Adventuring to Africa

Summer has turned to fall, and winter is chasing fall with a vengeance. The talk of the week was the weather forecast, which called for the first snowfall of the year. Even though we understand class will go on no matter what, we find it difficult to imagine paddling canoes in snow.

A blanket of snow on top of the mountains is all the remains from Saturday's storm.
A blanket of snow on the mountain top is all that remains from Saturday’s storm.

Our first week of canoeing began last week at the Fontana Marina. We gingerly loaded ourselves into tandem canoes, Stephan reviewed the canoe-specific strokes we would be required to perform, and off we went.

The 'rock stars' of Water I
The ‘rock stars’ of Water I

One person practiced power strokes at the bow of the boat while a classmate practiced steering from the stern. Hamilton was my boatmate and a conversation was not even required to decide we would race ourselves across the lake and be the first to reach the other side. It was a delightful day with a cool breeze, splendid fall colors and glassy, calm water. Demons were not invited nor in attendance at Fontana Marina.

Hamilton and I out in front.
Hamilton and I out in front.
A pretty pose while  loading the boats.
A pretty pose while loading the boats.


Only six weeks remain in this semester. There is talk of final exams, end-of-semester projects, and registration for next semester. Thanksgiving break will be the last respite for everyone…except me.

Several weeks ago my instructors gave me the ok to organize an adventure of my own. I will join a volunteer medical team on a mission to a Maasai village in Kenya, Africa.

Preparations for the trip have been complex. There have been fundraisers, medical supplies to gather and pack, medical database systems to implement, airline reservations to coordinate, special homework assignments to complete, and shots…. lots of shots.

Hepatitis B 1, 2 and 3, Influenza, Measles/Mumps and Rubella 1 and 2, Polio, Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis. All of these began with the EMT class last June and will finish today with two more shots and a call to my doctor for typhoid and malaria pills that will come along in my bag….just in case.

One of my jobs will be to prepare a daily post to our MedicForce Facebook page to update the world on our progress toward creating sustainable healthcare for the lovely people of these Maasai villages. Another one of my jobs will be to write to this blog about the everyday challenges and rewards of this progress. At the moment, I can not imagine how I will tell the story of Africa in 500 words or less, but I will give it a try.

I have met the lovely people of Maasai. The men are kind and strong, the women are beautiful and even stronger. My husband and I spent time in Africa several years ago and, as with our tales of Ecuador, the trip was fascinating, exciting and quite surprising.

We thought you would enjoy hearing the story of our African odyssey before the next one begins. Over the next two weeks, we will dig out our photos, dust off the pages of our journals, and publish one more tale from the He Said/She Said diary of life.

Swift Water Rescue Part I

imageThe first day of Swift Water Rescue was last Friday. Stephan and Will are our instructors, two of only eight instructors certified to teach this class in the United States. Stephan was explaining that there are Swift Water Rescue courses for rescue workers, classes for outdoor professionals that may work near the water, and this class, Swift Water Rescue Professional, for those that work in the water. I sat in the same chair I have occupied for various classes throughout this past year and asked myself the same question again, “Why on earth have I signed up for this class?”

Our first order of business was to demonstrate rope throwing skills by tossing a rope bag to our instructors who were standing about 40 feet out in the lawn just outside the school. The goal was to toss the bag within easy reach of where our instructors stood, reel it in and then toss the coiled rope within 20 seconds of the first. After a few practice tosses, I yelled “Rope!” and tossed my bag right between Will’s feet, coiled it back up, but fell short on my coil toss. A couple more practice runs and I yelled “Rope!” and hit Stephan right in the chest with my rope bag, coiled it back up, tossed the coil and bingo! We all passed our rope toss practical test.

