the river’s edge to watch the sun disappear behind the canyon walls. As it sends its final golden beam across rippling water, I inhale slowly, deeply. I am relishing the almost thirst-quenching quality of the cool air until suddenly I feel pain in my upper right nostril. I snort instinctively and in a tiny cloud of red dust, a black and smooshed mosquito falls into my hand. And so it begins: the nightly battle to keep my flesh and blood to myself.
Returning to camp, I walk into a scene of mild chaos. Women are scrambling to raise their tents and cover their skin. I’m not sure which is worse: the shroud of mosquitoes that has descended upon us, or the thick clouds of bug spray that are popping up in every direction, blurring my senses. The camp is quite literally abuzz and while I fumble through bomb-proofing the kitchen in preparation for night, I try my best not to breathe, already feeling small, itchy bumps rising on my rear end. It doesn’t take long before I start hearing the final zips of tent closure followed by the sounds of clapping and slapping: death to all the pesky ones that made it inside.
This trip, called ‘Women: Wild By Nature’, is a celebration of wildness, strength and femininity in this place of overwhelming beauty and surprise.
Within minutes, I too am zipping myself into my beloved tent world. It’s still light out, I haven’t brushed my teeth, and there is a periodic buzz near my right ear. I sit down on my sleeping bag (it’s too hot tonight to get inside), and organize the few items I have brought along. This is precious time. Rarely on river trips do I get any waking minutes completely to myself. I apply salve to my dry, cracked feet, and let the day’s events roll over in my mind.
“If your nerve deny you / go above your nerve” – Emily Dickenson, “292”
It is an honor to be included on this trip as a first-year guide. It is the only trip that our founder, Karla, has attended every year since CFI’s birth in 1985. Some of the women here have been adventuring with us just as long. Through these yearly river reunions, they have grown up together. This trip, called ‘Women: Wild By Nature’, is a celebration of wildness, strength and femininity in this place of overwhelming beauty and surprise. I am thrilled to be here but accompanying my gratitude is a cloud of butterflies in my belly: I am nervous as all hell. Not just nervous about performing well on my first trip with the big boss, not just nervous about being the cook in charge of feeing for our group of fifteen three times a day. I am nervous because on day five we run Westwater Canyon. Westwater is a big deal, made bigger with boat full of older ladies who would not be thrilled about being thrown out of the boat in a class IV rapid. I have run Westwater before, but the river is different every single day. It will be different this time. What if I flip? What if I toss passengers? Possibilities abound. My mind races and yet, underlying my fluttering cloud of butterflies is a small bubble of pride. Pride in knowing that I am living up to the advice of so many sages, poets, and self-help books. I am doing something that scares me. I am overcoming my fear of deep water and doubts about my strength. Like Dickenson, my nerve is denying me and yet, I am going above my nerve.
Rain on my tent is my lullaby. The occasional splash and boat squeaks. Someone snoring? It’s a rhythmic sound, must be snores.…
Who the hell is it?? – My waterproof notebook.
Today I wake up thrilled that it isn’t rapids day quite yet. Still one more day to prepare mentally for Westwater. It rained last night, but only lightly. I keep my raincoat accessible as we load up, feeling ready for whatever drizzle we might encounter, completely unaware that today we will row straight into an enormous storm.
I have been intimately getting to know the meaning of southwest monsoon seasons. We are rowing along and watching the landscape change as we exit Ruby Horsethief canyon. The canyon walls are melting down into flat grasslands. As we round the final corner out of the redrock, we look ahead into a black-purple sky. But sky isn’t even quite the right word. When the clouds are that dark, that enormous, bleeding straight down into the earth, it becomes hard to distinguish an “above.” The storm fills all of the space. We watch clouds roll over the mesas, sliced by red-white lightning. Earth shattering rolls of thunder remind us of our smallness. The space immediately around us grows dark, and still. There is something about lighting that makes every shape, every color around you pop, I feel as if my vision and hearing are sharpened, some buried instinct in my brain knows we are in for something…
The storm is straight ahead, and on a river, there is no choice but forward. Regardless of what’s ahead, you follow the current straight on down, in this case straight into the grips of those storm clouds. We have fifteen or so minutes of awe and quiet anticipation before the rain hits us. It feels like a shower of bullets. Rain so hard I can’t believe it isn’t hail. Instantly soaked, we struggle for control of the boats amid gusts of wind that howl up the river—you can watch the gusts charge toward us, they sweep over the surface of the water, turning the ripples into upstream whitecaps. Quickly realizing that we are losing the battle against the wind, we pull over and hold onto roots emerging from a cutbank to stabilize ourselves. Karla pulls out her shower cap and puts it on. Then, she turns to howl at me through the wind. I howl back. The other women raise their voices in laughter, drenched, crushed by rain, high on our own wildness, electrified by the energy of the storm.
