Monday, March 25, 2013

Whanganui

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It was so, so different than anything I've ever done before. 3 days and 95km of paddling down a river in a Canadian Canoe. I learned a lot about myself last week. Namely, that spending time on the water gives me similar satisfaction to spending time on a trail; that I'm not super talented when it comes to staying upright in a Canadian Canoe; that I have a special affection for the Maori culture; and that I must come back to visit this part of the world again. Magic, I tell ya.

We’re currently on our 8th flight – headed from the city of Whanganui to Auckland. From there we’ll hop on our 9th flight to head to Gisborne. I can officially say that I love to fly. Little planes, big planes, helicopters… Doesn’t matter.

The Whanganui River Journey conjured a completely different reaction than I anticipated. I mean, I knew it would be different and I knew it would be beautiful, but I didn’t expect it to change me. I guess I thought that since my legs are my “thing,” paddling would just be a means to an end of the river.

I was wrong.

I know that the next question is, “what changed?” I have no idea. I just know I felt different on the water and I felt even more different when we finished final day of paddling.

The river: She’s mostly calm, but does like to enchant (read: scare the shit out of me) with the occasional rapid along the way. Her banks vary from something I can recognize - sloped beaches with sand and rocks - to something I could never have imagined - sheer cliffs straight to the sky. Kind of like Milford, but nothing like Milford because they were covered in 300 shades of green mosses and ferns and palms that didn’t appear to have any business growing on the side of a cliff. Surely gravity would have pulled those palms to the river bottom? So strange, and so, so, so beautiful.

The mood of the river is set by the weather. We were so lucky to have three days of rain right before our journey, almost as to fill the river up just enough to provide us a smooth passage. Each morning greeted us with dense mist coming off of the water, magnifying the stillness of the water and the green of the trees – forcing us to recognize our small place in this place, granting us the gift of perspective. With her stillness and comfort, I was forced to contemplate the things I’ve done my best to keep behind the well constructed wall. In the end, she became like a dear old friend, lovely and warm – but not afraid to toss me around a bit.
Beautiful calmness - morning of day 2
Eddie and Dan, our guides, set a light mood to the adventure early on. A hilarious duo that seemed more like a comedy team than guides, almost fell out of their canoe in prerequisite test to be able to set off on our journey. The fact that they didn’t realize they were a comedy team was what made them so funny. They provided a great release where we all would have been way too tense about staying upright and safe... 

I paddled with Rich for the entire 95km journey, me in the back with steering responsibilities, him in the front as our “motor.” The combination of not being very strong or able to give him a lot of help in the power department along with my inability to keep concentrated on the obstacles ahead – and more importantly staying away from the obstacles ahead – could have made for the perfect storm of frustration in our little Canadian canoe. Rich was awesome. With the exception of one time when I almost paddled us square into a giant rock wall, he never once got frustrated with me (outwardly, anyway…) And to be fair, even when I did try to paddle us right into said giant rock wall, he just gave me a quick glance to the back of the boat and yelled, “Steph??? Are you with me???” Occasionally I would hear him shout, “RIGHT!” or, “LEFT!” from the front of the boat, or glance back to make sure I was watching where I was steering us – but for the most part – we laughed our way down the 95 kilometer expedition.
My view in our little canoe.
Day 3 is notoriously the most difficult in terms of rapids (and, as we found out – staying upright). In between Rich and I were five barrels filled with all of our gear, which I had tied down to the canoe with two straps. The guides explained going into day 1 that anything that wasn’t tied to the boat had high potential of getting lost. We found out in the first rapid of day 3 exactly what wasn’t tied down (Rich's flip flops). I have to say, for all the fear I carried about not wanting to fall into the river, once we actually did go in - it was awesome! We bobbed our way down the rapid to the still water, cracking up, kicking, spitting water, and squealing. It might be my favorite memory of the trip. We fell in twice that day, the second time just as entertaining as the first. So. Much. Fun.

