Ending 2012 With a Splash!

Another check on the bucket list!

Let’s end the year not about hemophilia… sort of. While in Zambia, just three weeks ago, I rafted the mighty Zambezi River, a dream I have always had. Here’s my recollection of the day!

Saturday, December 8, 2012
Writing
from the David Livingstone Lodge, with the sun setting outside my door, facing the river once explored by David Livingstone in 1855, tired,
spent and at peace. I spent the entire day rafting the Zambezi, and just
couldn’t be happier! I am sun-burnt, a toe nail is ripped, my right thumb
is not working, as I jammed it when I was ejected. But it was worth it. What
an adventure!
Zambezi Bridge connecting Zambia on one side to
Zimbabwe on the other. I visited both countries this trip
We
started out at 8:20 am, when I was picked up. The accommodations here are
fabulous–peaceful and the food is excellent. Choongo was to be our guide and
he brought me to the hut where everyone congregated. Joining me would be a young guy named Mark from England, and a couple named Lisa and Collin, also from England.
We got on the bus, and before we knew it were at the descent towards the
river. Down into the jungle, then balancing on some very slippery and sharp basalt rocks, into the gorge formed by the river and ending in magnificent Victoria Falls. We were to raft 27 kilometers this day! Over 25 rapids. And a few that “didn’t
count,” as Choongo said. Choongo is about my age, with a body hardened from ten
years guiding the rafts. With us was Gordon, a soft-spoken, 25-year-old  Zambian with deep eyes.
When we reached the water, the view
was spectacular! Above us towered the famous Zambezi bridge with the
bungee-jump cords neatly tucked up. We watched one raft crash into the rocks on
the left; crazy. One couple descended in separate, single-person kayaks; we learned later that
after only one or two rapids, the girl left, crying. She had had enough.
I did read this on line before I went: White Water Rafting on the Zambezi River in Victoria Falls has been classified by the British Canoe Union as Grade 5 – “extremely difficult, long and violent rapids, steep gradients, big drops and pressure areas.” This is a high volume, pool-drop river with little exposed rock either in the rapids or in the pools below the rapids. Oh yeah, bring it on!

Gulliver’s Travels….
Class V rapids action!
I’m ejected!

The
first rapid “Morning Glory: was an eye opener. This was going to be awesome.
Huge waves, roaring water, foaming and warm. We were blasted, soaked and wanted
more! By the fourth rapid, “Gulliver’s Travels,” the waves were crushing and
flipped the boat straight up and then to the right, where Lisa and I were seated. We
both were ejected quickly. It was quite frightening. The water was churning and sucking
me down. I felt as though someone had their hand on my head and wouldn’t let me
up. I came up once, but was pulled right into another rapid, underwater.
Somehow I grasped the whole time onto my paddle. I couldn’t breathe, and
couldn’t seem to get to the surface. It must have only been seconds, but enough
time to try to strategize about how to get loose, and also, is this the
end, really? I could see how people could drown in a circumstance like that. It felt like you were put into a washing machine without a way to get out. When I finally came up—and stayed up—I had a hard time breathing because I had
ingested so much water. It had gone up my nose, into my sinuses. My airway was contracted and burning, leaving me gasping. Steve, the team member in the kayak, an athletic, older and solemn man, came to me as fast as possible and I held on
tightly, bobbing in the churning waves. He brought me back to the raft. I gasped, “Steve, I’m going to name my first child after you Wait, my first grandchild! Even if it’s a girl!” He sort of smiled. Lisa was quite shaken
and didn’t seem to enjoy the rest of her half-day trip after that. I recovered fast and
thought, that was so awesome!