The remainder of the day was all about self rescue and we spent the afternoon practicing our ability to swim the river and successfully catch an eddy. We crossed the river by ourselves using a paddle for stability, and in small groups facing upstream, in line or in a circle. Stephan explained that the current we were experiencing was the equivalent of 90 mph winds, which conjured images of a weatherman who insists on broadcasting his coverage of a hurricane in the middle of the hurricane. I felt like the weatherman.

Swimming into an eddy.
Swimming into an eddy.

After a couple of easy, defensive practice swims into an eddy, Stephan demonstrated the aggressive swim. We lined up on shore river right and one by one climbed onto a rock so we could dive into the water as far as possible to minimize the hard swim to river left. After a short float downstream on our back, we flipped over and initiated another aggressive swim to break through the eddy line and into the peaceful water of the eddy.

Crossing the eddy line requires strong swimming skills. The current at the eddy line can be powerful and I struggled to get through. Several times my classmates had to throw me a rope and my confidence was shaken. Finally, I made it across the eddy lines without a rescue rope. It was an important moment for me. After all, in rescue as in life, if you can’t self rescue you can’t help others.

The last run of the day was to swim to the bottom of the Nantahala Falls, a Class III rapid. These are the same rapids we took on 15 times in a row a few weeks ago in our rafts. We practiced hitting Top Hole at just the right angle so we wouldn’t flip the raft, and our classmates, as we went over Bottom Hole. Top Hole took on new meaning as a swimmer, however, because it is a recirculating hole that will catch you and will not let you go. I did not panic. I was in good shape when I passed Top Hole, pinched my nose when Bottom Hole sucked me in, and then I swam like a banshee to catch the final eddy and go home. By 9am Saturday morning, we were back on the river ready to do it all over again.



My turn to be rescued.
My turn to be rescued.

Saturday we learned to rescue each other, use our rope to assist a rescue and belay each other out of the dangerous current. We clipped ourselves to a line that crossed the river and learned to release out using a special feature of our rescue PFD. By the end of the day, we were frozen to death by the cold water of the Nantahala and ready for our final long swim back to the eddy at the put-in. Two hours after class ended my fingers were still shriveled.

My attire for class included four tops, three pair of long running tights, a full wetsuit over these, a dry top, rain jacket, fleece jacket, a splash jacket over all of that topped off with a wool beanie under my helmet and a pair of Vibrams on my feet, which make excellent river shoes as it turns out. Friday night all of the outer gear hung in the bathroom with the little wall heater on full blast in an attempt to make it dry again by morning.

Two weeks from now we’ll finish two more days of training. Rescue scenarios will include flipping boats upright, paddling into an eddy from on top of flipped boats, team drills with pinned boats, wraps and strainers, a final written test and dozens of practical tests.

Some of my classmates already work in the water, some of us do not. Some classmates know they will always work in the water, some of us are quite sure we will not. The one thing we all know for sure, however, is that by the end of this class…..we will all know cold.

Challenge Course #5: Dead Bugs and Partner Climbs

Progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.

Frederick B. Wilcox


Waiting for class to begin……


Each week someone “volunteers” to practice delivering the pre-climbing instructions and completing the safety check. It is not an easy job.


Next, we tie ourselves into the belay ropes. We may tie in correctly on the first try, or it may take us a million gazillion tries.


At the other end of the rope, a classmate secures the rope to their harness and a teammate does another security check.  Sometimes that classmate exaggerates a little.


When the belayer is ready with their backup belayer, and the climber is ready to climb, the climber says, “On belay?”  The belayer re-checks the belay system and their backup, and replies, “Belay On.” The climber says, “Ready to Climb.” and, if all is still good with the belayer, they reply, “Climb On.”

And, then we climb.
And, then we climb.

To teach how to live with uncertainty, yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy can do.

Bertrand Russell

Paul challenged us to climb blindfolded or tethered together. Some did both.




All the while, there are belayers and backup belayers at the other end of every rope.


At the beginning of class, Paul taught us how to do the “dead bug” on the poles at the bottom of the tower. Then we played dead on the tower.

