Posts Tagged ‘Rafting’

For my 50th birthday, I got a new pair of telemark ski boots from my husband! And generous birthday checks from my dad and in-laws. And I might be getting some financial help from a certain little brother towards the purchase of a compound bow. I organized a 3 day raft trip for my family and a handful of friends and ate my favorite flourless chocolate cake, complete with candles, on the banks of the river. All for my celebration of turning half a century.

And I also got a relapse of my Chronic Lyme Disease. I don’t remember asking for THAT gift…. Or did I?

It’s easy to see how I “set myself up” in hindsight, but very difficult to push away denial in the moment as the freight train is barreling through the mountain pass. The freight train I speak of would be my life and the mountain pass all the distractions in it’s path. I can look back now, as I groan from the deep aching pains in my muscles and joints, and see how I created my own perfect storm.

Yup…. It really started with Spring…. or maybe even late winter when the construction of the pole barn for the goats began… Those were fun and exciting days, but also stressful, as we had a deadline of when the goats were arriving. Stress is a killer for those of us with CLD (Chronic Lyme Disease). Six consecutive weekends of work parties with supportive friends completed our barn raising. I was either with the boys slinging my hammer, or in the house with Isla preparing a mid day feast for the crowd. I was also the project boss – in charge of design and being sure the materials were all on hand for the day of work. It was exhilarating to watch MY barn slowly raise up from the snowy ground… but stressful and exhausting too.

Then came the goats and my goat-owner-trial-by-fire began. Intense! This was all MY thing, a long time dream of mine. Randy did not want the goats. I struggled alone through fear and worry as I taught myself to milk the mama, bottle feed 2 kids, and keep them happy and safe.

Next was garden time. This began with the planting of indoor starters, tilling and raking beds in prep for planting the garden, and a new garden addition that was around 400 to 500 square feet. In our horrific soil we have to hand spade the ground first to break it, then till in 2 directions, then rake out rocks, then add whatever supplement of compost we have, then till a third time, then rake the soil into raised beds creating the paths, then plant, and THEN set up the drip irrigation! Oh, I forgot fencing. Randy handled the new fencing and 3/4 of the spading, but I did the rest. And that was just plain STUPID. I do enjoy pushing myself hard when my health is holding, but this was idiotic. I overdid it for many weekends in a row, as well as weekdays when I had the energy. While I was wrestling with the tiller in the garden addition, Randy planted ALL of the massive garden single handedly. Then I planted the addition. And I think that was when my Borrelia burgdorferi began to yawn, stretch and rub it’s sleepy eyes.

In the midst of the garden work the chicken coop was moved beside the barn with the help of 8 strong hands, and fencing was placed around it to separate goats and chickens. Soon after I found a pair of Royal Palm turkeys for trade and brought them home. Not a lot of stress and physical labor getting the dog house moved into the goat pen for the turkeys and getting them established. But certainly some.

But then the poultry drama really began. I brought home a borrowed broody bird and settled her into the broody house on top of 5 of our eggs and 18 expensive, rare breed, bought eggs. While she set on her clutch, the turkey hen went broody and began to set on a total of 18 eggs. 3 of our 5 chicken eggs hatched and a big ZERO of the 18 bought eggs. So I hustled around to two different feed stores and brought home 14 babies to tuck under the mama’s wing. After the addition of 17 chicks to our flock, the 3 chick deaths were sad, but not unexpected. But the gray fox that managed to get into the pen and kill 14 chicks and the mom – now that laid a MASSIVE emotional burden on my shoulders. And the Lyme spirochetes, hiding deep in the cells of my draining body, were on alert – they knew a chance may be coming soon for them to pounce once more.

Grief and Guilt drove me to long hours of further wrapping of the pen, securing it from all angles and heights. And creating a pen around the poultry nursery to keep goat kids from jumping off the roofs of the broody houses. Turkey poults hatched, but only five. Two of the five died leaving us with three. I was sad and disappointed. A second broody bird was borrowed and brought home to sit on top of 12 of our eggs. Meanwhile a woman in WI supposedly put 20 or so of her rare breed eggs into her incubator for me. The plan was to ship us the day old chicks who’s age would be within a day or two of the chicks hatched on our farm. But only ONE of our 12 eggs hatched and the woman in WI never put the eggs in her incubator. And she never bothered to tell me!

My plan was to double my flock this year introducing some rare breeds who laid dark chocolate brown eggs, more Americaunas (the blue-green egg layers), and some white eggs layers. AND a batch of turkey poults to sell for Thanksgiving dinners. One turkey hen will go back to the original owners of the turkey pair as agreed, one hen we would like to keep for breeding, and one turkey would be for our table. But we still don’t know the sexes. Doubtful we’ll be making any money there however, unless they are all toms. And as for doubling my chicken flock – Ha! From all the stress, loss, efforts and money invested, we end up with ONE CHICK. The joke between Randy and I is that it will probably grow up to be a rooster. However, we have LOST 2 laying hens this year to natural deaths (non-predator related), so it’s not looking good for an increase in egg production on our farm. As I write all this down, I realize I have not given the year’s poultry stresses enough weight in the Lyme equation. I think the cumulation has contributed a great deal towards this current relapse.