More
rapids followed. But in between briefly, I was able to take in the stunning scenery.
David Livingstone said of Victoria Falls, “Scenes so lovely like these must have
been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” It is a primordial, enchanting
place. Black as charcoal basalt rock is piled up like some giant infant’s
building blocks.  I am
mesmerized by the sight of them because I am so rock-crazy. Plucky trees grow straight out of the sheer
cliffs, their yellowish roots cascading down in tangles, like Rapunzel’s hair.
It is a scene of wonder, and every chance I get I find my eyes drifting at the
rocks and cliffs in awe. Gordon pointed up to the sky and overhead, it seemed there was a brilliant halo around the sun. “Those are called… those are called…what do you call that?” he asked. “Sun dogs,” I replied, squinting at the phenomenon, though I had never seen them before, only in pictures. Sun dogs, chasing their tails around the sun, cavorting while we plunge ahead. 
Young boys by the river
Half way through the day, we stopped for lunch, allowed Lisa and Collin to disembark, and picked up Victoria and Rodrigo, an adorable young Brazilian couple on their honeymoon. Gordon also left, and we acquired Leonard, a lanky youth with a flashing white grin, and a cheeky sense of humor! Young boys who had been bathing and playing on the rocks in a little natural basin stopped to come and ogle us. They lined up on the basalt ledges, their skin as charcoal-black as the rocks behind and beneath them. They seem to blend right in.
Lunch on the river
Off we went, back into the river. Mark
and I were just seared by the sun, like two fish in a frying pan. No amount of
sunscreen seemed to work, and we were doused so many times, it didn’t matter.
At Class IV rapid 13, “The Mother,” we hit a massive rebound wave and the entire raft
capsized. Again I was choking with water but this time it wasn’t so bad. I
grabbed immediately onto the raft, but the big metal frame in back threatened
to hit me. The current is incredibly strong and swift. First it pulls one way, then
another, then sucks you from underneath.
The
guides are amazing; within seconds Leonard hopped onto the upside-down raft, pulling Choongo on with him. I was already hanging on. But we were scattered
everywhere. Little by little we gathered, then both guides used a red rope attached to one side of the raft, leaned back, and flipped the raft over
and themselves back into the racing river. They scrambled in, nimble as river
otters, and helped each of us climb back in. We gasped and sputtered but loved
it all!
“Scenes so beautiful…”
Swimming in the warm Zambezi
Victoria and Leonard clowning
Then
at rapid 17, the “Washing Machine,” I believe, we crashed again, capsized and
everyone went in again. The waves were massive and they kept coming. This time I
drifted a bit and while everyone else got in. I drifted into an eddy; these are
very tricky. As hard as you kick and swim, the current pulls you back into the
eddy, which flows opposite the river! I had to really kick to get back to the
raft, and was tired! Then later on, the rapids got more spread out, and were
only class 2, still fun. We all jumped into the warm Zambezi several times,
just to flow with the river. You can’t help but beam; it’s exhilarating!
When
it was finally over, we pulled to the shore, walked a short way and hopped a rickety cable car to the top of the steep gorge. We drove quite a while to get back to the hotel. We had
ice cold Cokes, and waved to the children in the rural villages we passed.
These villages were so meticulously made, it looked almost like a Disney production for
Epcot. The red soil was clean, the thatched roofs and mud walls, all
coordinated the same.
Red as “lobstas”! Mark and Laurie
It
just doesn’t get better than this. For me, the essence of life is personal development, direct and
adventurous experiences, and contributing back to the world as much as possible to improve the quality of life for those with hemophilia. I felt I hit all that on this amazing trip to Africa! And I can’t wait to continue in 2013.

No Guarantees, No Refunds, Just Life

The Kelleys (that’s us) went on our annual white water rafting trip to Maine this past weekend. Our outfitters are CrabApple, a family owned business in the Forks, Maine, that does a great time of giving you a thrill of a lifetime. If you haven’t tried white water rafting, make it a goal for the coming year. It’s a great family experience, as well as personal adventure.

The trip coincided with Tommy’s upcoming 21st birthday, which happens to be Monday, September 8. So our family all made it this year, along with Josh Hall, my 15-year-old surrogate son, whom I’ve known since age 3, who usually accompanies us on vacations and trips, and Tara’s boyfriend Jeremy, who would be rafting for the first time ever. I love having people accompany us who are new to white water rafting, to re-experience the breathtaking rapids through their eyes.

Jeremy didn’t seem at all fazed by the huge 25 foot waves, and class IV rapids. The water was especially rough as this was a scheduled dam release weekend, spewing 8,000 cubic square feet of roiling water into the Kennebec gorge. People often gage adventure sports by their risk level. Many people are afraid to try rafting; if they listened to the safety lecture about potential risks, you might see why. Our guide Jason told us one family scheduled for the weekend had quit at the last minute, changing their minds about the risk level.

“They had a bad experience last year, and decided not to risk it again,” he said.

What was the bad experience? we asked. A broken nose from a wayward oar? A near-drowning? Vertigo (which I got last year; very bad, lasted two weeks)?

“They fell out,” he replied.

Fell out? Yes, they fell out and were caught in the cold churning water. No doubt this can be a shocker, but pretty much everyone who falls out is brought back in again, and then you have a dynamite story to tell the rest of your life. This family was brought back in by their guide, safely, though I am sure they had a quick moving swim and swallowed and choked on a bit of water.

