Done with the cat-herding, teeth-gnashing, nail-biting, head-banging, bum-kissing phase of my job that consumes 4-5 weeks of my life each summer. It doesn't matter how many years I've done this previously, there will inevitably be some new challenge that tests my patience, diplomacy skills, endurance, and creativity. I didn't entertain any hope that this summer would be any different, therefore I was not disappointed.
One of the activities that traditionally appears on the institute calendar is a canoe trip. I've been able to
weasel out of cancel this activity twice, claiming that drought would make the trip more of a hike than a boat ride. This year, however, the rain gods have blessed our corner of the Appalachians (sorry, Texas!) and so it would take an active thunderstorm or utter lack of interest to be able to credibly call off the outing. Strike three...and 16 of us are caravaning to an outfitter on the headwaters of the New River for a relaxing afternoon.
My first mistake was in offering the participants a menu of activities to choose from. I personally didn't want to do the 6-mile canoe trip, which involves a portage around a low bridge. My still-hurting knee would not be happy with lugging a 100 pound boat up and back down a muddy river bank. Floating in an innertube, however, sounded delightful.
At the river bank, everyone was excited to get on the water and get some relief from the afternoon sun. Everyone except Ann, that is. Ann stepped out of the van and stood motionless, staring at the stretch of river in front of us. Regardless of the fact that this far upriver, the New basically looks like this:
...Ann thought it looked like this:
Despite my assurances that the river wasn't more than knee-deep most places, Ann was sure the raging 3mph current would sweep her away (even though she claimed that she could have qualified to be a lifeguard in college). I knew Ann was one of the more senior members of the group, but she was in good shape, and even my limited experience with the river gave me the confidence that she could handle a float downriver. I mean, if you think you're going to fast, just stand up and walk to shore!
Once I assured Ann that she would be able to touch bottom at any point in the trip, and that I would be happy (I lied) to take an abbreviated, one-hour float with her, she decided to give it a try. Hearing that a one-hour tube trip was now an option, Linda wanted to join us, too. Linda is around my age, but that is about all we have in common. An African American from Houston, Linda declared that she needed to quit thinking she could be a nature girl. She was game for a float down the river, but would not leave her "Highland Hiking Stick," purchased the day before at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, behind in the van. And why was Ann still in her jeans...?
Thankfully Ann had worn a bathing suit under her clothes - but she kept her socks, sneakers, hoodie, and visor on for the ride upriver. She kept them on after slathering herself with sunscreen, too. And, thus attired, she stepped into the river once the three of us had finished our lunch.
Holding on to the brush along the riverbank, Ann hesitantly sat on the edge of her innertube and exclaimed that this wasn't so bad. I got in the river next, then Linda, walking stick in one hand, tube in the other, puzzled how to settle herself into the innertube while retaining a smidgeon of dignity. I helped her get settled in, and the three of us were off for a bit of fun.
Well, two of us were off. As Linda floated to the middle of the river (a creek, really, in my opinion) and I followed, Ann was inching her way along the shore, pulling herself along branch by branch, afraid to sit back in the innertube and let the river do the work. I stood up, pulling my tube over to Ann and said, "Look, you can stand here. You'll be fine if you let go!" I'm not sure which concerned me more, the fact that Linda, who confessed to not being that great a swimmer, was drifting further downriver, or the fact that Ann's style of "tubing" would turn the one hour trip into a half-day ordeal, or the likelihood that she might find a snake or two in the brush as she proceeded hand-over-hand down the river.
I convinced Ann to let go of the trees and hold on to my innertube instead...and we soon caught up with Linda and her stick, and more or less relaxed for the next hour or so as the current carried us. It dawned on me that I'd been responsible for taking these two women way outside their comfort zones, and I'd also be responsible for seeing that their fragile confidence wasn't shattered by anything more devastating than a bit of sunburn or a mosquito bite or two. It was hard work seeing to it that they had a relaxing float down the New.
At several times we were passed by canoers, and I imagined that we must have made quite a sight. But the three of us laughed, shared stores, and had so much fun -- so what if it looked as though we'd escaped from a group home somewhere upriver?
I may not have had the relaxing afternoon I'd hoped for, but for the next few days, whenever Ann excitedly talked about how much fun she had, and Linda triumphantly said she knew she'd be okay even when she (somehow) flipped her tube over (in hip-high water), I felt that I paid a small price for giving those two women the confidence to challenge themselves.
I'm determined to get my lazy float down the river one of these afternoons, though. But this time I'm only taking intellikid along!