Rafting through ten million years of rock layers

 

Months ago, a hiking friend suggested a whitewater rafting adventure down the Gauley, a free flowing river that cuts through ten million years of rock layers in West Virginia. With more than 100 named whitewater rapids in less than 30 miles, it is known as one of the most adventurous whitewater rivers in the east.

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Each September, the Army Corps of Engineers provides a series of twenty-two controlled releases for the express purpose of downriver recreation. Collectively known as “Gauley Season,” these releases – the result of an act of Congress and the first law passed in the US to specifically mandate recreational whitewater dam releases – are scheduled on six successive weekends bringing millions of dollars annually to the local economy. The Gauley attracts paddlers from all over the United States and even overseas. And so, at the beginning of summer, a small group of us booked to do the Lower Gauley in early September.

Coming just two weeks after my mother’s death, however, eleven miles of Class III-IV, V rapids was suddenly the last thing I felt like doing.

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But it turned out to be the best thing I could have done.

The Gauley River, which is likely named after the historic Gaul region in Europe, begins in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, and runs through a scenic mountain area used for fishing and hunting by Native Americans for 10,000 years. It eventually flows into the New River, considered by geologists (despite its name) to be one of the five oldest rivers in the world, older than the Appalachian Mountains themselves.

Out on the river, we could feel the age of the area. Looking at the dense green vegetation on the mountains around us, it felt like we were floating back in time. A friend commented he almost expected to see dinosaurs emerge from the foliage onto the shoreline.

Even though the Lower Gauley has fewer and more spread out rapids than the Upper Gauley, a number of the rapids “pose significant challenges.” Fortunately, we had Candace – a fierce and fit, intelligent and experienced river guide at our helm, coaching us through the tricky waters.

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The Lower Gauley run begins with a series of whimsically named rapids – Wood’s Ferry, PJ’s Hole, Canyon Doors, Heaven’s Gate, Upper & Lower Mash, Upper & Lower Staircase, Rollercoaster, Roostertail, and Rattlesnake – and ends with the less whimsical, more candidly descriptive Pure Screaming Hell leading into Purgatory and Hell Hole.

Before calling the paddle sequence of each rapid, Candace gave us careful instructions as to which direction to swim should we find ourselves unexpectedly ejected from the raft.

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After a summer spent taking care of my mother through a rapid downward spiral of health challenges, ending with her death, this run was just the shock I needed to reprogram my entire central nervous system.

And it worked. We paddled hard, we laughed, we got scared, and we got soaked. Water therapy at its best.

Exhausted from the adventure, I fell asleep late that night, at peace and relaxed for the first time in months – the scent of the Gauley still in my hair.

 

photography by Tom Hunnicutt & Kristin Fellows

Finding a Magical Japanese Dragon & a Cupcake on the Appalachian Trail

Appalachia can be a magical place – often when you least expect it. For example, a few months ago, while hiking in the Smokies, Tom and I unexpectedly stumbled upon a collection of woodland trolls.

But on today’s hike – roughly 1969 miles south of Katahdin, Maine – the magical encounter was with a burly hiker with the unlikely name of “Cupcake.”

"Cupcake"

Does this man look like a cupcake to you?

No matter. Experienced AT thru-hiker and blogger Evans Prater explains that trail names often describe a quirk, habit, or funny mishap a hiker has endured. These nicknames add to the sense of uniqueness of each hiker – to the sense of escape, personal discovery and soul-searching each individual is on the Trail to experience. Hikers are are given the freedom of a new life and a new identity by the simple act of changing their names.

In the wisdom of Eckhart Tolle, there is a split second when you first look at something, a moment when all you experience is the form the universe has created. And it is in this gap of thought that the key to presence, awareness, and peace exists – an acceptance of the universe just as it actually is – nameless, formless.

And so it was with “Cupcake.” I did not ask him how he got his name or who gave it to him. It didn’t matter.