A year and a half ago, Randy asked what I wanted to do for my 50th birthday. Without hesitation, I said, “A raft trip down the Chama River with all my friends!” It sounded like the perfect birthday celebration! We got our permit application into the lottery in time, and were drawn for the requested weekend. The trip was on. I am the planner/organizer of the family and I LOVE doing it! All the projects and undertakings mentioned above were at my urging and pushing. Randy is garden boss, I am animal boss. And of course there is overlap. But when it comes to overall farm planning, I am self-proclaimed boss of all. (That was why I ended up doing the majority of the garden addition. It was MY idea.) Plus, when I was pregnant with Isla, it was agreed: We would buy land, create a little urban homestead, and I would run the farm and raise our daughter at home. And 3 years later, here I find myself, running our farm and raising our daughter, living the life I dreamed of. But if this career is going to work for me, I am going to have to learn to live without having ALL of my goals and dreams manifested over night.

But back to the river. The time was finally upon us and my Big 5-0 loomed in the very near future. Invites were sent out several months in advance, gear organized, menus planned and shuttles arranged. 3 weeks before launch, one family of 3 bailed. I was sad as I was looking forward to getting to know them better. We have a lot of interests in common and their daughter is only 5 months older than ours. The day before launch, my dear friend and her family of 4 had to bail as her 16 yr old was horribly ill. I was extremely sad they were canceling. I had been so looking forward to initiating them into the rafting life style and sharing this part of my life and passion with them all.

In the week leading up to launch, there seemed to be no end to the last minutes projects that needed to be completed before leaving. The turkey poults were passing easily through the chain link nursery fence, leaving their distressed mother behind. And one even continued right through the stucco netting of the goat pen out into the free world! That would NOT do! So the nursery chain link needed to be wrapped with smaller holed poultry netting and wired on. The drip irrigation needed to be finished on the garden addition and re-routed to become a 4th irrigation zone on it’s own. The garden needed harvesting and the access processed and in the freezer (a MASSIVE job). Weeding needed to be done and squash bugs had to be picked off by hand before they devastated our crop. River gear needed going through, the menu planned and bought for, and all group gear packed. Then our personal gear needed packing. THEN the house needed to be cleaned for the house sitter, and my house sitter novella edited for goats and turkeys.

It then occurred to me this was the first time we had left the farm since getting the goats and the turkeys! No WONDER I was feeling such panic and stress! I was leaving my newest babies in the care of another for 4 days. Any number of horrors could befall them in that short interval.

Three days before launch I felt the fear swirling into the dark depth of my chest. Using good judgement, I paid a friend to come help me with Isla and processing the harvest. Then again to clean the house. And I also commandeered another friend to help out over the final 2 days with whatever needed doing. The night before our final prep day there was no more denying it. I KNEW I was in trouble. I could feel the deep aching in my body, sensed the depression flooding in extinguishing all my internal fire, and a depth of exhaustion that was frightenly familiar. The warning bells began to ring. LOUDLY.

But what could I do then? I persevered… I couldn’t bail on my own trip! I busted my ass for the final prep and pack day and we drove away from the farm that evening, my heart aching with fear, my body aching from the attacking spirochetes. We spent the night in a cabin at the launch site and the next morning was more ass busting of rigging rafts, re-packing gear, and packing it all on the rafts. As the organizer I was feeling completely overwhelmed and (dare I say it?) honestly, so very relieved that 2 families had bailed and we were down to only 10. If our poor 16 yr old baby-sitter had not gotten deathly ill, causing her whole family to stay home, I would have been rowing an additional raft myself WHILE taking care of my 3 yr old and the group! I do not know if I could have done it in the state of decline I was already in.

And then on the river…. the blessed river…. which is usually my place to relax and recharge. Randy brought to my appalled attention that this was my first time organizing and being the “leader” of a group raft trip of more than 4 people. What? How could that be? Really? And we had started the trip with 17! Yet one more reason for my emotional and physical overwhelm and exhaustion. I was a wreck internally, while doing my best not to show it externally. Unfortunately for my family, Randy and Isla saw plenty of my wretchedness as my crankiness spilled out sideways in their directions. And it rained, and rained, and rained on the trip. It was the wettest Chama trip I remember in my history of 7 trips down. Isla was needy and difficult, certainly reacting to my own neediness and stress. And I was exhausted and concerned about everything running smoothly. It was hard. I was so relieved to discover that everyone else had had a great time, despite the rain! But the bummer for me was that this trip was my birthday trip and I did NOT have a good time. Because I was completely wasted and taking a full face plant into my current relapse of Lyme.

Lyme sucks. There is no other way to say it. One of the hardest things is that you look fine on the surface, so you just appear to be a lazy, cranky, complaining human suffering hypochondriac delusions. Being a person who thrives with goals and projects to constantly be working on, it hits me where it hurts most. It dumps a big bucket of river water on all my fiery passion. I drops me into depression and apathy. I was so down after we returned from the river that I didn’t even want to check if any chicks had hatched. That says a lot.

Many people ask “How do you feel?” or “How do your symptoms manifest?” Well, I know it is a bit different for each individual, but for me, the main one is pain. I am used to living with a mild level of chronic pain that never really goes away. But in a relapse the pain is much more intense. It reminds me of the pain that accompanies a very bad flu bug – body aches that leave you writhing and moaning in bed sort of pain. Pain in the muscles, pain in the joints. Arthritic symptoms that are mild in the good times become claw shaped hands in the morning with a relapse. Thank God Randy has taken over morning milkings because my hands hurt so badly in the morning that I am not sure I could do it. Before this relapse I sometimes had to rub my hands under hot water before heading to the barn with the milk pail. I’ll find out in a couple days what lengths I have to go to now, as Randy leaves town Fri for an over night backpacking trip.