One dead bug.
One dead bug.
Two dead bugs.
Two dead bugs.
Three dead bugs. That's me!
Three dead bugs. That’s me!

Some of us tried a different sort of partner climb……





At the end of the day, we yell out to the belayer, “Ready to Lower!”

The belayer kindly replies, “Lower On.”



To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.

To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.

To reach for another is to risk involvement.

To expose your ideas, your dreams, before a crowd is to risk their loss.

To love is to risk not being loved in return.

To live is to risk dying.

To believe is to risk failure.

But risks must be taken, because the greater hazard in life is to risk nothing.

They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live.

Chained by their attitudes, they are slaves; they have forfeited their freedom.

Only a person who risks is free.


An excerpt from our textbook, The Complete Ropes Course Manual.


“Be willing to take a risk.” is the last sentence of the chapter in our textbook on Personal Risk Taking. Each of our classes practice “Challenge by Choice” and we are not forced to participate in the challenges being taught. Sometimes I find myself hesitant, willing to ‘opt-out’ only to discover no challenge has been too great, too scary or unfulfilling.

Climb on……


A Day in the Life.

Paula Radcliffe 2005

Rory McIlroy altered the make-up of his day dramatically when British trainer Steve McGregor started working with him in late 2010. McIlroy’s new strengthening routine includes five sessions per week, 90 minutes per session, training indoors, outdoors, with weights, on the treadmill, doing sprints, and swimming when he’s near the beach. To stay fresh and not overuse certain muscles, everything gets changed up every 6-8 weeks.

In April 2005, Paula Radcliffe talked to the Sunday Times about a day in her life, which began around 8-ish with a 12-15 mile run, a big breakfast, 2 hours in the gym, lunch and a 2-hour nap followed by a final 1-hour run for a total of 5-6 hours of training each day. At the time, she was running about 160 miles a week.

Non-athletes have fascinating days as well. Warren Buffet wakes up around 6:45am, reads the newspaper and rarely makes it to the office until after the market opens. He spends 80% of his time reading and 20% of the day talking on the phone (although he believes it’s closer to 90/10). He hates having a schedule or a full calendar. His advice to new investors: allocate even more time to reading than he does!

There’s a trend among these successful people. They are singularly focused. But what are we mere mortals to do when life happens and we’re forced to compromise something? It happens to elite athletes as well, and their success suffers the same as ours. Just look at the stats of McIlroy and Caroline Wozniaki during their courtship.

Nearly 4image hours of my daytime activities are devoted to some sort of training. Some days there are 2 hours of running and an hour of strengthening while 3-4 hours of running dominates other days. If there is a particularly hard training morning, an easy afternoon at home follows. Life has been predictable with little compromise.

Then I went back to school.

School begins at noon on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. The alarm marks the start of the day at 5am. We paddle rafts, canoes or kayaks until 7pm on Wednesday, but are set free at 4pm on Thursday. Tuesday we climb the 50 ft Alpine Tower until 5pm. Rescue squad training begins that night at 7pm and lasts until 10pm, unless we get a call from some poor soul lost on top of the mountain, in which case we don’t go home until that poor soul is safe and sound.

Saturday is a long run day of 15-22 miles while Friday and Sunday are 5-7 mile recovery runs. Monday,Tuesday and Thursday are medium long runs of 8-14 miles at varying speeds, but there is no run at all on Wednesday. In between homework, housework, yard work and writing to this blog, I spend a few hours here and there working at my new MedicForce job. Strength training gets squeezed into the schedule on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Every day of the week my husband picks up where I leave off with cooking, grocery shopping, paying bills, taking care of the dogs and a host of other things I don’t want to admit.

Last Monday I was doing warm-up laps around the track and noticed my easy pace was a full minute slower than from the week before. My legs were moving but they seemed detached from my body. I was tired.