I was more interested in the stories in his trail weary skin – especially the fantastic, colorful creature crawling up his leg, baring its sharp fangs at me.

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“It’s a Kirin,” Cupcake explained, “a Japanese mythological creature.”

Japanese? I asked.

“I’m a quarter Japanese,” replied the burly, red-haired, Scottish, lumberjack-looking dude matter-of-factly, as if I was unable to tell from his appearance.

Research later revealed that Kirin is the Japanese form of the Chinese “qilin.” The kirin is often depicted as a dragon shaped like a deer with an ox’s tail instead of the tail of a lion. It is also often portrayed as partially unicorn-like in appearance, but with a backwards curving horn.

In the Chinese hierarchy of mythological animals, the qilin is ranked as the third most powerful creature (after the dragon and phoenix), but in Japan, the kirin occupies the top spot.

Kirins are said to appear with the imminent arrival or passing of a sage or illustrious ruler. They are usually depicted with raised forelegs, flames around their bodies and wings to help them fly across the sky – all of which may help inspire weary hikers on a 2,190 mile trek.

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They are extremely gentle creatures and never step on grass and insects as they move around – very much in keeping with the philosophy of nature-respecting, long distance hikers.

A Kirin is also a good omen – thought to occasion prosperity or serenity. They appear when all is right with the world.

And so it was this afternoon, as we briefly crossed paths on the Appalachian Trail and compared body art – one, a day-hiker with flowers inked on her leg; the other, a thru-hiker committed to months on the AT with a Japanese dragon on his.

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A brief exchange stories, the sighting of a magical creature, hours spent in fresh air and the ancient beauty of the Smokies.

Moments when all was right with the world.

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Wishing Cupcake good trail karma over his next two thousand miles …

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… and whatever lies beyond.

 

 

Naked in Denmark (part two) ~ The Magic of Not Being in Control

Come to the edge, he said.
They said, we are afraid.


Come to the edge, he said.
And so they came.


And he pushed them.
And they flew…

Guillaume Apollinaire

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The edge I was standing on that morning was the coast of Denmark. I could just barely make out the silhouette of Sweden across the dark waters.

Be not afraid, I thought to myself. Then, in the midst of a small gathering of people, I took off all my clothes and jumped into the water.

Ohmygod … so very cold.

No breath.

A few long moments later, I emerged from the water.

My skin felt astonishing –

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– like it was lit from within by a thousand fairy lights. A Scandinavian mermaid.

According to Karen (my Danish cousin who does this all the time), I can now say that I am a Viking – and not just genetically – but by virtue of having experienced the polar opposite of Danish hygge (roughly translated as coziness) when I jumped into an icy cold sea completely naked.

Why naked, you might ask? Because, as Karen explains it, it is so cold here in the winter that if you wore a bathing suit, it would freeze to your skin the moment you immerse in the frigid waters, and the only way to remove your suit would be to have it cut off. Being the egalitarian and practical people they are, the Danes therefore decided to do away with bathing suits altogether.

The day I became a Viking began innocently enough with cups of hot, dark coffee and fresh bread with cheese and jam in the kitchen of Karen’s cosy farmhouse –

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one of my favorite places in the world.

Karen looked at me and said – Okay, is this the morning you become a Viking?

I have been coming to this beautiful old family farmhouse since I was a kid. The first time, my mother left me there for several days on my own and not knowing a word of Danish other than the basics – chocolade (chocolate)
kransekage (a delicious almond cake)
farvel (goodbye) and tak (thanks.)

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Karen taught me a few more Danish words – farm, cat, rock, house.

Each morning, we rode bicycles across the countryside to attend Karen’s school – a completely bewildering experience for me, isolated as I was by the language.

At night, I lay in bed in a tiny bedroom up under the thatched eaves of the farmhouse, warm under a Danish dyne (down comforter), listening in the dark to hushed voices murmuring in the kitchen below.

I felt like a Danish version of Heidi.