Brain fog is a large symptom. My neurological symptoms have always been tough for me. Word choice can be very difficult when speaking. Sometimes I can not finish a sentence, as I stop to work out the next word and then forget what the sentence and thought was about. I walk into a room and can’t remember what the reason was. I can not remember to call people back or return emails. I can’t remember what I am supposed to do. I often forget simple things like brushing my and Isla’s teeth in the morning, or brushing our hair. I feel like I am walking through a thick fog, a dream, a surreal land. Sometimes I hear my own voice as though it’s far away or another person speaking. I can have a thought but can not voice it. Writing can be quite entertaining at times when I go back to edit. There are typos and entire words that aren’t even CLOSE to what I meant to have in their places.

Depression sets in leaving me numb, unmotivated, and apathetic. I feel shame and have a strong sense of self-loathing. I feel like I am a bad person – a bad mother, a bad wife, and bad friend. I feel so dependent and needy that it disgusts me. I feel like a pathetic burden on my friends and husband. I want to isolate and suffer in solitude where I won’t effect anyone else. I want to push people away so they can’t see me like this. Even people close to me. I am dreadfully emotional. I want to crawl into a cave and sob for eternity.

And the exhaustion can be so intense that I can not get out of bed. My kid begs me to get up and I am not sure how to do it. I sit in a filthy house and can’t imagine how I will ever get it clean and organized again. I know I need to do at least SOME work at home but there are days I simply can’t. Nothing.

Fortunately I am describing the worst case scenario days, and they are not all this bad. But I cycle in and out, up and down. Yesterday was a great day! My dearest mama friend and her entire family came over for the day. While her husband worked me over on his massage table for 2 solid hours, my friend took our 3 collective kiddos out to the garden and harvested for an hour or so, then came inside and start dealing with harvest as well as making lunch for us all, and doing the dishes in her wake. They were saviors. I was overflowing with love when they left and felt so very hopeful again. I was able to get a lot done, even after they left!

But today I am paying the piper for too much fun yesterday. I am back at the bottom – not quite in the dregs yet, but hovering only a bit above. The house looks like a cyclone hit it. And I just don’t care.

The other side of Lyme is the Tough Love Teacher. It always has something to teach me, whether I am interested in learning it or not. What I am learning through this relapse is gratitude, forgiveness, humility, gentleness. I am learning to love myself and take this one day at a time. I am learning that no one will die if they have to live in a house that is filthier that the goat barn. I am learning that my husband can actually enjoy milking our goat at 5:30AM! I am learning to stop, breath, feel grateful for all I have – grateful for the water I am drinking, the food I eat from our garden, the fresh milk I make my kefir with. I am learning to reach out to the higher power of my choosing and ask for help, strength, support and guidance on my healing path. I am learning that my friends and community love me and are there for me. I am overwhelmed with the offers of help, the prayers sent, the love poured upon me. I am learning to open my heart and receive these gifts, which is a damn hard thing for a self-sufficient, stubborn, fiery, Scot-Irish girl like myself. I am forgiving myself. I am drinking slow pots of tea. Lots of them. On the porch. While the weeds grow in the garden like Little Shop of Horrors.

OK Lyme Disease – you’ve got me again. But I will do my damnedest to stay afloat and see my glass half full. I open my heart and  embrace your lessons and choose to see this relapse as an opportunity.

An opportunity to learn, heal, and grow.

PS: Good news! I stared this post about a week ago and it has taken some time and energy to edit. But during this editing, I have seen a marked improvement in my energy with a dramatic decrease in my pain. It would appear the protocol I set out for myself is working. I feel very hopeful that I have caught this crash in time. Perhaps I won’t plummet ALL the way down this time around. Keep your fingers crossed for me…..


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“You were heroic Honey,” he said with empathy and tenderness.

Well, I don’t know about heroic. I felt more like… pathetic and helpless. But I tried to let my husband’s complement soothe my shaking muscles.

The storm had started about an hour up the river from the first camp site. The thunder and flashes of lightening warned us for some time as it echoed between the red cliff walls of the Chama River canyon. The rain began lightly, gently, forgiving, granting me the time to pass off the oars and wrestle Isla’s little life jacket off. And then to wrestle back on her rash guard top, rain bibs, and rain jacket, once again zipped all into place with the life jacket. Then myself into my splash gear. Randy, forever the optimist, was a bit more leisurely about digging out his. But the rain settled in getting harder and harder. Then came the hail as the thunder boomed and rolled and the raft rocked it’s way down the rapids…. and Isla fell dead asleep in my arms.

Finally the campsite came into view and Randy bumped the bow of the raft against the willow choked bank, leaping to shore with bowline in hand. Isla slept on. He helped me out and onto, uh, land, but definitely not DRY land. I stumbled up the bank with my 30 lb sack of potatoes held in arms that had gone numb 30 minutes prior, and staggered towards the thickest juniper tree canopy I saw. Thankfully, there was a limb just at the height of Isla’s butt. That took a bit of her weight off me but not much. As the hail returned with an ernest will, exploding sprays of slush off my daughter’s wee head, I noted that Bonita, our trip mascot, had scurried off her raft and under the shelter of Isla’s body to seek refuge from the storm. I was really starting to feel miserable by this time.