Standing outside the Marae on the morning of day 3. When we fell in the first time I was dressed head to toe.  Hilarious! 
The second night on the Whanganui is on a Marae (a sacred, communal place for the Maori). We were welcomed onto the Marae by a special ceremony called a Powhiri -the same ceremony that welcomed us onto the Marae in Motueka. The ceremony begins with the Karanga, a call – always done between two women – one representing the Maori and one representing the visitors coming to the Marae. If you’ve ever seen The Whale Rider, you’ve seen the karanga. I’ve been obsessed with The Whale Rider since I saw it five or six years ago. I knew when I went on my first Marae and followed Aneika as she did the Karanga, that I have a special love for the Maori and their culture and traditions. I couldn’t hold myself together as a spectator that day… So to be asked to share (with Dayna) the responsibility of representing the visitors in the Karanga was overwhelming to me. Eddie is Maori and taught us the words and pronunciation. We practiced for about six hours as we paddled along the Whanganui River where so much of the Maori history seems to feel alive. Upon arrival we were led to the top of a hill where Dayna and I led the visitors onto the Marae and represented our group as the kiakaranga. Saying that the experience was a “highlight” for me doesn’t do it justice, so I’ll just say that it’s something I will never forget. The entire day was so special for me. (I really, really hope I got all the terms and the concepts of the Powhiri correct - please feel free to correct me if I've got any of it wrong!) 
Tieke Kainga Marae
We met a husband/wife team canoeing down the river that took to our team and ended up paddling most of the last two days with us. The wife, Catherine, is a nurse. On our last day of paddling she asked me what I was going home to… I told her my story and explained that the anxiety is creeping up on me as the time comes closer and I keep ending up with more questions out of this journey than answers. I love her response, “Maybe it’s best to go home and do what’s familiar and let the dust settle.” Duh. It sounds so simple – but jeez, I needed to hear it out of someone else’s mouth. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Karl while walking the last day of Routeburn and contemplating the colors that appear in nature (I happened to be specifically blown away by the turquoise color of the water). Karl, in his artsy wisdom explained that every color we see is just a representation of how that object reflects the sunlight. Without sunlight, we see no color. So really – it’s all just reflection. 

It’s helped me to take that concept and apply it to this trip. Without reflection, I can’t really see any of it for what it is, or what it will be. I need time and space and miles on my trails to really know what all of this means for me. So there you have it. No big decisions will be made anytime soon. For now, I’m really looking forward to the next three weeks – to soaking in as much of this country as I can, and to the journey home – to seeing my family and friends and Tate, to running my trails, to climbing my mountain, to reclaiming my fitness on my terms, to completing treatment, to hugging the doctors who saved my life, and then to make sure I do the best job possible at living it
Feeling the exhaustion that 95 km of paddling will bring...
He's not the fluffiest pillow, but he'll do. 



Sunday, March 24, 2013

Media

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We've done many media interviews over the last 6 weeks...

Last week in Wellington our team did a radio interview with NewsTalk ZB (kind of like NPR in the US) - you can listen to our interview here: Part 1, and Part 2

It was fun to do, and I don't think we did too badly considering it was our first radio interview! (Normally we're all clamoring to speak so we end up talking over each other, we were so proud of ourselves for not doing that! :))

Monday, March 18, 2013

Slow down...

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Quick recap of the last couple of weeks...

We flew from Queenstown (where we stayed in a five-star golf resort) to Nelson via Christchurch where we were picked up by a shuttle and a DOC guide and Aneika - our guide for the Abel Tasman. We were driven to Motueka where we stayed one night before we were driven to another little town where we jumped on a boat which drove us to the far end of the Abel Tasman. We walked/swam/slept/kayaked/ran/fell down/walked/swam/slept/walked/swam for 50(ish)k and three days then were picked up at the close end of the Abel Tasman and driven back to Motueka. We stayed one night in Motueka and were picked up the next morning by a shuttle that drove us to Takaka where we had the rest of the afternoon and evening "off" to re-pack and do laundry. We slept there and were picked up by another shuttle that took us to the start of the Heaphy track. We walked/ate/slept/walked/slept/walked/swam/ate/slept for 78.6k (50 miles) and four days. We were picked up at the end of the Heaphy track by another shuttle and driven to Westport where we had a day off to do laundry, rest and repack. We were picked up yesterday and driven to a very tiny airport where there is one option to choose from when selecting flights (that's right, one plane comes in and out of this airport), where we were flown to Wellington, on the North Island of New Zealand.

Everything seems to move so quickly that I can't seem to keep up. When we do get an hour or two to do "nothing," I start to get all jittery and worried - like I should be doing something. When we're not walking, I still feel like I should be. I'll be in a car looking ahead and see a hill and think, "Oh NO! A hill!" Not realizing that the car, not my legs, is going to have to do the dirty work. I'm going a little crazy, but my heart is so full of love for this country and the beauty and friendliness it contains. What an amazing gift this is.

We have a day off in Wellington before heading to Taupo tomorrow and starting the Whanganui River Journey the next day.

So if you're able to decipher my cryptic message above, you may have figured out that we have done six of our nine walks (312k, almost 200 miles), and completed the South Island part of our journey. This makes me so sad! Not because I'm not happy to be on the North Island, but because it's such a huge symbol of how far we've gone. I want to dig my heels in and scream, "NOOOO!!!! Everything STOP!"

