The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Crying)

How to start?

The Outdoor Adventure Naturalist (ODAN) program’s Fall Camp this past week was the most physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging four days of my life.

Early mornings (after little sleep) waiting in the cold and rain for breakfast sporting a Buff for Covid safety measures.

Was it what I expected? Was it exciting? Did I have fun?

Yes, and no.

Algonquin College has two outdoor adventure programs and I considered both before applying. The first is the Outdoor Adventure (ODA) 2-year program (https://www.algonquincollege.com/pembroke/program/outdoor-adventure/#courses) and the other is the Outdoor Adventure Naturalist (ODAN) 16-month program (https://www.algonquincollege.com/pembroke/program/outdoor-adventure-naturalist/).

The ODA program focuses on the more extreme outdoor adventure sports like rock & ice climbing, whitewater rafting, whitewater kayaking, and skiing, to mention a few, with a secondary focus on small business management. Being a former trad lead climber and adrenaline junkie, I did find this program exciting…but my mid-50s body and my 2014 climbing accident (you can read my account here: https://leapingintotheunknowndotca.wordpress.com/2020/09/05/regrets-of-the-dying -life-can-change-in-an-instant/ ) had me hesitating. Further, I wanted something more than just ‘doing’ adventure sports. I had a vague dream for something more interactive and slower-paced where I could build a career or business with the goal of helping people really connect with the outdoors and themselves. Get unplugged. Isn’t that what we all really need more of? I’m getting ahead of myself.

That when I read about the ODAN program. This unique program focuses on the softer adventure skills, like flatwater canoeing, river touring, cycling and winter backpacking, with the added bonus of guiding and educating clients through interpretation of the natural environment. This translates to super interesting courses like Flora for Naturalists, Wildlife Tracking & Viewing, Wild Edibles, and many more, with particular attention paid to developing leadership skills. When I shared the program curriculum with friends, it was unanimous that this was the perfect fit for me. In fact, during my decision-making process, I reflected on how I have, for as long as I can remember, been dragging my kids, troubled teens (as a drop-in youth centre volunteer), new and old friends, and even first dates into the woods, along rivers, to many waterfalls, and to any beautiful outdoor space I knew about or wanted to explore. I have also been a hike leader for the Hamilton Trailblazers Meetup group since 2015.

I decided to GO for it and applied to the ODAN program, moved to Pembroke, and last week was the four-day Fall Camp. Talk about leaping into the unknown! This introductory week to the program (along with many of the outdoor skills) was held at the outdoor outfitters Wilderness Tours (WT) (https://www.wildernesstours.com/) who partnered with Algonquin College’s outdoor adventure programs. I was both excited and nervous as I rose early in the morning on my ‘first day of school’ to meet my fellow ODAN students and catch the school bus.

First, it was a BEAUTIFUL setting! Exactly what I was expecting!

The shores of the Ottawa River in Northern Ontario are a wonder and one can’t help but surrender to it’s peaceful vistas. Oh, so good…

Did you notice the surface of the water in the above pictures? Take another look.

There’s a bit of glass-like surface in the foreground of the first picture but the rest is a LOT of powerful, swift currents. This was my harsh first day’s reality which I can describe in one terrifying word: Rapids. And another: Whitewater. And while we are at it, how about just: YIKES! This is where things got…’SPICY’, in the words of WT staff. A friend told me later this is code for ‘effing dangerous’. You get the picture; this wasn’t your typical first day of school and definitely one I will never forget.

I have never wanted to do whitewater rafting. Ever. I use to love the adrenaline-pumping thrill and graceful dance of trad rock climbing, arriving at the crux, placing your gear, gathering your wits, getting your lead head on and committing to the technical moves…but riding on loud, turbulent and unpredictable water in a boat filled with air was NOT on my bucket list. Perhaps I was a little on the crazy side when I was climbing, but this seemed downright insane. And it was, and it wasn’t. Remember friends, I love to take people on hikes, two feet on the ground, in the woods. I point out poison ivy, a variety of flora, woodland birds and animals, and introduce people to coaxing birds to eat seed from their hands. I do love the sound of rushing rivers and pounding waterfalls, but all from the safety of terra firma.