The 3rd raft bumped the bank, and the solo duckie, and the boys quickly dug the river wing (group tarp) out of our raft and began fumbling with the massive lump of sodden cloth while flashes of light tore the sky asunder. When enough guys lines were in place to make something to stand under, I ducked beneath the tarp and sank gratefully down into the mud as my child continued to snore in my dead arms. By this time I was shivering violently. Greg, Randy and RG got the tarp staked out in record time and RG hauled a Paco pad (rubberized sleeping mat) up from the shore. With that unrolled I was able to lay my little love lump down, her head 2′ from a new stream that had begun running down the main path through the campsite. This was serious flash flood weather so I kept a close eye on that stream as it had formed in about 30 seconds. More flashing and booming as I tried to make my shaking, cramped body preform. Our dry bag was dropped beside me and I fished out uh, whatever – a rug came first and that worked just fine for a temporary blanket for my wet rat of a baby. Once she was tucked in, so to speak, I dug out the tent, completely at a loss as to how I was going to set it up without turning it first into a wading pool. But I knew my top priority was to get my kid into dry clothes and a warm sleeping bag, my shivering self close on her heels. So I yanked my thinking cap down over my head.

Once I could move around again, blood flow resumed and my shaking quieted. I pulled out poles and snapped them together. I pulled out ground tarps and the tent body and stood staring at them beneath the river wing. I was alone, as the remaining 8 boaters were all taking care of their own stormy dilemmas, and I was pretty helpless to proceed without assistance. When Randy and RG came up with another load of dry bags, I commandeered them to hold the tent fly out as best they could while we ran as a huddled mass to the closest tent site and I fumbled beneath the fly as fast as I could. Poles were whipping against the boy’s frigid bare legs and I was tripping over bundled ground tarps and rip stop nylon. I have no idea how I did it, or how they held their arms outstretched for what felt like eternity, but somehow we got that 4 person tent sort of pitched.

Then Isie woke up, confused and crying. All I could do was haul her back out into the pouring rain to stand and cry beside me while I continued to fumble with the tent with false cheerfulness. “MAAAMAAA! I neeeed you!” The boys helped me when they could but their plate was pretty darn full with all the hauling of gear they had to do and helping others. I found my microfiber camp towel and dried out the interior as best I could, dried off the Paco pads and got them inside, and then I tossed in the stuff sacks of sleeping bags. My sleepy toddler bawled in the downpour as I raced on. All our personal dry bags were into the vestibule, and I could FINALLY zip myself and Isla under cover. Then there was the laborious peeling off of layers while Isla continued to howl and drip in the vestibule. Life jacket, rain coat, sun hat, rain bibs, river shoes peeled off her white water-logged feet, rash guard off, bathing suit, board shorts…. and no seasoned mom would bypass the naked opportunity for relieving their 3 year old’s bladder…. then into cotton PJs, wooly top and bottoms, wooly socks, cashmere hat, and I shoved her gently into the down sleeping bag. With her Sarah doll in one hand and book 7 of Little House on the Prairie in the other, she calmed and settled, snuggling deep into the warmth of her feather nest.

Me next? Oh don’t I wish.

Then I made several more gear trips from the raft to the designated kitchen site under the river wing, and began to set up the group kitchen. Folding tables, stove, propane tanks, water jug, hand wash station, unfolding camp chairs, cooler, food bags, cookware set…. etc. Randy cracked off the top of a bottle of tequila and we each took a swig straight from the bottle. Warmth and peace trickled through my body, one limb at a time. Deep breath. Back to set up. THEN, once I knew everyone else was OK and order was restored and the rain had settled back to a light drizzle, I went to the tent to strip off my own river gear. I still had on my life jacket.

Once in dry clothes, I was immediately on cooking duty to whip up a fajita dinner for 10. A powerful margarita in one hand helped tremendously.

I am no stranger to the river. This was my 7th trip down the Chama alone, not to mention 3 trips down the San Juan, 23 days down the Grand Canyon on a private trip, and countless rivers on the east coast. And it was my second time with my child, last year being her initiation into multi-day river tripping at 2 1/2. But it was my first time organizing a group rafting trip (of more than 4 people) and my first time taking my child rafting with other families. It never occurred to me there would be much of a difference from previous raft trips. I was very comfortable being the organizer and being in charge. But oh my….. nothing like a worst case scenario, as Randy said, to really make the lessons apparent. And the number one lesson was:

1. I could not be a good mother to my child while taking care of 8 other people. Period. And as a self-proclaimed mother hen of all, this was a bitter pill to swallow.

Granted, I doubt they felt they NEEDED to be taken care of, but as the “leader”, I saw this as my responsibility. Fortunately I think everyone had a great time despite the generous doses of daily rain, and it appears my nerves, and patience (with my child) were the only things that truly suffered.

But if I was “heroic”, then I was merely 1 out of 10 heros this past weekend.

Randy, as always, my faithful pack mule, was hauling gear up and down hills, rigging and de-rigging the raft, helping me with cooking, cleaning, tent set up and break down, driving the laden trailer to and from the river, getting the gear to and from the BLM (where he works and the rafting gear is stored – this was a river patrol trip for him), dealing with my stress and crankiness, and still finding time and energy to play with and love our daughter.

RG, manning the ducky, on his second ever river trip, was always our right hand man. He helped me personally at the house for two days prior to even leaving town! There was a tremendous amount of different things that needed to be done from barn and animal project prep to garden harvest and processing, to packing of river gear and meals, to entertaining Isla. He did any and all jobs I laid before him. And on the trip he was constantly there to lend a hand, never shirking, always with a goofy pun ready and a heartfelt laugh, even after dunking into the river and loosing his glasses in the current.

