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.
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.