It was about to get more real than I could ever have predicted. First, we had to pull on the cold spongy wetsuits on the coldest day yet this fall with a high of only 14C. It was raining off and on. I was already shivering being long acclimated to the 35C temps we had been having in Southern Ontario all summer and early fall. Fortunately, those of us who tend to feel the cold more had been advised to bring base layers to wear under the suits. I wore my Icebreaker mid-weight merino wool top and bottom long underwear thanks to Adventure Attic in Dundas. It definitely helped though it wasn’t long before they were wet through. Next, we were corralled into another bus and taken to the start of the rapids.

It is difficult to describe the palpable anxiety in our group of students as we huddled overlooking the beach lined with blue and white inflated rafts. The ODA students had already attended a Readiness Camp two weekends before so they at least had some idea what to expect. But we ODAN students, the ones who forage for the weirdest and most wonderful fungi, who are prone to ‘squirrel’ moments when we spot something in the natural environment and want to tell everyone about it, were on EDGE. The main guide, Alex, shouted out detailed instructions and pointers, some terrifying (if you don’t do this, then this could happen and if your raft is heading towards a big rock, lean into it…Wait, what?), some reassuring (we take thousands of people down this river), but most of it was Greek to me as my fear-muddled brain was shutting down. This was when the word SPICY was introduced concerning the first rapid in particular as the Ottawa River was much higher than usual.

Piling into the rafts, I thankfully ended up riding with three ODA students who were familiar with the course. The rafts were lined up to tackle the first set of rapids. Our raft was second-to-last. This was the moment, whether the (literal) rubber hits the road. This was the apex of my ‘leaping into the unknown’. And it was a spectacular FAIL.

I did what I was told, “paddle hard!”, and then as we approached the worst of the roaring churn, “get down!”. I dropped my behind to the bottom of the raft and planted my paddle in front of me like I was raising a flag. Despite our best efforts and in a matter of microseconds, our raft flipped. The next moments were my being tossed in nothing but black water and white bubbles like clothing in a dryer. I had no idea which way was up so I could not ‘head towards the light’ as we had been instructed. Miraculously, I never let go of my paddle (I did as I was told!) and soon my super-bouyant life preserver popped me to the surface. In my terror, I wildly grabbed one of my raft mates thinking I was grabbing the raft. I let go immediately but suddenly realized I could not breathe despite having my head above water.

The young man started shouting at me to swim to the rescue raft but I was stunned and more importantly, unable to breathe, speak, swim or even move. This was unquestionably the scariest moment of my life. I think the worst part about it was that I couldn’t tell him what was happening. I could only stare at him trying to breathe. A rescue rope was thrown at us but I could not comprehend what was going on. ‘I need to breathe’ was my only desperate thought. The young man shouted repeatedly for me to grab the rope. He finally took my hands and put it on the rope and that is when things started to shift. I don’t know exactly the moment I started to be able to breathe but I did manage to grip the rope and they pulled me to the raft and an experienced guide hoisted me in. When I finally was able to speak, my first words were “I think I inhaled some water.” Everyone in the raft laughed, I believe in relief.

If there was ever a moment I wanted to quit, it was then. It was the kind of moment when one says ‘I want to go home!’. And to be honest, that thought came up a few times throughout the remaining three days. Instead, I got back in that raft with my ODA paddlers and I paddled HARD, like my life depended on it, and I faced each rapids challenge with the same commitment I would to a difficult climbing route. I paid attention to the water, I asked for advice, I listened to my partners, and most importantly, I refused to give up or give fear the upper hand. In the words of my favourite TED talk speaker, Brene Brown, I “leaned into the discomfort of the work”.

We successfully navigated the remaining rapids and even had some fun doing it. I particularly enjoyed surfing our raft in the bottom hole of rapids. (Sorry, I do not know the technical term for this.) I felt particularly proud of this accomplishment considering the seeming disaster of the first set of rapids. Although it was sweet relief and even a bit of elation to reach the end of the rapids and float peacefully onto the Wilderness Tours beach, I can honestly say I learned so much and am grateful for what the experience taught me and how, in the end, it revealed the strength and courage I can muster.

In many ways, my life has been a difficult journey, and this experience was a good reminder of just how far I have come and my ability to dig deep and bounce back, stronger and wiser for the challenge. It has taken me a few days to process what happened and writing this blog has been part of that journey of going over the experience. I took a leap and the specific outcome though unexpected was a win.

Thank you, dear reader, for coming along on the ride with me. Whatever leap you are considering, dig deep, and you may find you are stronger than you knew.

Happy on the shores of the Ottawa River two days after my rafting spill.

First Day of School…In My 50’s!