The Gustina family were amazing troopers. I couldn’t believe how tough the girls were, ages 10 and 13. Even when sodden and frozen, initially without rain pants, they sung and giggled their way through the storms, perched on the mountain of gear in the stern of their raft. They were constantly offering to help and showed stoic stamina with Isla’s continuous requests to play doctor. Emily and Greg Gustina seemed to be on constant dish duty in addition to packing up a weekend of delicious lunches. And Greg, the wildlife biologist of the trip, could always give us an interesting factoid of nature.

Leilani, with her 7 months pregnant belly, hefted herself and her bambino about with grace, and was always willing to help watch and entertain Isla for me (a godsent!). While her husband, Justin, did, well, EVERYTHING for the 2 of them as that was the condition on which he agreed to bring her. (Leilani had already been hospitalized for early contractions.) And he STILL had time and energy to sing to us, accompanied by his expert guitar and fiddle playing, and cook two excellent meals.

Weren’t we all heros?

Of course, the trip wasn’t all a sodden, muddy rain fest. We had many memorable sunny moments, or at least rain-free ones. The clouds parted for a rousing all-terrain bocce tournament Sat evening that took us on a wild goose chase through the dripping ponderosas and scrub oak. There was a Yatzee play off under the river wing, and the mandatory music and singing. On a bedtime trip back from the groover (portable river potty system), Isla and I startled a massive toad with the beam of our headlamp, who in turn caused us to jump a few inches off the spongey, needle strewn path. It took two hands to hold the enormous amphibian for a few night time photos. There was the red fox who stared at us furtively from the bank as we drifted past, before slinking behind a bushy juniper. And an adult turkey that flew from a high ponderosa roost on one bank to the opposite shore, it impressive wing span pumping slowly over the drizzly water. Countless families of wild geese were our ever present escorts with babies from wee to teens. And a mother duck with 5 newly hatched ducklings slipped stealthily through a tunnel of overhanging river grass beside our raft. Isla and I found an 18″ river snake at our take-out while the group loaded the trailers and we made drip castles on a mud flat. It was the first snake she had ever touched, feeling it’s muscular length wind itself between her mama’s fingers. Hundreds of swallows darted in and out of their upside down nests of mud stuck fast under cliff overhangs. Red, thread-thin worms wiggled across the glassy surfaces of our mud pies at river side. And there was time for an adventurous hike up a stunning box canyon to it’s dead end pour off of red slick rock. Rocks were collected, bird’s nests found, and sticks turned into ballerinas.

But there are always hardships in our life’s path. So we “suck it up cupcake” and “buck up and deal”. We are all heros at some point along the trail. Because sometime, somewhere, the rain ceases and the storm clouds move aside to reveal the palette of the setting desert sun reflecting off the red and buff cliff walls, and glinting off the tail feathers of that lone golden eagle perched on the grassy knoll, mantling over it’s dinner of black tailed jack. That’s why we do it. That’s why we persevere.

So sure. I’ll embrace my husband’s complement and agree – I was heroic. And today, amidst the aftermath of sore muscles, muddy dry bags and sodden laundry, I am still heroic, for today I turned 50.

And if that ain’t heroic, I don’t know what is.

Rigging the rafts at the put in below El Vado Dam

Isla helps cinch a cam strap

Strapping in the gear

Finally on the river, starting the trip in sun!

A man and his craft. RG (Randy Grubiss)

Isla immediately wanted to help row!

Justin and Leilani Dean, their pup Bonita, and Junior who is due in 2 months

Bonita, the trip mascot

The remains of the Ward Ranch, a historical site that was vandalized by arson in the past year. Heart breaking…

Remains of the stable

Leilani warms up a chilly Isla who insisted on being dunked over the side within 5 minutes of leaving shore.

Captain Roch back at the helm

13 yr old Eila Gustina gets a rowing lesson from her papa, Greg

A family of ducks

At the first campsite, the rain let up long enough for Eila and Justin to serenade the group

Eila, Emily and Tally Gustina keeping dry under the river wing

Randy Roch and Greg Gustina take dish washing seriously

Checking on the boats before bedtime

2 birthdays on this trip!

Justin and I unabashedly sing happy birthday to ourselves

Isla stares at the BIG toad

I can’t imagine a raft trip without music. Thank you Justin!

Packing back up the next day

Justin and Leilani heading into Aragon rapid

Floating past Tiger Wall

Isla and I about to dig into to Sunday morning breakfast of french toast with whipped cream and fruit!

Sunday morning hike up the Huck Bay wash

RG checks out the pour off at the dead end of the box canyon

At the Chavez take out, Isla gets some rain-free time on a sand bar

Meeting a water snake while the trailers are loaded

Our group, heading home

Bye bye Chama River! See you next year.

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White water, rivers and camping have always been in my blood. To some degree I assumed it was an inherited trait. My father and Uncle Fred were sent to Camp Mondamin in Tuxedo, NC when they were young boys. Grandmother Cecil, an avid outdoors woman who found herself a sudden widow with a 5 and 7 yr old, started them early. The founder of Mondamin, Chief Bell, always gave me “special attention”, telling me time and again what a soft spot he had had for my grandmother and what a fine woman she had been. Unfortunately, I never had the pleasure to have known her, though I think we would have gotten along swimmingly. 30 some years after the founding of Camp Mondamin in 1921, Camp Green Cove opened for girls, just a mile or so up the Green River. In later years, me and my cousins attended Green Cove while the male contingency of the Scott Clan descended upon Mondamin for the second generation. But of all the Scotts, I think my little brother and I took camp the most seriously. Both camps have put out many Olympic white water competitors, and many more white water paddlers that competed at a high level and still do. My brother Norwood is one of those. Not only has he competed in his C-1 (closed or decked canoe) in countless competitions over the decades since camp, and participated in serious, backcountry paddling expeditions in several remote countries, he was also on the US C-2 Wildwater Team 3 different years. Now he is president of the American Whitewater Association. Can you tell this big sister is just a teeny bit proud?