The tracks: I haven't said much about each one individually because I can't describe them specifically with justice and when I try I get really frustrated. I can only say what people told me before I came here: If you've ever enjoyed a moment of being outside, of nature, of a blue sky, of birdsong, of turquoise water, or of feeling fit -- you must come here. You must experience this place. 
Milford, constantly blowing my mind. 
Heaphy was special for me - day one was a bit of a climb to a hut that is perfectly placed in the saddle of some beautiful mountains. It was an awesome measurement of how fit we've become in the last five weeks. Day two - our longest day, at 24k (15 miles), took us through the largest valleys I've ever seen, to a hut placed about 20k away from the ocean - perfect for a sunset view. A long day - but really, still shocked at how well we all did. Day 3 took us straight to that ocean, my favorite part. The ocean reminded me of home with its unruly waves, but the lush, tropical-ish forests that line the beaches and the fact that the place is virtually untouched are what make it really special. I lingered at the back on our last day on Heaphy - all of it along the ocean - as to take it all in. I loved it there. A friend of mine warned me that the west coast of the South Island was special. I think the west coast of the South Island redefines the term "special." It was home to me.
Heaphy - Day 1, mountains!

Seriously felt like we'd walked to some tropical island. So amazing. 

Our swimming/bathing spot, and the river that lead to the ocean you can see in the background....

Heaphy Sunrise - Day 4

To see the "official" piccies of Heaphy, the video produced, and the pictures my fellow walkers took, click here.

To be completely honest, I'm in a bit of a funk. The fact that we are on the downhill slope of this journey leaves me somewhere between loving it here, not wanting to leave here, and wondering what lies ahead for me when I get home. While I am becoming more fit, I seem to be really good at maintaining the extra 10 lbs I'm carrying from chemo. I know that I've got a surgery soon after I get home as well as three or four more "light" chemo treatments. I'm worried about getting a job and a home and the logistics of being an "adult," and I've still got treatments to finish up. Not to mention the fact that I'm still in New Zealand for four more weeks. For those are you that are concerned about my ability to stay in the moment or enjoy this gift for everything that it is - please know that I've already given myself this lecture about 400 times. Luckily, I've got a lot of time on the trails (and a river) to get it all sorted out before I have any huge decisions to make.

We've been in Wellington for a full day. I love this city... with tons of boutiques and cafes and restaurants it seems to capture the perfect balance of city plus small town with a young, hip feel. I wish we had four more days here (but I would spend way too much money ;-)).

We have had absolutely perfect weather for five weeks. This is unheard of in New Zealand. No rain for five weeks is terrible for farms, but great for tramping. Each of our tracks has included some vast view of mountains or valleys or oceans and each one has provided perfectly clear skies to enjoy the views. That being said, it's been raining since we left Westport yesterday morning and should continue through tomorrow - ending just in time for us to start our next track (I hope, I hope! 100 miles in canoes with rain doesn't sound like that much fun! But really, it's supposed to stop.) We have been SOOOOO lucky!

So we're hopping on another airplane tomorrow at 8:15, shuttle comes at 7am, and we're supposed to be packed and ready for Whanganui. I am not ready to process what any of that means (even though it's 12:15 am), so I am going to pack for the next three day "adventure" at 5am. :)
Doin' St Paddy's Day up right... (I was in bed by 10pm - HA!)




Monday, March 11, 2013

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"Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”


- Ernest Hemingway

(Idea stolen from Joel ;))

Milfordrouteburnabeltasman

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I tried really hard to get something coherent written for Milford/Routeburn/Abel Tasman - to no avail.

So what I'm gonna do is post all my favorite piccies and hope that my captions fill in the blanks for you. It's not my favorite way to blog, I'm sorry. I'm short for time!

Meet Sue, a fellow survivor who lightened my already incredibly light spirits. She's from Sydney and was doing the Milford Track at the same time as us. I adore her and I'm inspired by her. 

When you are trekking for four days and don't have showers, you bathe in glacier water... AKA swimming holes... AKA waterfalls. This is one of my very favorite pictures - to me it symbolizes everything I spent the last year fighting for. Jumping off a rock in shorts and a sports bra, landing in freezing cold, beautiful blue water with a waterfall. THIS IS LIFE. 

Day 3 of the Milford Track, most of the way up to the Mackinnon Pass. Realizing my legs were gonna pull through for me. Incredible joy. 

Kayaking the Milford sound. No words really - but you can see the way the cliffs shoot from sea level to the sky. Stunning. I have video of us kayaking into one of the waterfalls to be posted later.  
Day 4 of the Milford Track. I know this waterfall has a name, I have no idea what it is. It induced instant giddiness. 

My reaction at seeing the helicopter land, realizing we were getting on it!!!

We flew to a GLACIER. For the entire 1/2 hour helicopter ride, I could not stop crying.  I have video of us flying through Milford Sound and the glaciers to be posted later.

Another pic on the glacier, cause it was THAT amazing. 