This is going to be just a quick post as TOMORROW is my first day of school!!

I am very excited and I have some crazy butterflies in my stomach as I write this. But I am seriously grinning ear-to-ear. When I wake up tomorrow…this is it…this is when the rubber hits the road.

Wow! I already thought this was REAL!

Today was a very busy day putting all my outdoor gear and clothing into this very large duffle bag. I thought it would only take an hour to get it ready but I soon realized I still had tags on a bunch of things, I needed to decide which clothes I would take, and my gear was spread around my new apartment in different boxes. Not to mention, I hadn’t even stuffed my sleeping bag back into it’s bag yet.

The duffel bag is stuffed and IT IS HEAVY!! I could barely lift it off the couch the first try. Yikes! I have to carry it myself onto the bus to outdoor camp due to Covid-19 safety measures. YESSSS!! Our first day, and first week of school we are camping! But first, I have to get this sucker into my car in the morning.

I bet you’re wondering what is in this bag. Well, one thing is my very first backpacking tent: MSR Hubba Hubba NX. I have had several car camping tents in the past, like the ones I used doing my solo trip across Canada, but this tent weighs less than 4 pounds! I’m embarrassed to admit this but I only realized tonight that I had not yet put up my new tent. It’s just been that busy…I always thought I would get to it. I couldn’t go to my first day of school/camp fumbling around with doohickeys…soooooo, this happened:

Yes, that’s right, I had to set it up in my kitchen. (How many of you have done this? Fun, but not as fun as making tents with blankets, couch cushions and a kitchen table!) This tent was incredibly easy to put up with the unified hub and pole system. However, the fly was a mystery and I swirled it this way and that until YouTube helped me solve it.

Well, I need to get to bed folks. I have a bus to catch in the morning!!

Inside my tent…inside my kitchen…practicing my camp look 🙂

A Tough Week…Deserves A Mile High Brownie

Mile High Brownie from Kelly’s Bake Shoppe in Burlington, Ontario, Canada

In the past month (before I moved), I have been grateful to be on the receiving end of so many encouraging and supportive words. (Thanks to each and every one of you dear hearts.) Phrases like: That’s amazing! You’re so brave! Go for it!

A lot of the time I am in alignment with these statements and feel the truth of the enthusiasm behind them and I stand steady and strong.

And…sometimes I am quaking in my shoes. Or more often, in my bed, at 3AM, with my brain screaming WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!! At other times, when someone is heralding my courage, I joke there is a fine line between courage and CRAZY. (Krazy Kelly is typically my Zoom moniker.)

There was a lot of soul-searching and digging deep to unearth my authentic self this past year…to admit what just wasn’t working for me anymore, to dare to dream, and then to really own it. This exploratory leg of my journey finally led to my decision, and fueled my taking action…shopping for outdoor gear, clothing, packing up boxes and moving (again!!!), and the general taking care of business.

Years ago, I was encouraged to incorporate into my life a dialectical way of thinking whereby one can acknowledge and accept two opposing feelings or perspectives. Two seemingly opposites can be true. Case in point: I am excited AND I am terrified. It is going to be amazing AND it is going to be tough. I am going to do well AND I am going to stumble at times.

These past weeks I had some tough moments and one afternoon I sat paralyzed in a local parking lot. Should I do ‘this or that’? I fell back into the trap of trying to ‘see the future’ and control outcomes by figuring out what was the ‘one right thing’ to do. I temporarily forgot my values and that I didn’t get to where I am by doing the ‘one right thing’ but instead by letting go and leaping into the unknown, trusting paths or solutions would present in the time of need. Eckhart Tolle would call this living in The Power of Now.

Treated myself to a ‘gift’ of a Mile High Brownie and tea in the Square (Notice the snakes & ladders game on the table?)


In time I remembered who I am and asked Google maps for the closest bakery and it brought me here: Kelly’s Bake Shoppe! I treated myself to a Mile High Brownie and tea and sat in the adjacent square watching the world go by, knowing all will be well, no matter the outcomes. It even came in a gift bag with a ribbon!

Home

How cool are the sayings on the cup: MAKE TODAY AWESOME!

Remember, dear hearts, You Can Do It!

Regrets of the Dying – Life Can Change In An Instant

BEFORE PIC: The avid rock climbing me who thought she knew the limits of ‘calculated risk’.
AFTER PIC: Being transported to trauma unit after taking a twenty foot lead climbing fall.

I am living proof life can change in an instant.

