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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Rivers of spirit

Jul 04, 2018 03:46AM ● By Mary McCutchan

Jesse and Jim play music in camp.

“Don’t put an age limit on your dreams.” - Dana Torres, Olympic swimmer

The plan started weeks before with conversations between my partner, Dennis, and his long-time boating friends, but it gathered traction after a late-night argument between the two of us.

“I think I can do it if one of our friends rows the boat,” Dennis assured me.

“But what about the fall risk?” I countered. “It’d be the wrong time to interrupt physical therapy.”

“I think with my walker, plus four tennis balls and crutches, it’ll work,” he said.

Although he’d been a boater for more than 45 years, Dennis couldn’t blame me for being apprehensive about this rafting trip down Idaho’s Payette River. He already had three surgeries so far that year and it was only August.

Back surgery was the biggie. He’d lost motor control and was in rehab for a month, only to be discharged in a wheelchair. It took 10 additional days at home before he stood unsupported. Thankfully, some of our dear friends—one a retired physical therapist—took over, holding down the fort as I jetted off to Alaska on a trip planned months before.

“Fine,” a dark voice spat out, “We won’t go. I’ll just call and cancel…”

After hearing his tone and the hurt in his voice, I told him to give it time so we could explore our options.

We both loved the outdoors— it’s an activity we’d often shared together, and this biennial river trip had been a tradition with Dennis and his boating buddies for over 25 years.

I started to understand where he was coming from and it got me thinking about the one thing that motivates a body to get up every morning to do exercises and follow directions from physical therapists: goals. And for Dennis, that goal was this river trip.

The music trip

Our good friend, Andrea, rearranged her schedule so she could captain Dennis’ boat with him, rowing optional due to lack of feeling in his feet and legs.

The only thing better than sorting river gear is being on the river itself, and it was a happy sight seeing Dennis sorting life jackets and dry bags from his walker seat. With extra help from friends, we loaded up. It was gratifying to see smiles and hear jokes in spite of my apprehension.

Mary and Dennis hit the river

Mary McCutchan and her partner, Dennis, hit the water.

Andrea and I competed for the best miles per gallon on the long drive to Idaho, and Dennis’ friend, John, joined the caravan in Boise.

The air was smoky, and the smoke thickened on the surrounding dry hills as the route took us beside the Payette River and we watched the lively water splash with “rooster tails” in gnarly rapids. Soon we pulled in to the Lower Salmon Campground and Boat Launch near White Bird, Idaho.

Bulky rolling green and gold hills gave way to high farm fields and the smoke descended to river level in the late afternoon. Dennis started looking around for familiar cars and rigs. He and his buddies called this particular trip “The Music Trip,” since many boaters from Washington played either bluegrass or folk.

We dropped tents at the camp spot in dried stubble underfoot and then drove to the launch, where Andrea backed the trailer and boat down into the water.

My joy at seeing Dennis with his friends was tempered with anxiety about the smoke. Should a senior like me with asthma be on this trip without a heavy-duty face filter? I was handed a bandana and I felt calmer when I saw Jim strolling around the truck with his mandolin and Terry, a new face, walking along with his guitar case in hand.

The last to arrive was Casey, aka Dr. Whitewater, gear seller and “Skinny White Boy” as his self-deprecating song says. It dawned on me that even though this was a “senior” trip, nothing would keep these crazy friends off the water.

Overcoming challenges

Dennis encountered his first challenge on day one—getting out of the boat, onto the beach and into a chair.

Chores seemed to go seamlessly. Andrea took charge of Dennis’ boat and enjoyed getting to know everyone and hearing music in camp. Everyone was so thoughtful. Jessie, the banjo player, was normally a bit gruff and cussed up a storm, but the kindness in his eyes when he brought Dennis a plate of food was unmistakable. We wondered whose heart he’d received since he’d had a transplant.

By the third day, the smoke seemed a little transparent and the sun not as orange. Craig, the trip leader, brought both his sons on the trip.

From listening to Jake, the younger of the two, I realized his sense of humor was shaped by his tough job. His older brother was going through a bit of a rough spot, but his smile was still intact.

After some time getting to know everyone, it dawned on me as the smoke lifted that it wasn’t just Dennis and me dealing with a handicap—we were all dealing with something. One boater had a broken ankle; others were dealing with seizures, arthritis, asthma, depression, rehab and surgery, to name a few.

Yet none of these ailments hindered us from conquering class IV rapids with muscle-powered rafts. Once music poured out across the basalt canyons with bluegrass melodies rising up to the stars, I noticed how easy it was to forget these difficulties.

Blue Canyon was the last camp before the confluence with the Snake River. The next morning, Andrea and I sang on the water, as we watched bighorn sheep move though the confluence. Dennis had “boated around” and was riding with Craig’s son.

Dennis endured and enjoyed the trip with help from these friends. We had one warm night to spend on the Snake and more music in the air. Everyone agreed to do this again next year, instead of waiting for year two.

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