That was my first experience ‘soloing’ – on my own, immersed in another culture where I didn’t speak or understand the language.

But I was hooked by the exhilaration of the new; by the mysteries and strangeness of it all, and (most importantly) by coming out okay at the end. Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to travel beyond the complacent zone of my normal everyday existence.

The year before I officially became “a Viking,” I had soloed to Ethiopia on a somewhat innocently radical quest to track down some stories for a book I was writing.

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It was an experience that initially scared me to pieces (especially the first night, which involved unexpected encounters with a monkey, a leper and a prostitute.)

But I survived and came back changed in many ways. (You can read more about these adventures @ TheRedMoonLetters.com)

So jumping into the cold sea in Denmark – uden toj, as they say over there – shouldn’t have been something I would hesitate to do.

But I did – at least until I remembered the mantra I had adopted back home in the mountains of Appalachia.

Be not afraid.

And so, when Karen repeated, Kristin – is this the morning you become a Viking?

I said yes.

Off we went to the edge of the sea. It was a small challenge, but I did it, surprising myself in the process.

After it was over and I was reveling in the skin tingling loveliness and the high that accompanies an unexpected flirtation with dare devilishness, it occurred to me that perhaps the magic is really in not feeling in control.

I let that intriguing thought – the relationship between the fear of not being able to control things vs the magic of unexpected outcomes – ruminate in my head for awhile before challenging myself again.

A few years later I tested this idea by signing up for ten days of hiking in Iceland – an adventure just extreme enough to feel I was testing my limits without a reasonable expectation of dying in the process. I didn’t know a soul in the country, or on the trip, and I don’t speak Icelandic. I would definitely not be in control. Of anything.

I booked onto an REI trip –

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and then spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying that I might not be able to keep up with the others.

Visions of twenty-somethings scaling the landscape in athletic leaps and bounds with me slowly trudging through ice and volcanic ash, some distance behind, haunted and taunted me.

Rather than face this humiliation, I nearly backed out of the trip. But just in time, I remembered –  Be not afraid.

Inside my head, an interesting dialog unfolded as the logical, rational part of me was able to calm the emotional, irrational part of me by framing the trip as a photography assignment.

And for some reason, the ruse worked.

Which is a good thing, for had I succumbed to my fears –

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I would have missed ten days of astonishing adventures and new friendships.

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Much to my surprise, I was out-hiked each and every day – not by twenty-somethings (there were none on the trip) – but by three sixty-somethings.

There was also the flat out exhilaration of being a part of a group of intrepid souls hiking an active volcano – each of us hoping we would be able to make a 2.5 hr descent through fields of snow and razor sharp lava rocks in a breathtakingly inadequate half hour window, should it happen to erupt.

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These Icelandic experiences, and others, turned many of my fears and concerns on their heads. My pre-trip jitters had been total rubbish.

A recent post from The North Face outerwear company reminded me of what I had gained from hiking in Iceland: the truest version of ourselves stands well beyond comfort’s perimeter.

Thanks to the encouragement I received from a winter’s night message in Appalachia to be not afraid –

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– I have been pushed at the edge, in the words of poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and found I am able to fly.

*****

If you need an image to help you remember to be not afraid, how about this one of my Danish cousin, Karen proving her true Viking ancestry with an icy plunge –

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– something she does nearly every day, even during the cold Scandinavian winters.

*****

photo of me with Óliver & Kjartan in Iceland by Anne-Marie Davidson.
photo credit for the shot of Karen unknown.

Naked in Denmark (or, How a Winter Night in Appalachia Inspired Me to Live Fearlessly)

I was standing on the very edge of terra firma in Denmark, looking across a dark sea of chilly water towards a distant Sweden.

Dawn was breaking and I was stark naked.

Why I was standing there, ready to jump into the cold water, can be blamed upon something I experienced on a winter’s night in Appalachia.