The two photos above were taken approximately 48 hours apart at Bon Echo Provincial Park in 2014. I had been trad lead climbing my favourite route at BE, called Knob Hill, located along the 100 metre (300 foot) high granite cliff. Knob Hill is a glorious 3-pitch route featuring a mind-blowing traverse just before the final vertical stretch.

The day of my accident was my third day in a row of climbing which was unusual for me. It my first time back to multi-pitch climbing after a painful marriage breakup. At the base of Knob Hill, I remember taking a distinct pause after my climbing partner and I geared up, checked and double-checked our ropes and setup. I felt tired. Really tired. Not just physically, but mentally as well. At that time I had passing thought of maybe I should back-off and not do the climb. But I pushed the thought aside. The following pic was taken of me just before my fall. I am only about 6 feet from my new destiny.

Me leading the Knob Hill traverse only minutes before falling…and flipping upside down.

I had completed Knob Hill many times in the past and had, up to that point, never taken a real outdoor lead fall in the ten years I had been climbing. In fact, I was quite cavalier about my ability to stick to the wall in some of the scariest moments of my life on rock. With the phrase ‘calculated risk’ in my back pocket, I sincerely thought it was not possible for me to take a big fall. I pushed hard, but not THAT hard.

What happened? I couldn’t pull the move I needed to…I couldn’t think through the sequence and I was just too tired to power through it. Instead, I tried to climb back down but the shift in weight caused my hands to pop off the slabby corner. My left foot hit a ledge as I fell which caused me to flip upside-down. I was falling headfirst! And fast! When I finally reached the full stretch of the rope, I whipped and accelerated, the wind whistling in my ears, as the back of my (helmeted) head slammed into the rock.

It felt like my head exploded. It was only later that I discovered that had entered an altered state of consciousness. I could feel the incredible pain in my head and hear my climbing partner calling my name. But I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t know yet I was dangling upside down. And everything was black..despite I was hanging over the boulders at the base of the cliff and the beautiful blue waters of Mazinaw Lake. After a short while, I woke up to this ‘new reality’ and managed to get back on the rock wall and finish the climb. I knew something serious had happened and I needed to get myself to safety. My fellow climbers got me to the help I needed and I was transported by ambulance to the trauma unit at Kingston General Hospital.

Do I regret my rock climbing accident and the resultant traumatic brain injury that fateful day? No. I spent nearly 6 months recovering on my couch, oh my beloved couch. It was during those “stunned silly” days that the idea of breaking out of the rut of my very responsible life and embarking on a solo trip across Canada first sprouted. That journey eventually came to fruition in July 2017 (future blogs on that!) but really, it started the moment my hands slipped off the rock.

Recently I read these 5 common regrets of people in palliative care listed in the book “5 Regrets Of The Dying” by Bronnie Ware.

Regrets of the Dying

Bronnie summarizes them as follows:

1. I Wish I Had The Courage To Live A Life True To Myself, Not The Life Others Expected Of Me.

2. I Wish I Hadn’t Worked So Hard.

3. I Wish I Had The Courage To Express My Feelings.

4. I Wish I Had Stayed In Touch With My Friends.

5. I Wish I Had Let Myself Be Happier.

Dear hearts, will you have regrets if you keeping taking the path you are on? Are you following the path someone else laid out for you or is there some new adventure or venture you long to take?

Is it time to be you? Is it time to leap into the unknown?

Route #100 Knob Hill at Bon Echo Provincial Park lead me to a new path!
A dear friend of mine walking her own path into the unknown.

A New Adventure – Back to School in my 50’s!

Well, dear readers, I’ve decided to go for it!

I find this picture so interesting. I do not recall why I am pointing but sometimes I wonder if, even back then (2015), I unconsciously knew I needed to ‘GO’. First GO West, and now GO North. Back to school, a new career path, with the Outdoor Adventure Naturalist Program at Algonquin College.

When all of our lives were turned upside down in April with Covid-19, I backed out of going back to school, deciding the unknowns and risks were too unwieldy for my comfort. So I willingly made my peace in letting it go and fully embraced staying in my hometown. That is, until…Phase 3 happened. Yes, Phase 3 started in mid-July and I began to…wonder…and consider leaping again into the unknown. Long story short, I made the decision to GO, so I raced up North to find student housing, and have been scrambling the last month to get all my ducks in a row before moving Sep 1st.

It’s been a whirlwind.

And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way.