The Fear of the Unknown
Fear is different for all of us. Depending on your baseline of experiences in the outdoors, something could feel comfortable where to other’s it is frightening or anxiety causing. I have my own levels, based on years of outdoor activity and adventure. I find my edge often on a ski tour, rock climb, and even out on the river. Having gone on wilderness outings with a variety of people, I have seen what can trigger unease and how we can work to prevent it from ruling our experience.
Understanding the place
The first trigger of unease to me is being dropped into an unknown environment. When I first came to the Rocky Mountains from the quaint North East it was like landing on a different planet. My first trip to Moab might as well have been a different universe. All I could think about was dehydration and rattle snakes. Had I not been 18, I might have done a little research on the place to ease the shock. Read a little bit about where you’re going, the landscape, the native plants and animals. Certainly look up some factoids, but don’t stop there. Find some photos and paintings, and read some creative nonfiction from folks like Ed Abbey or our personal favorite, Terry Tempest Williams.
For some, it is not the place that can cause anxiety, but the idea of spending several days with strangers in the wilderness; eating together, sharing stories, and seats on a vessel. Similarly with baselines for comfort, social factors may be different depending on the trip itself, if you have friends along; if you’re there alone. If breaking the ice is a big hurdle for you, let the first day go with taking in the sights and the sounds. Let others chat, spend time listening. By the time you get to camp, you will have experienced quite a lot together. At dinner, there will be comfortable seating and a budding sense of comradery creating moments of connection with those around you, and inspire future conversations. Lastly, there is nothing wrong with letting a whole trip pass without more than a few words; nature speaks plainly to those who listen.
Use the guides
Those cheery brilliant people at the oars are integral to all of this. They have knowledge of the place, and are there to make us all feel as comfortable as possible while we’re out of our element. Ask them questions, let them tell you a story. On my first Holiday trip, I watched the guides and how they interacted with not just people, but the river. It opened my eyes to their comfort, and through their ease I started to find my own. When it comes to rapids, or big hikes let their expertise guide you. They will talk you through the situation, and if it sounds like something that is over your limit they will work to find a way around.
The water is just fine
On my first river trip, I stood on the bank with goosebumps, looking at the swirling brown water and trying to listen to the instructions from our trip leader. Between the jitters of the unknown, anticipation, and excitement I felt butterflies fluttering in my gut. Eventually, after climbing into a boat and talking to my fellow rafters, the stress started to lift. I watched the guides splash in the water, float next to the boat to cool off. The current started to look less intimidating.
The next trip I went on I took the initiative. Under the hot sun I slapped a life vest on my back and as the guides loaded up the boats, I jumped into the cool mellow water. I bobbed there for a moment, then dunked my head, washing away the anxiety that comes with the first day. The first time you go to the river it may seem intimidating, it’s natural. The faster you can jump in, the faster you’ll feel at home among your fellow non-human animals and your soon-to-be new friends.
Jack Stauss moved to Salt Lake City in 2008 in pursuit of big mountains and wide open spaces. He has spent the last several years both enjoying and advocating for public lands and free flowing rivers. While he’s not typing on his keyboard, he will be backcountry skiing in the Wasatch or exploring Utah’s wild deserts. Read some of his environmental musings at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at @jackstauss on Instagram