After 8 years as a camper, and 4 as a counselor, I tackled the rivers with the eye of the recreationist. I tried kayaking but it never fit for me. Solo whitewater canoeing has always been where my comfort lies. My husband, Randy, trained me to row a raft, starting me with a 14ft one laden with 2000 lbs of gear, down the Grand Canyon for 21 days! Some initiation! I rowed as many of the class 5 and smaller rapids I had the balls for, and Randy rowed the remainder on up to the famous Class 10 Lava Falls (The rapid rating system is different for the “Grand” – it ranges from an exciting class 1 to a sphincter-clenching 10. Therefore, when my sphincter clenched on the first, unclassified rapid, I knew I was in deep doodoo – or lack there of!) But it’s still back to our gentle home waters and my purple Dagger canoe that I am most drawn. Isla was conceived the summer after our Grand Canyon trip. I had time for one last Chama River 3-day in my canoe before our little blastocyst started her journey into our life, and I haven’t been since. I’ll do the math for you – that’s 3 years. 3 long years of sacrifice, pain and suffering while my canoe and river gear collected cobwebs. It’s rough being a mom.  With this family history, I was not surprised when a clairvoyant said my fetus was very excited to go rafting with us! I kid you not! This is Taos, after all!

Planning, organizing and packing for trips has always been my forte…. until I became a Mama. Now, with the addition of “Mommy-brain” and the 2 yr old responsible for it, it takes an entire extra day to pack with both adults participating. But plan, organize and pack we did – slowly but with forward progress. Isla…. “helped”. The day before our departure, she also developed diarrhea. I watched the signs with concern, taking her temperature constantly. No other symptoms developed and she remained in good spirits so we continued with our plans. The day we were leaving, her diarrhea became worse, and I started to feel some of my own rumblings deep in my gut like the warning of distant thunder. Hmmm….

We reached the BLM cabin on the banks of the Chama River in good time, excited to begin our adventure the next day. I immediately soaked the rice I had bought on the way out of town – a remedy for diarrhea recommended by a mama friend. But before Isla had time to consume the rice water, the explosions began (and thank god I had the foresight to put a diaper on her…. that time.). After perhaps the most cathartic experience in her life, next to being born, she downed the rice water, happily pronouncing it “yummy!” And then, in perfect synchronization, my “moon time” started. Funny how my body always seems to know when a river trip is about to begin. As I know all things come in threes, I wondered enthusiastically if perhaps Randy might join us with a urinary tract infection. There was still one more Important Orifice needing representation.

But no matter, our attitudes adjusted to our handicaps quickly and we had a fine sleep, lulled off into watery dreams by the song of the river gurgling past the head of our bed. The next morning, Randy donned his BLM uniform and went to work. He is fortunate to have the highly coveted job of park ranger/manager which includes patrolling the Chama River – on the clock! He would be paid wages and per diem while rowing his family down the river for 3 days. Isla walked with him to the gauging station to log the 1000 cfs of river flow – perfect amount! And with the Nugget on his hip he checked in the early boaters while I whipped up some coffee for us and rice cereal for Isla’s sick little tummy. We took a family stroll over the upstream swinging bridge to the opposite bank. There, Papa and daughter rescued a stranded fish from the entrapment of the tall river grass. My bad to look down mid-river through the grate floor panels on the return trip. I experienced instant motion sickness which was still perceptible 2 days later!

And then the repacking began.

It is no small task to prepare for a multi-day river trip. Add to it 3 years of “rust” to brush off my packing skills, and the addition of a needy, sick, 2 yr old, and I might as well be climbing Everest! We deliberated on cancelling at the eleventh hour as I was quite concerned about Isla’s bowels, but she seriously had NO other symptoms and seemed as happy as a lark. So we continued. We were rather fortunate to have a group of 4 rafts and four families (7 parents and 9 kids) rigging and packing their boats directly in front of us. Isla was entranced! And this gave me the break I needed to GET THINGS DONE. She was so puppy-eyed for all the “big kids” that an indoor lunch was cause for a MASSIVE meltdown! To keep sanity for us and all the boaters in ear shot, we compromised by eating lunch on the porch, sitting on the cooler. As her mouth was continually open in amazement, I was able to shove an entire meal into her pie hole, one spoonful at a time. I should have filmed the entertainment for later meals.

Finally! Randy felt that he had fulfilled his duty, the raft was loaded, the family strapped into PFDs, smeared with sun screen, and topped with river hats. We eagerly shoved off from shore.

Wow! We were on the river again, and this time with our amazing little daughter, our mini river rat, our Isie. We beamed with teary pride as Isla stared with wide eyes at the river banks slipping past. We drifted next to some overhanging cliff walls…. “Look Isla! See there?” I pointed under an overhang. “That is a little birds nest made of mud. And there is a swallow hanging on upside down! And look downstream… that way sweetie. See those ducks?” Time sped by as the river carried us to new excitement around each bend.

We were quickly at our first stop – Ward Ranch. This is the ruin of an old cabin built in the late 1920’s by a homesteading family known as the Wards. They had the amazing foresight to build their cabin over a hot spring! Talk about hot water on demand! We explored inside the tiny cabin and around the toppled corral. I showed Isla one of my most favorite rocks. I love textures of Nature and this particular rock, riddled with pockmarks, is near and dear to my heart.