If I had been measuring my resting heart rate every morning before getting out of bed, this realization would have come several days sooner. Runners are lucky in that our sport includes a warning system for overtraining. It has been my experience to ignore the warning signs of overtraining inevitably leads to injury.

At dinner one night my husband asked how I felt about life being so busy. I asked him the same question in return. We agreed this schedule is not ideal, and it is unfortunate everything is happening all at once. These things are all good things to pursue, however, and it’s only for one year we reasoned.

That same night I re-wrote my training schedule….. this being the time where training must play nice with life.

“Have you ever….. ?”

We stood in a circle that spread across the gym – all but one of us standing on an upside down paper plate. Paul was in the middle explaining the rules of the game, “The person in the center of the circle will begin by saying, Have you ever…, finishing the sentence with something you’ve done before. For example, Have you ever been to a baseball game?” If you have ever been to a baseball game, you would run as fast as possible to the opposite side of the circle and find an empty plate to stand on. The challenge, if you don’t get creamed by somebody else running to the other side, is to jump onto that plate before somebody else does leaving you the only person without a plate to stand on. That’s when you go to the middle and think of something you have ever done that will be the same thing that at least someone else in the group has also ever done.

The “Have you ever’s” begin simple. “Have you ever eaten at Burger King? Have you ever been fishing? Have you ever had hair long enough to braid?” (this, of course, coming from a guy), and they become progressively complex as we run out of things we’ve ever done.

On my first trip to the middle, I looked around the group and noticed several of the guys with their keys hooked onto their belt loop. I distinctly remembered doing this once and it got me out of the middle quite easily. It was only the first of many times in the middle for all of us and a gazillion more “Have you ever…?”

It had been on the way to school the day before that my own version of “Have you ever…?” played out. Wednesday is Water I and class was scheduled at Fontana Lake, the sight of more than one adventure for me this summer. Stephan taught us how to properly load the boats onto the trailer before we left campus in the big, white school van. We loaded canoes and kayaks and tied them down tight with no loose ends of rope left dangling that would wreck the tires, the boats or worse.


It was hot and the water surprisingly warm. Stephan taught us to inflate the raft properly, how to use our paddles, how to get in the boat (I fell in), and we all tried a “self rescue” – which meant we pulled ourselves out of the water and into the boat, except for the girls who could not manage the upper body strength to save our own souls. Luckily this isn’t a critical fail unless we want to be a career raft guide.




The entire class climbed into one of the canoes so Nicole could take our picture. The canoe sank. We flipped the raft over (we all went overboard) and learned to flip it right again. Some of us relaxed while a few brave classmates flipped the raft front over back. It was quite the feat. Then Johnny and I were tasked with fetching the paddles which had floated down the lake while we were flipping the raft. I thought it would take me the rest of the day but finally we reached the paddles and hauled them back to shore.




There was only one most frightening part of the class: extracting ourselves from a capsized kayak. It had been on the drive to class that morning that I had tried to remember the last time I had been swimming. The conclusion, amazingly…. it must have been decades. Then I tried my best to recall when I would have had the recent opportunity to hold my breath under water. Good lord.

There I sat in the kayak attempting to summon my nerve. Dell had just capsized and claimed it wasn’t scary at all. I wondered in which decade she had last been underwater swimming. She obliged when I suggested maybe someone should be close by…. stopping short of saying, “in case I drown!”

I looked down at the water beside the kayak and on purpose turned my kayak over. The process was to lean forward, grab hold of the kayak behind your back, push yourself out, do a forward flip and swim away.

It worked! A good bit of lake went down my throat, but no rescue was required. And the next time I play “Have you ever…?”, there will be one more “Have you ever…” on my list of “Have you ever’s….”


This week’s test: Are you smarter than a raft guide?

