Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Challenge & Support

In higher education, where I have spent my entire career, the principle of challenge and support is employed a great deal because both are so important to the development of students. The idea is to challenge their thinking and ask them to do things that may be uncomfortable, but necessary for growth, but to support them along the way so that they feel safe and know they have someone to turn to. I experienced these concepts recently as a student of kayaking and was reminded just how effective they can be.

I was lucky enough to participate in a program called First Descents, which brings together young adult cancer survivors for a week of adventure – whitewater kayaking or rock climbing – in some of the most beautiful settings in the United States. My session took place in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana.

Our introductory morning on beautiful Lake McDonald with snow-capped peaks towering in the background, allowed us to get used to our boats and practice escaping from them while upside down. The rest of the week we paddled successively more difficult stretches of the scenic and wild Flathead River, which forms the western border of Glacier NP.

Throughout the week, we were challenged to take on tasks that were frightening to most of us – paddling class III rapids, being upside down in the river in a tiny boat and figuring out how to right ourselves or “eject,” and enduring the elements such as freezing cold glacial water, burning sun and high temperatures or ravenous mosquitoes. We slowly built our skills and gained confidence on more challenging stretches of river with bigger and more exciting water. All of those could be achieved because of the support of a fantastic staff who were there to provide for our needs, teach us the skills to navigate the river safely, and help us overcome any fears that might hold us back.

One of my fellow campers said it best : “This is a cancer camp that’s not about cancer.” While we all knew we shared an experience with this disease, and talked about it informally throughout our time together, cancer was never the focus. Enjoying each other, the great outdoors and the challenge of a great adventure were the cornerstones of this experience.

I have always felt the most centered and connected in the outdoors. The simple pleasure of sitting by the campfire next to a pond with the breeze rifling leaves, and stars blanketing the sky overhead while bats and dragonflies swooped down to the water’s edge to feast on hatching mosquitoes was a highlight for me. Watching others in my group, who might not have as much connection with nature, develop an appreciation for the river and the healing qualities of the water, was joyous.

Water has always held a special place for me, whether swimming or boating on Kentucky Lake growing up, feeling the pull of the surf in the oceans of either coast or paddling on the river either placidly or purposefully through whitewater, there is something about the water that comforts, nurtures and sustains us. Who hasn’t gotten lost staring at waves crashing on the shore, ripples in a lake or water gurgling over rocks in a beautiful mountain stream?

The most beautiful gift of this experience for many is simply being taken away from the grind of daily life, and yes, cancer too, to experience equal measures of tranquility, friendship and adventure in a stunning natural setting. As our staff reminded us before our graduation paddle, we all have only right here and right now. When you are paddling a class III rapid called Bone Crusher or trying to avoid Can Opener Rock, cancer is the furthest thing from your mind. I am so grateful to have had this experience, and that non-profits like First Descents exist to challenge and support us through this journey.

Paddling really can be a metaphor for life. When the waters get rough, and you can rest assured that they will, it is important to keep your paddle in the water and keep moving forward. Inaction can cause you to capsize or worse. Maintaining good balance is important in both kayaking and for a well-rounded life. And being prepared is essential – safety equipment, knowledge and a certain skill level are required for tackling rivers and life. Finally, and most importantly, surrounding yourself with good people who know what they are doing, and are there to help you when you need them most will see you through a crisis on the river or in life.

“The river called. The call is the thundering rumble of distant rapids, the intimate roar of white water, the whisper of wind through tall pines, the music of he night produced by the elemental instruments of wind, rock and water. It is the compelling call of great spaces, of wilderness beauty, of soul-satisfying serenity, inspiration, freedom and wholesome thrilling adventure – a primeval summons to primordial values.” --John Craighead