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. 



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