  1. Some months have 30 days, some months have 31 days. How many months have 28 days?
  2. Divide 30 by half and add ten. What do you get?
  3. If you had only one match and entered a COLD and DARK room where there was an oil heater, an oil lamp and a candle. Which would you light first?
  4. Take 2 apples from 3 apples. What do you have?
  5. If you drove a bus with 43 passengers from Chicago, picked up 7 more and dropped off 5 in Pittsburgh, dropped off 8 and picked up 4 in Cleveland and eventually arrived in Philadelphia 20 hours later, what’s the name of the driver?


  1. All 12 months have 28 days
  2. 30/.5 = 60 plus 10 = 70
  3. the match
  4. 2 apples
  5. (your name) The driver is YOU.



Climb vertical to near vertical surfaces up to fifty feet, execute effective belays, swim Class 4 whitewater, enter and exit said boats from land, shore, water and while inverted in water…. welcome to Fall Semester 2014!

To complete the objectives of this course, students are required to fully participate in physical activities inherent to Challenge Courses, including but not limited to: Climbing vertical to near vertical surfaces of up to fifty feet, traversing multi-level elements, carrying heavy gear and setting up of course equipment, hiking to and from challenge facilities over steep and rugged terrain, executing effective belays, ascension of vertical rope using SRT techniques, hanging in a harness for long durations of time. Additionally, students must be able to thermo-regulate a normal body temperature in all extremes of temperature common to Western North Carolina.

imageTuesday: Challenge Course Facilitation.

Paul read the paragraph to us aloud on the first day of class. Customary of his style, he acknowledged that some students may have a fear of heights or are not particularly inclined toward some of the physical requirements of the challenge course.

“But,” he went on to say, “none of us should fall into that category of students, or you may be wanting to re-think your major.”

No one grimaced. We didn’t look around the room at each other. Our gaze remained focused, but I can’t help wonder if more than one someone had held their breath ever so briefly.

The first five weeks of class will be spent at various Alpine Towers around town – obviously each one offering something different in terms of experience. For another five weeks class will be held at Zipline Parks – each one also providing something unique. The Agreement we signed before class ended read, “I acknowledge that my participation will expose me to inherent risks of Challenge course activities including climbing, swinging, lowering and relying on classmates to provide adequate safety…. I fully understand that these activities entail known and unanticipated risks that could result in physical or emotional injury or death.”

Wednesday: Water-Based Activities I.

To complete the objectives of this course, students are required to fully participate in physical activities inherent to whitewater paddling. These physical activities include but are not limited to: carrying and loading of rafts, swimming in up to class 4 whitewater, carrying and loading of canoes and kayaks, entry and exit of said boats from land, shore, water and while inverted in water, paddling the use of said boats individually or as part of a class team. In addition, students must be able to thermo-regulate a normal body temperature in all extremes of water temperature common to Western North Carolina.

imageStephan sat behind the desk at the front of the classroom in shorts and t-shirt; his long, dark hair pulled back with a rubber band under a baseball cap. He wore the sandals customary to the inordinate number of raft guides you see milling about this area, and he clearly looked as out of place behind that desk as a fish out of water.

After a thorough review of the syllabus and a lesson on the proper name for every component of a raft, kayak and canoe, we went to the gym and practiced tying knots and hitches. We were sent home with a warning that class hours are from noon to 6:50pm every Wednesday, but this was only a guideline…..class may run late from time to time.

By the end of this semester we will learn to "roll".
By the end of this semester we will learn to “roll”.


Thursday: Introduction to Outdoor Leadership.

Class began on Thursday at noon with another review of the syllabus. conspicuously absent from the syllabus was the disclaimer of Physical Requirements and I wondered if the only classroom course for the semester was scheduled late in the week to ensure we were well worn to the point of submission so as to endure 4 hours of lecture.

ODL 110 First Test:

  1. How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?
  2. How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator?
  3. The Lion King is hosting an animal conference. All of the animals attend except one. Which animal does not attend?
  4. There is a river filled with crocodiles. How do you cross it?