Once back on board our craft, Isla took the oars for the first time. Boy was she serious about it too!!

And then, sitting comfortably in her Papa’s lap, lulled by the slapping ripples and gentle motion of the boat, exhausted from the stimuli of an outrageous day, first one hand, and then the other, slipped from the huge oars. She slumped again her Papa’s padded chest… and was deeply, and happily, asleep.

Our first campsite was a sweet little spot tucked in a juniper grove and nestled against a lichen covered outcropping. It was perfect for just us. We unloaded and started setting up camp – a task Isla eagerly participates in. The girls set up the tent and our cozy little sleeping nest, while Papa set up the kitchen. After our apres-river ritual of a frigid bath and change of clothes, Isla and I went off exploring leaving Randy to stir up a fajita dinner. We poured enamel cups of river water onto patches of dry, brown moss, just to watch them plump and green-up before our eyes. We crawled through jumbles of massive, flat boulders pretending we were caving. We sat on a riverside rock and watched fish jump for their dinners. And we collected wood for our dinner time fire, although half the sticks were confiscated for fairy house construction.

Our second morning on the river we arose late after a restless, hot night spent on top of our bags. We chowed down some excellent cheese grits with bacon, broke down camp, loaded the boat, and hit the water for our second day of adventures. And this is where the fun begins.

Warning: if you are at all squeamish about bodily functions, STOP READING HERE. (I am serious)

Our first big (class II-plus) rapid was approaching – Aragon. We had originally planned to pull over above so Isla and I could walk down the flat flood plain. Randy would navigate the rapid and pick us back up at the eddy below. But as the class I rapids soon failed to crack a smile, and the class IIs were being greeted with a yawn, we quickly concluded our 2 yr old was up for the challenge. “I need to peepee Mama.” Oh, well OK. That was good timing. We pulled over just above Aragon and Isla squatted on a partially submerged, flat rock to raise the level of the river a hair. With her safely back on board I commenced to do the same while Randy held our position in the eddy. Little did I know I was about to get a taste of my daughter’s illness. Is there anything worse for an adult than the sudden, panicked realization that you are about to shit on yourself? Excuse me, but I warned you. “WHOA BABY! What the F–k? Where did THAT come from?” I was paralyzed with horror as I watched the insides of my gut churning about my ankles in the eddy current. Randy discreetly turned his face downstream as his shoulders shook with silent laughter. “I could give you a clue honey,” he snorted sarcastically. Having traveled extensively in India, he was no stranger to this exact experience. “Crap. So much for the Wild and Scenic designation. Not exactly “low impact” camping,” I mumbled, sloshing my sandled feet in fresher water. Randy dug out the “groover” and swung it over to me. With my head hung low with shame, I shuffled into the woods to finish what had begun without my consent or control.

Now for a quick explanation of a “groover” for those of you uninitiated with rafting. With the high use from recreational boaters, it is required that all solid waste be packed out on river trips. This of course would include garbage (and food scraps too), but also human feces. In the not so distant days, large ammo cans were used without seats, which created the telltale grooves the appliance was named after. Sure, it can be a bit gross to be on groover duty and have to pack it back up to load on the raft again. But with the high tech portable units available these days, and a sanitary, systematic way to handle them, it’s truly not that bad. Plus, sitting meditatively on the river bank, it can be the best seat in the house. I pondered as I sat, staring blankly at the view, whether my “accident” qualified as “solid waste” or not.

Aragon got an ear to ear, toothy grin from our toddler. “More rapids mama! More big waves!” As the wavelets settled back to ripples, she climbed astraddle my lap and worked hard at unzipping my life jacket so she could “say hi to My Boobas”. I hadn’t nursed her in 3 days, hoping the last time would truly be the last, so I granted her this little act of intimacy. She could only get within 2 layers of “her boobas” anyway. Within minutes she was limp and breathing heavily, face crushed against my rash guard shirt, zipper imprinting a tire track across her soft cheek. Much to our dismay, she then proceeded to sleep through the biggest rapids of the entire trip.

Near starvation drove Randy and me to the shore for a lunch stop. Isla awoke cranky and sweaty as the raft bumped the bank. We settled under a massive box elder with folding chairs and a lunch bag and surveyed the brooding sky. Isla walked with confidence up a thick, gnarled branch, holding lightly to Papa’s big hand.

Another group of paddlers drifted by. A green canoe diverged from the group and paddled towards us. “Hey Ranger!” he called out to Randy and lobbed him a cold brew. Ahhh. A sweet life it is.

Our second campsite wasn’t too much farther downstream and we reached it within an hours’ row;  Chama Wall. We had camped here 3 years ago on our last Chama trip together, across from the massive, towering red rock face. Thunder rumbled as we unloaded and hauled gear up to the site. We shuffled to get tent and large tarp up quickly. Kitchen was set, wood collected for our fire, and we had time for a quick, chilly dunking before a change into night time clothes. It was in the tent while dressing that I noticed an odd, unpleasant, and too familiar odor. I was drawn to sniff the running shoe I was tying on my clean, waterlogged foot. “Aaaack! Cat piss! F-ing One-eyed Murphy!” The representation of the third Important Orifice had arrived in an unexpected package. As I dug into my dry bag for wool socks, recalling recipes for Kitty Kassarole, I calculated how many hours I had already spent sockless in these shoes since leaving home. Grrr…oss. And then, with a long, deep throated BAROOOM!, the rain began.