Eventually the rain lightens and we continue down as the storm continues upstream. But the adventure is not really over. Storms in the desert are intense in the moment of their occurring, but their effects are far-reaching. After the clouds have gone, the river begins to swell. All of the water unleashed from those clouds over miles and miles and miles of desert races back to the central artery: the mighty Colorado. The water rushes over the slickrock into rivulets, streams, rivers, creating mighty waterfalls that rush with unbelievable force and speed back to the Colorado. But it doesn’t come alone—the river turns deep, tomato-soup red, and fills with debris from a thousand tributaries. After lunch, we are suddenly rowing on a swollen river, surrounded by tires, entire trees, branches, heaps of juniper berries and plant bits, uprooted shrubs, trash, etc. It’s become a new river. On that day the cubic feet per second of water in the river went from 6,000 to 9,100 in a matter of a few hours. I try not to think about what this means for the rapids tomorrow. They are likely massive, more powerful, and filled with debris. The river never fails to surprise.
At night things clear up and we have costume night at camp. Deborah, a lady in her seventies, dons a tight, completely see-through black lace shirt with no bra. She is dressed up as a famous singer from the 1950s and after giving us lots of clues to help us guess her identity, she reveals that she herself can’t remember who she is emulating. We laugh so hard I nearly fall in the river. Three other women dress up as the Spice Girls, but apparently I am the only one who actually knows any Spice Girls lyrics, so it is up to me to perform, and perform I do. Nikki, a fellow guide who I adore and admire, wears an apron she bought in Rome that makes her look like the statue of David.
You cannot simply memorize each bend in the river, because they change. You can learn to respond to impulse, you can learn that great strength only exists in tandem with great humility.
Eventually we settle around a small fire. Most everyone is happy and silly, on the verge of becoming emotional. The canyon walls glow and the waterfalls that were born during the flash flood are letting up, turning to a trickle and then into nothing at all. We fall into a quiet space, taking it all in.
Recognizing an opportunity, Karla seizes it and announces that now would be a great time to share the tidbits that we were instructed to bring before the trip: a quote or story or poem that we like. Mine is a poem by Mary Oliver that I have memorized. As I recite it, I can feel the listening ears of the women around me.
Who is my family here, among the redrocks? Can I yet claim familial ties with this desert? I know that I am growing close with these women.
I tuck myself into my sleeping bag that night, knowing that what happens tomorrow is up to my strength, will-power, and willingness to give into the fate of the river gods. If there is one thing I have learned from Karla, it is that there is no controlling the river, you just have to ride it. You cannot simply memorize each bend in the river, because they change. You can learn to respond to impulse, you can learn that great strength only exists in tandem with great humility.
Day Five: “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.”
I get stuck in a massive, sucking eddy after the very first rapid. The swollen river is churning with power. I row like hell to get out, resenting all those muscled guides to whom this would be a piece of cake. Sweat dripping from arms, legs, neck straining with every ounce of my will, I tear back into the current at the top of the eddy and correct my angle. This time the eddy doesn’t get me. Flinging the hair out of my face, licking the sweat from my lip, I smile my widest, wildest smile right up at that blue sky. In white-water, you don’t have the option to consider the thought “I can’t do this.” You just have to do it. A reckless joy spreads throughout my body: a power stronger than muscle, and the rest of the canyon speeds by in a blur of exhilaration that’s over far too quickly.
In the end, I don’t remember what happened during the rapids. I remember laughing amongst women. The fragility and strength that age had brought them. Karla in her shower cap, howling with me into the tempest.