Day 1, Routeburn! I struggled. Heavy pack (we carried TENTS! HEAVY TENTS!!!)  plus only one day of rest between the Milford and Routeburn tracks left me exhausted... not that this picture tells that story. :) 

Holy crap, Routeburn. So gorgeous. A million mountain views unlike any other. 

Day 2 of Routeburn, realizing again that my legs were going to pull through for me. So awesome. 

Rich, Me, and Toshi on day 2 of the Routeburn. We are as happy as we look. I love these guys.  If it looks like I'm always wearing the same outfit, it's because I am. When you have to carry everything you need, clean clothes become something you can live without. 

I can't get enough of the mirror shots. This one is Routeburn, Day 2. 

Joel and Karl in one of our swim spots on day 3 of Routeburn. Don't be fooled, it was FREEZING! 

Routeburn reward: Staying at a homestead in Paradise. I'm getting married here. (I just need a groom.)

The color of the water here never ceases to blow me away. 

We went canyoning in Routeburn! There are some great piccies of this that I'm guessing will be posted to the Great Walker website soon. SO MUCH FUN!!!

Mountain bike!!! (Well, there was a mountain bike...) On one of our days off in Queenstown we did a mtn bike ride + bungee jump + wine tasting. I participated in TWO of the three events. I'll let you figure out which one I bailed on. ;-)

It just keeps getting more and more beautiful. Mind boggling. 

We stayed in a super fancy resort (Millbrook) just outside of Queenstown and were greeted with hot bubble baths while we waited for our massages. No joke. This is MY life????

Just arrived at Abel Tasman! So warm and so beautiful - Again, we are as happy as we look. 

Finally here. Happiness abounds. 

Golden beaches. Turquoise water. Emerald forests. What else can I say??? 

My only dietary requirement. :) :) :) 

I went running on the Abel Tasman. I had less than four miles to find a tiny rock or root to trip over. I did well. My left thigh looks a bit like my left shin. I will say this: it is SO NICE to have battle wounds from something other than cancer. (Mom, I'm totally fine!)  
Because it deserves one more picture. And because I can't get enough of it. 

I've become a huge fan of sunrises as I've gotten older. This is the sunrise from Torrent Bay - Day 3 of the Abel Tasman. I love seeing the sun come up over the water... 

Two days of three, we went for a morning kayak before our walking began on Abel Tasman. If you've been here, you know what heaven must be like. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Unwritten

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Thank you, Natasha Bedingfield for providing the perfect theme song to this day: 

Feel the rain on your skin
No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips
Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is, where your book begins
The rest in still unwritten

We flew into Nelson via relatively small prop plane yesterday (but not the smallest we've flown on!) Did I cry when I saw it? Yep. I do feel a little bit like I'm over-playing the whole "I was supposed to be here six months ago but got cancer so couldn't make it," situation. But the feeling is authentic. I can't believe I'm here. I can't believe all that's happened, both in the last month and in the last year. I can't explain what it's like to want something so purely and so much that it actually happens. 

Lucky. Blessed. Spoiled... You name it. I feel all of it.

So in just a few hours I'll step foot on the Abel Tasman. The original destination. I look up at my reflection in the mirror occasionally as I write and I'm reminded of where I've been. My hair is about two inches long now. It can almost be cute, but it's still undeniably a forced "do." I replay the events of the last two years and I wonder if it was all bound to happen the way it did, or whether I have control over any of it at all. I'm a big believer in having choices and accepting responsibility for the consequences of our actions. But I don't know where cancer fits into all of that. Then I really confuse myself by believing that I wouldn't change a damn thing. This place, at this time is exactly where I'm supposed to be.

The goal for this track. Feel it. Swim in that beautiful blue sea. Drench myself in words unspoken. Roll in the sand. Live it with arms wide open. Cry. Let it in. Laugh...

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Spinning

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I have half an hour to contemplate the last 10 days before I hop on a shuttle bound for Queenstown where I will pick up another shuttle that will take me to a bike tour which will take me to a bridge where they will strap a bungee cord to my ankles and I will JUMP OFF said bridge, where (if I survive) I will then be picked up to be taken to a wine tasting.

Three words: LIVING THE DREAM.

Since I've last written I've walked 53 km on the Milford track (over four days), kayaked through waterfalls in Milford Sound, ridden a helicopter, landed on a glacier, walked another 32 km (over 3 days) on the Routeburn track, lost my breath 50 times over - not because I was exhausted, but because it really is breathtaking, lost my breath another 50 times over because I was exhausted, went canyoning through a river and down waterfalls, had a massage, and spent some time with media.

Madness? Yep!

I will set aside some time for proper details of the events above before we head out on a travel day up to the Abel Tasman tomorrow.

My head is spinning.