Paul began the class with a quiz, followed by a game in the gym with the 2nd year Outdoor Leadership students. Back in the classroom we read a story aloud in class – one paragraph each, and were told to take out a piece of paper and write a reflection on the story. Apparently this class will pick up where my class with Wags ended last semester and we will spend our time reading assigned materials and writing reflections. We learned there is a new program on campus to encourage better writing skills among the students and a career journalist has been assigned to our class to assist Paul in teaching us how to write.

It was at this point I realized somehow I had unknowingly registered for a full semester of sheer bliss.


Answer Key:

  1. Open the door, put the giraffe inside and close the door.
  2. Open the door, take the giraffe out, put the elephant inside. Close the door.
  3. The elephant, he’s in the refrigerator.
  4. Swim across. The crocodiles went to the Lion King’s animal conference.

The Road To Nowhere

“Be careful not to compromise what you want most for what you want now.”
Zig Ziglar

The last post on this blog was barely hot off the press when I realized there were significant conflicts in my fall training schedule.

The draft race plan was being discussed over coffee this past Saturday when I announced to my husband that this semester’s Swift Water Rescue class may interfere with the half marathon race that fits so nicely in my schedule. This came after an earlier realization that my chosen winter marathon would conflict with a trip that accompanies a new job I’ve recently taken on. Rescheduling the marathon to December requires that I work around both mine and my son’s graduation ceremony. The calendar was a mess! 

We were discussing the half marathon race when my husband asked, “What is your priority? The race or school?” I admitted that if he had asked me that question before I went to bed the night before my answer would have been the race. With the sanity that came with morning light, I realized my priority should be school. There would be other races.

School began for me in January of this year. In one of those first classes, Land Based Activities (aka Hiking), our group hike was on the Lakeview Trail. Driving to the trailhead in the school’s big white van, Paul explained to us we were on The Road to Nowhere.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Swain County gave up the majority of its private land to the Federal Government for the creation of Fontana Lake and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hundreds of people were forced to leave the small Smoky Mountain communities that had been their homes for generations.

The Federal government promised to replace Highway 288, which would eventually be covered in water, with a new road. Lakeview Drive was to have stretched along the north shore of Fontana Lake, from Bryson City to Fontana, 30 miles to the west. And, of special importance to those displaced residents, it was to have provided access to the old family cemeteries where generations of ancestors remained behind.

But Lakeview Drive fell victim to an environmental issue and construction was stopped, with the road ending at a tunnel, about six miles into the park. The environmental issue was eventually resolved, but the roadwork was never resumed. And Swain County’s citizens gave the unfinished Lakeview Drive its popular, albeit unofficial name “The Road To Nowhere.”

imageThis was to be the site of our family outing on Sunday with my son, who has been visiting for a few days. I remembered from school that the trails in this area were interlinked creating a loop… meaning we shouldn’t get lost. We got lost trying to find the road to nowhere, and we remained in a perpetual state of “lost” for the duration of the hike… which lasted a good bit longer than we all expected.

Along the way, however, we saw wild orchids and adorable, itty bitty frogs. We walked for almost 2 miles along the shore of the Fontana River and marveled at the beautiful waterfall. We climbed into bursts of cool air and crossed rocky river beds. Finally we made it back home exhausted and hungry. That road to nowhere had taken us somewhere indeed.


My life is a little like the road to nowhere. Eight months ago I confessed to my instructors I had no idea what I would do with the skills they would teach me. School seemed to have no identifiable end or purpose. Along the way, however, I have discovered so many things I enjoy, like hiking, wilderness medicine and experiential learning. I’ve become a Wilderness EMT and taken a job in the field… a job that will carry me to Belize next February (more on that another day).

So, the innocent quote I discovered by Zig Ziglar comes in handy this week as I confirm my fall and winter race calendar. It’s easy to become deterred from a path you’re unsure of, or become distracted by whatever excitement lies straight ahead, and in the process jeopardize something much more valuable that awaits us down the road.

At the moment, my race calendar is still under review.