2012 Whitewater Women: A Reflection

June 15, 2012 at 10:52 AM

Whitewater Women:   A Reflection

Submitted by Celeste Brody with an introduction by Carol Beatty

The following is a reflection piece Celeste Brody wrote for her writing group about her many years as a whitewater boater.   She wrote it after being on the Women’s Trip June 15-17.    The idea for the article began when younger women on the trip were asking about her dinner menu and her early years in boating.   I so enjoyed her perspective that I asked her permission to put in the OWA newsletter.   

I came off a three-day women’s trip on the Lower Deschutes River yesterday and experienced that feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that I only get when I row whitewater.  I used to say that rafting was the only sport I did with my heart in my mouth.  The thrill of successfully negotiating rapids in nuanced ways or simply just making it, as we would say, captured me.  But I love even more the simple repetition of rowing and the relaxed state that the rhythm of the river creates in me.  

It wasn’t always like that and it certainly wasn’t that way back when my husband John and I started boating in California 40 years ago.  It’s the old saying that we didn’t know what we didn’t know or we may not have taken rafting up.  We began as paddle boaters on California’s American and Stanislaus Rivers.  We were full of ourselves, and strong and we found a few friends who had the passion we did to learn this new sport. Others in my group of friends did give it up: one gal never set foot in a boat again after her long swim in class 4 whitewater that tested her endurance after a boat-flip.  A few weeks later my brother and friends returned home from a trip on a swollen river where they witnessed a man drown.  Their somber fear was so palpable that none of us set foot in a boat for months.  Those kinds of incidents bred caution in me over time such that I became safety conscious even before I knew how to avoid conditions that gave rise to the problem.  But torn boats that needed immediate repairs were common and most of the time that was simply a matter of our boating skills or the poor quality of our boats.

The weekend of June 15th there were 17 women and 10 boats with several “newbies” who were learning how to row or paddle an inflatable kayak.  I sensed the jitters in some of those gals since I wasn’t immune to them either. But by the second day I had a young woman following me closely down the river and I made sure that I was a worthy model of raft technique.  Soon the more senior women among us were talking about “how it used to be” because so much has changed over the 40 years that I have been boating.  First, there was the number of boats in our party:  10 in all and mostly catboats.   It wasn’t like that “back when.”  Boats needed to be bailed..  And, so you always welcomed a passenger, often two passengers on an overnight trip.  Any baggage for camping needed to be tied in individually with handmade knots. When cam buckles were introduced in the early 1980s along with toughly constructed drybags, coolers, chairs and even folding tables, life became easier on the river, and more people, not to mention women, entered the sport. 

But when we moved to Oregon in 1983 and joined the NWRA in Portland, I was among only a handful of women who rowed.  We were unique and we soon began working together to figure out the problems of setting up a craft and a frame to fit our smaller statures, managing the heavy oars or just learning how to put the boat where we wanted it to go without muscle power.  What came from directly the manufacturer didn’t work for most women- sized bodies.  That meant that women boaters in those days—before catboats—were typically assiduous and often exceptional boatmen (that term was adopted by both men and women without gender consciousness).  I’d go with my friend, Alexis, out to the steady Willamette River to try and figure out what length oars we needed and where the oar stands should sit on our frame.  We would futz, changing out oars, discussing the leverage and advantages of each system and ultimately translating what we had learned together into crafts that worked even better for us. Or we took a day to float the class 4 section of the challenging upper Clackamas River just to practice a down-stream ferry on the major rapids, a mandatory maneuver for moving your boat with the current so you could put it in a safe place with less expended energy.  Alexis told me I needed that skill before I could safely row the big daddy of them all, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in my 14ft raft—a craft that is usually considered too small for that river but one that I could handle myself.

And so women’s clinics and women’s trips began.  Carol Beatty has been doing this Father’s Day weekend for 14 years and the women keep coming.   This weekend she kept a close eye on her charges, and made sure that those who were more experienced, shepherded down those who were learning.   She pulled the group over to discuss how to anticipate a tricky shore landing in fast water.  She held morning meetings to describe the challenges and opportunities of the day and never failed in giving praise to everyone.  At the end of each day grins slowly enlarged into boisterous and full-on laughter as we relaxed with a sense of satisfaction in the day’s accomplishments.

Around the dinner circle Saturday night, I felt compelled to explain the meal I had prepared: when I cooked, “river slaw” was on the menu, a staple of mine since we began multiple day rafting trips with small coolers and no way to store vegetables.  But cabbage and carrots will stay for days in a dry bag and so the last night’s meal, or the last week’s meals were, and still are, accompanied by a slaw.  This item has evolved over the years and now I can simply purchase bagged grated cabbage and carrots, but I wouldn’t miss the opportunity of explaining how it was back then.  We cooked on a small white-gas fueled stove balanced on a recovered log.  We sat on thinsolite pads, not lawn chairs and bent over army issued radio bags instead of a table..  Ah, those were the days!  And those were younger bodies with passionate spirits working towards the memories that we now hold dear. 

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