Being veterans of the outdoors, we were, of course, prepared for these stormy occasions. We were warmly clothed, topped off with wool hats and rain gear, and quite comfortable in front of our portable fire pan under the huge group tarp.

We stoked the fire and let the coals get just so, then nestled 3 ears of corn into the glowing embers, roasting our cats, I mean, dogs above, impaled on freshly whittled willow sticks. Ice cold Guinness cleansed our palettes for the second course – S’mores! It had been years since I had eaten s’mores, and Isla had no idea what she was in for! The camera clicked madly as she covered her grinning face in sticky marshmallow goo and melted chocolate. So much for raising my child without sugar.

The rain, though mildly inconvenient, was also delightful. When the downpour lessened, we ventured out into the drizzle to collect more wood, point to sleeping dragons encircling the red cliffs, shimmering with runoff…

…and check on the nearby wash. I was determined to witness a flash flood. Although our neighboring wash never ran, the river gave strong evidence of a large blow out upstream. The Chama is never clear, per se, but the change in personality was dramatic. As I squatted on the river bank to release my Guinness build up, I marveled at the churning, foaming coffee milkshake before me, tumbling branches and debris in it’s current. Impressive! The rain continued throughout the night, very hard at times, and the river had risen perceptibly by morning. As we stirred in our little nest, I discerned a clammy dampness around me. It’s usually rather sweaty sleeping on a rubber Paco pad, specifically made for rafting. But as I sat up and cleared the crusties from my eyes, I saw we had had our very own flash flood – in our tent. Isla had wet the bed. Hadn’t we taken care of that orifice last night, I thought? It was a mere sneak preview of what was yet to come.

Randy fried sausage patties and simmered a pot of oatmeal while Isla and I peeled hard boiled eggs brought from home. “Who do you think laid this blue one Honey?” I quized. “Mmmm… I think… Dot. Or Jackie. Or maybe Dusty.” Isla had listed our 3 Americanas, also known as Easter Eggers for their blue-green eggs. The drizzle continued off and on as we huddled groggily beneath the tarp. I stole Randy’s mug of coffee back once more, tucking it furtively behind my calf. We were quietly eating our warm meal when Isla announced she needed to poop. So, we pulled our hoods back up and trudged to the groover for a poo with a view.

It was too late. “Raaaandyyyy! I need you!” WAY too late. Hazardous waste had leaked through undies and tights. But the clean up was tolerably simple with a change and wipe down of the bottom half, and we were soon back at breakfast. Then she got that look again… that “uh-oh” look of a potty trained toddler. Uh-oh was no joke. This time, she spare no effect. Shit was EVERYWHERE. Poor little Nugget. It was definitely a family affair. Randy brought a bucket of river water, cloth, peppermint soap, and a change of clothes (we were running out of options). And THIS time, I had him dig out an emergency diaper! (Soooo smart. Soooo late.) It took 45 minutes to get back to ground zero. I had to wash, not only my kiddo, while she stood happily in the rain in a 5 gal bucket, but also both her rain coat and rain pants. Meanwhile Randy washed dishes and started packing up camp. 5 minutes after depositing my squeaky clean, 5 lb lighter daughter back under the tarp, I returned to the groover once more for my own personal expulsion. At least the raft would ride a bit higher today.

We launched at the butt crack of noon – 12:21 to be precise.

As we drifted down toward a bruised, foreboding skyline, all jokes were of the toilet variety: “Hey! What was that sound? Was that a duck? I think it came out of Papa’s butt quack!” And Papa’s butt was the ONLY butt quacking with confidence on our raft. I wondered what it felt like to wear an adult diaper and almost wished I had brought one. But spirits were still high and attitude pretty good, considering. We sang silly songs, taking bets on the storm ahead. Should we take off our rain gear? Should we leave it on? “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream!!!” we yelled. We came to the flat section of the 3-day run, drifting lazily past Christ of the Desert Monastery. I took the oars for a bit with Isla as first mate. Isla took the oars alone with a great sense of responsibility.

“Mama! I made the boat move!” she smiled with delight as she pushed slowly on the very heavy oar. Papa slipped over the side for a quick shrinking of the family jewels, and Isla insisted on joining him. Cold water has never phased her. We passed a side stream washing thick red mud into the main river, rolling clouds of red and green-brown along the right hand bank. The storm rumbled around us but continued to hold off. And then our early take out at Chavez landing was in sight. “Next year we are doing the bottom rapids and taking out at Big Eddy for sure,” we both agreed. Isla could have not only survived it, but really enjoyed the final hour of continuous class II and III. Once again, we underestimated our little adventurer.

Back to unpacking, hauling gear, de-rigging, and repacking into our waiting pickup and trailer. One last chilly plunge, clean clothes, goodbyes and thank-yous to the River, and we were “Ready to rock and roll Mama!” Isla, our happy, exhausted, river monkey, was asleep in her car seat within minutes. It had been a wonderful trip.

As we drove out along the dirt road, past the red and white sandstone towers, and towards the flashing bolts of lightening in our path, I felt a deep contentment. I had FINALLY gotten my river fix. Next year we would take our little fish down both the Chama and San Juan Rivers, hopefully with a handful of other families. And with the addition to the raft of a certain babysitter I know, I MIGHT even be able to get those cobwebs off my canoe. I know one thing for sure – I’ll be adding a few items to my pack list. Most importantly: a full haz-mat suit and a few pairs of adult diapers… just in case.

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Any guesses to what we’re doing this weekend? A 2 yr old I know is about to become a river rat! Stayed tuned for the full story next week!

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