In my 19 years of rafting with the Sierra Club's community outreach program, Inner City Outings (ICO), I have seen many a river. On occasion, I'm asked if I ever get tired of the river or the other rafters; the answer is uncategorically no. River people know that rivers are never the same, and people (even river rats) always change after running one. I found such transformations abundant on a recent ICO trip on the Lower Klamath River in Northern California with eight teenage boys and their two adult chaperones from Hanna Boys Center.
My volunteer river guide friends and I arrived at the Curley Jack campground around 5 pm on an unusually warm and humid day. I grabbed a spray bottle of water from my truck as a way to beat the heat. It also proved to be a fantastic conduit to breaking the ice between the teens and me. As I introduced myself to the fellas, I offered a squirt of refreshing cool water. It brought smiles to their heat-red faces and relief to their burning skin.
We enjoyed three days and two nights on the Lower Klamath floating, paddling, swimming, talking, playing, and ogling the world around us. With each hour, our laughter grew louder, our conversations grew deeper and our game playing (horseshoes, catch, Twiddle, elbow tag, and more) grew more competitive, as the politeness of strangers turned into the familiarity of friendship.
On day two, we hiked Ukanom Creek up to a waterfall with a 30-foot drop into a beautiful pool. One of the snapshots in my mind of that trip is of watching each of those young men shed their tough skin as they jumped (with giggles and smiles) from a ledge screaming "YOLO" into the pool and emerge from the water as carefree happy boys.
One 16-year-old boy who lingered on the periphery of the group most of the time, could not control his desire to jump over and over again. After moving from Southeast Asia, he has spent the past several years alone, fending for himself in a new and unfamiliar environment. And here he was jumping into the great wide open with friends to support his leaps of faith.
After another teenage participant took a few jumps, he climbed up next to me onto the log where I was sitting in the sun. I told him that he looked like he belonged there –- he answered with a vigorous head nod and the words, "Oh ya I do, I plan to become a river guide with you next year." As he watched, his smile grew wider as he took in the scene. Hard to believe that just a year earlier, he was sitting in a principal's office being expelled from school.
By the third day on river, we had all grown so comfortable with one another that we started switching boats. This was great for those of us rowing boats, because we had spent the previous two days rowing our rigs alone. About mid-day, a 12-year-old, asked if he could come aboard. He timidly accepted my offer to put him in charge and row the boat. I spent some time explaining the basics of reading water and boat handling. As he looked downstream into a sizable a rapid, he asked, "Mel, can I handle this?" After checking it out, I said, "Yup, you got this." We came out of that rock-jammed bend dry-side up with big smiles on our faces and cheers from the other rafts.
A little while later, we were joined by another Hanna boy, and a similar scenario took place. But instead of me training him on the oars, the first boy talked the other one through reading water and boat maneuvering. After I saw that they were both comfortable, I asked permission to float in the river while they took over my boat. I trusted them with the boat and to watch over me as I floated through some shallow rapids on a float toy.
The last night of the trip, one of the group chaperones shared a great gift with Bart Sr., one of our ICO leaders. Most of these boys did not know their fathers or had bad experiences with theirs. Moreover, most of the counselors at Hanna Boys Center are women, so it is rare for them to interact, play and engage with a positive "father figure." Bart and his son were TOTAL HITS with the Hanna Boys, who got to see a positive father/son relationship, while they got some positive male attention too.
The closing circle the last day was bittersweet. None of us really wanted to leave, but we all knew that we had to move on. As we drove away, my friends and I were silent as we thought about the trip and the people we were leaving -- each of us digesting the changes we had seen in the boys over those few days.
The experience of the river had a profound impact on the boys -- and on me. I may not be able to put my finger on how this river trip changed me, but I can feel it. I feel a little more alive, a little more grounded, and a lot more inspired.
-- Mel MacInnis, Mission Outdoors