To explain how this bizarre moment came about, I will first explain the circumstances that led me to take off all my clothes in public in a foreign land – not normally a habit of mine. (Except for that time in Finland.)

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When I moved to the mountains, I was an uptight, stressed-out mess. Years of single parenting, a year of intense care-giving for my father, the death of my unique and wonderful artist sister, the incessant struggles of being self-employed in the documentary film business had all taken a toll on my equilibrium.

Like a team of persistent and pernicious sculptors, these challenges had etched themselves into lines on my face and on my psyche, chipping away pieces of my potentially happier self.

Each was demanding and tough in their own way, but even worse was just the grinding competitiveness of daily life in a big city. And the fears. Two decades of the fear that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my kids, that I wouldn’t be able to pay the rent or the mortgage or any of the bills, fear that I would die in a plane accident (or a car accident), that my kids would be shot at school, be injured playing sports, crash while learning to drive, fear that I would get cancer like my sister, fear that I was eating the wrong things, cooking with the wrong pans, etc. Scared that someone would steal the idea for the book I had spent more than a couple of years researching and writing (yes, that actually happened.) Most of all, scared that I was too jaded or miserable to attract true love into my life. I let these fears eat away at my potential for well being and happiness like acid rain.

As soon as I could, I escaped to the mountains, relying only on blind instinct that this would be a place to heal and renew.

The mountains surrounding Asheville are, after all, some of the world’s oldest – so they know something about resilience and survival.

I only knew I needed peace and quiet, and their healing energy.

photo by sammy?

Although I had often gone to various churches (more off than on) much of my life, I made a conscious decision that would not be a part of my new life in Asheville. But then a chance encounter with six words took place in (of all places) a church, on (of all times) Christmas Eve. The irony of this was not lost on me.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and my son, my former husband (who also moved to Asheville), his girlfriend, Nan, and I had gathered together at my new little home on the mountainside overlooking a bird sanctuary for a festive holiday meal and an exchange of gifts.

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It was later in the evening when I heard Nan say she wanted to go to a service that night at Jubilee church. Steve (my former, her current) didn’t appear to be interested in going. Tipsy on the spirit of Christmas and goodwill toward all mankind, I heard myself say that I would take her.

What on earth did you just say?! my startled inner self exclaimed. It’s dark and cold out there! Wouldn’t you rather stay home, drink wine, fall asleep by the fireplace? Yes, dammit!

But it was too late. As Nan’s face lit up with gratitude, I realized I was committed.

And so, within half an hour, there I was, reluctantly sitting in a circle, inside a church, along with dozens of others bundled up against the chill, trying my best to tune out the words of Howard Hanger, the charismatic minister of the Asheville Jubilee experience.

He was going through the Christmas story and I’d heard it all before. Many times before. So instead, I turned my thoughts to what people were wearing and might there possibly be any handsome single men there.

Thus occupied, I didn’t hear any of the sermon until, about 2o minutes into the service, clear as a bell, in the midst of the random muck of my mind, I heard these words:

What if you were not afraid?

Howard Hanger had just gotten to the bit about the angels appearing and startling the shepherds.

Hah, that’s crazy, I thought. I can’t imagine not being afraid.

Think about it, Howard said, pausing to look intently at each person in the large circle around him, including me.

What would your life be like if – you – were – not – afraid?

It would be quite amazing and glorious, I realized.

So captivating was this thought that I then missed the rest of his sermon, completely wrapped up in those six words, and a different vision of my life from what I had been used to.

The idea of being not afraid, the permission to be not afraid, the idea that it might actually be okay to be not afraid, was so alluring that I decided that evening, instead of a New Year’s resolution, I would adopt it as my “New Year’s mantra” in the coming year.

And that was why and how – nine months after this Appalachian experience – I found myself standing naked to the world as dawn was breaking on the shores of Denmark, ready to jump in some chilly, chilly Scandinavian waters.

Be not afraid, I whispered to myself.

And jumped.

 

[read Naked in Denmark, part two]