LESSONS FROM THE RIVER: Self-Rescue

Dispatch No. 3 from a week at First Descents

Burks practicing his T-rescue. Photo: Dave Costello

From June 13-19, C&K Online Editor Dave Costello volunteered as a camp photographer at a First Descents program in Hood River, Ore. The nonprofit organization helps young adult cancer survivors learn how to defy their cancer diagnoses, reclaim their lives, and to connect with others doing the same. Below is the third of five lessons learned from the weeklong camp. Click HERE to read the first, HERE for the second,HERE for the fourth, and HERE for the fifth.

By Dave Costello

After three days on the river, our crew decides to head into town for some R&R. Window shopping in Hood River, buying miniature spoons and postcards, doesn’t exactly appeal to “Burks,” a 32 year-old brain cancer survivor and writer from New York. Figuring that Burks has put up with enough lame crap lately, and not really wanting any souvenirs myself, he and I hatch a plan to commandeer one of the rental vans and go check out nearby Multnomah Falls. We enlist like-minded camp mom-volunteer “Ultima” (ool-tee-mah) to join us. “We’re doing a self-rescue,” I joke with them as we get into the van, trying to keep the paddling vibe going.

Oregon's Multnomah Falls. Photo: Dave Costello

On the ride to the falls, Burks fills me in on his story. At 23, he was diagnosed with brain cancer. Now at 32, he’s the father of two children and writing his first book. He says the last nine years have been a challenge, but also in many ways a gift. “I want people to know what getting cancer made me figure out, without having to get cancer,” he tells me. “Just imagine if we lived in a world where there was only one type of car—a 1994 Honda Civic, or something like that—and at 16, everyone was given the keys to the same type of car, and then that was it. You couldn’t get another car. That’s your only one. You can fix it, and tune it up, but you can never replace it. Don’t you think you’d be good to that car? Change the oil every 3,000 miles and pay a few extra cents for premium gasoline? Our bodies are exactly like that car. We only get one.” I nodded agreement, feeling more than a little guilty for eating a stack of chocolate chip cookies in front of Burks the night before.

We begin our hike up to the base of the falls. It’s a gorgeous 542-footer cascading into another 69-foot waterfall. The forest around the falls, and even the cliff face itself is covered in a beautiful damp green moss. “I’m kind of glad we didn’t go shopping,” Burks confides. “Do we have time to hike to the top?” The answer is no, but I can’t bring myself to say it. Being late for supper is a stupid reason to miss out on the view from the top of a 542-foot waterfall.

We walk fast, and after 20 switchbacks we’re at the end of the trail, breathing heavily. It’s not what we expected. The trail ends in the middle of the woods, next to a small stream, likely half mile from the lip of the falls. “Bit anti-climatic,” Burks points out.

Although it’s not the majestic edge of a massive waterfall we had first envisioned, it’s still a remarkably serene and beautiful mountain stream, so I decide to take advantage of it—I remove my clothes and immerse myself in the water. When I come up, I notice Burks and Ultima are looking at me in disbelief. The water is near freezing. “It’s amazing how refreshed you feel after taking a dip in a cold mountain river,” I tell them. “I promise, it’s the best you’ve ever felt in your life.”

At this they both strip down and submerge themselves in the icy water. I snap the shutter of my camera just as Burks comes to the surface, arms outstretched. He shouts; a long and prolonged wild archaic howl. “I needed to do that,” he tells me. “I’m so glad we did this.”

Burks and Ultima going for a swim above Multnomah Falls. Photo: Dave Costello

–Elvis

Click HERE to read Costello’s first dispatch, HERE for the second, HERE for the fourth, and HERE for the fifth. Visit FirstDescents.org for more information about the program, and stay tuned for the next two river lessons. First Descents is one of five philanthropic paddling programs nominated for the Paddle With Purpose category in the inaugural Canoe & Kayak Awards.

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