When you sign up for rafting, you are shown a video of what the trip will be like; you are given an in depth-safety lecture. You are taught what to do should you fall out. All very humorously related by Wade, who had us in fits of laughter. Of course white water rafting is no joke. You have to pay attention and battle some high water, rushing toward you, slamming you in some cases, rapid after rapid. You work in unison, following your guides commands: “All back!” “All ahead!” And you are with about 12 other rafts in your outfitters, and then can see many more rafts from other outfitters. You are never alone.

What I didn’t quite get is what that family expected. When you go rafting on raging waters, there is always a chance you could take a spill, get knocked over, flip the raft. You are blasting through rapids, after all, and this is not a gentle sailing trip. Not to expect this is foolish and unrealistic. Of course, nobody in particular wants to get “dumptrucked,” as the guides say, but it can happen. I’ve gone five years now and we’ve never had it happen. And on this trip, Wade himself, the guide, in another raft, got flipped like a pancake right off the back of the raft and had to swim like mad to get back to it, all of it caught on video which we watched and roared at later. Of course Wade got totally razzed from the rafters and the other guides.

So when you accept the reservation to go rafting, you must include the possibility, however remote, that you could go for a wild swim. In fact, I think that’s a huge part of why people go: to see what will happen. To see how they will face the unexpected, the unknown. To see what life offers them. To see what they are made of.

As Tommy turns 21, I reflected back this weekend on giving birth to my first child. We all accept risks when we decide to have children. And there are so many more risks than those in rafting. Hemophilia, an incredibly rare disorder, is one of those risks. So rare, you couldn’t ever imagine that it would happen to your child. But there you are: a child with a life long, obscure bleeding disorder. I didn’t want this, but I couldn’t cancel this trip. Couldn’t return for a refund or exchange. I had to take what I got and deal with it somehow. And we did. We had ups and downs, we got slammed around a few times. We made mistakes, didn’t follow the rules, couldn’t control the river of events, and realized we didn’t have a guide all the time. But we made it. With learning as we go, a lot of teamwork, we made it.

Tommy is 21 now, and of course we have realized what all parents know: when you become a parent, you never stop being a parent, no matter how hold your child becomes. All of parenting is a grand risk, and all of life is a grand risk, and you must take what comes, with no guarantee on the outcome and no refunds or cancellations. A rapid is a rapid, and hemophilia is hemophilia: something that catches your breath, can make you scream, is a wild ride, often out of control, but at the end, you’ve done something amazing, you’ve mastered something others fear. The feeling you get when your child with hemophilia turns 21 is one of great amazement, gratitude and accomplishment, and far outweighs the fears. You can feel proud. In comparison, white water rafting is a breeze!

Happy 21st birthday, Tommy!

River Wild!

I am writing from Maine, a great get-away state, full of natural wonders and adventure. Every year we try to go white water rafting as a family. It is an incredible adventure! It appeals to everyone: and it is impossible to feel sad, angry, distant when you are battling pounding waves and skirting huge rocks!

Tomorrow we are tackling the Kennebec River, and it’s not an ordinary day: there is a scheduled dam release, which means eight thousand cubic square feet of water will flood the river, causing enormous waves. Adrenaline injected, heart thumping excitement!

Rafting is a great team-building exercise in addition to just being fun. For families, work colleagues and friends, rafting requires excellent communication skills and solid teamwork. Our guide is clearly the leader, and we are his team. He shouts commands while steering the raft, and we paddle, rest and give feedback as he needs it. The constant action as we battle wave after wave, and huge rapids, means that we have no time to argue or question his leadership. As we have children with us, we are constantly watching out for each other, to ensure safety. It’s fantastic to watch your child’s confidence grow as he or she faces his or her fears, overcomes them, and takes pride in completing a very challenging and often frightening course. I always learn a lot about teamwork and about myself when I raft.

Tommy will infuse before heading out for the day. I know a lot of kids with hemophilia do white water rafting, and it’s a great physical activity for kids with hemophilia.

Afterward we’ll have dinner with the entire rafting group and laugh about our fears and our adventures. What could be better than this? Well… skydiving! August 18! Stay tuned!

Book I am reading: “Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dosteovsky. Considered one of the greatest novels of all time, it is a tough read at 540 pages. The dialog is detailed and intricate, requiring great concentration (one paragraph of one character’s speech is three pages long!). It takes dedication but is well worth it. A fascinating study on the actions we choose and their consequences. Four stars.

(Photo: The Kelleys with friend Sean O’Sullivan and guide Steve)

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