Spirit Magazine, February 1998

February 13, 1998

By Ellise Pierce

The flier said “All- Woman Yoga Adventure Trip,” and I signed up as quickly as my fingers could dial the 800 number. “Being in beauty … is one of the most healing experiences we can give ourselves. As we integrate the mindfulness of yoga with the incredible beauty of the river, the experience becomes a unique combination of delightful play and deep transformation,” it read.

Through yoga, we’d discover a place of greater balance, strength, flexibility, and inner peace. We’d also experience meditation and massage, aromatherapy and reflexology on the four-day gal trip. And while it mentioned rafting on the river, it didn’t say white water, it didn’t mention rapids, and it never said that we’d be running a forty-four-mile stretch of the Green River in Utah’s Lodore Canyon, a word that means, I later learn, and aptly so, “dark and foreboding.”

And then I got the itinerary. Disaster Falls. Hell’s Half Mile. Whirlpool Canyon.

This was not what I had in mind. I felt inner peace disappearing as quickly as Prada bags at Neiman’s Last Call sale. So I called the trip coordinator and told him that I couldn’t swim, for one thing, and the last time I was on a river (okay, it was when I was thirteen and on the Guadalupe in New Braunfels, Texas) I got pulled under and nearly drowned.

He was not terribly reassuring. “Instead of big, rolling waves that can easily flip a boat, there are lots of rocks and obstacles and stuff to maneuver around. It’s very unusual to get thrown over and have to swim,” he said. “But it’s up to you to hold onto the boat.”

This sounded about as much fun as having my teeth filled. But it was too late to cancel, and since I’d already told my editor I’d do a story about the experience, I reluctantly agreed to go.

So I left my home in Dallas and arrived in Salt Lake City two days later. I share the three-hour ride to Vernal, Utah, with Deanna, a registered nurse who would be teaching us about a massage on this trip, and Stephanie, a freelance photographer who specializes in these outdoorsy trips. “This is awesome,” says Stephanie, when she hears that we won’t have to cook our own meals. “This is cushy. I’m used to packing my own stuff up Mount Shasta or Mount Whitney,” she says. “This is awesome,” she says again. Stephanie is from California, likes to camp in the wilderness by herself, and regales us with stories of near disasters involving big brown bears in the middle of the night. Awesome.

Deanna is a river rat from way back. Around fifty, she’s been doing all-woman trips for eighteen years; this is the fourth year that she’s put the yoga trip together. “The idea started as a ‘let’s get away’ retreat, where we’d giggle and party,” she says. “As we’ve gotten older, it has evolved into a spiritual kind of trip.” Deanna is married to a guy named Frog — a holdover nick-name from his surfing days and remembers seeing Ike and Tina Turner in San Francisco clubs in the Sixties. She wears no makeup and has mocha-colored skin from river running and mountain biking.

On the three-hour car ride, Stephanie and Deanna discuss fasting techniques and whether or not juice or broth fast is best. They talk about knowing when to fast and clean out their systems because their bodies tell them so. Deanna says that she planned the meals for this trip. I’m thinking I should have packed bite-size Snickers.

The next day, we meet the rest of the group — there are fifteen of us in all — and, like the first day at summer camp, we stand around and introduce ourselves and all say things like “I’m really looking forward to this” and “I can’t wait to get on the river” to impress the others with our appetite for adventure.

Three hours and two potty stops later, we arrive at the spot where we’ll begin our journey, the Gates of Lodore, part of Dinosaur National Monument on the border of Utah and Colorado, an area known for its Upper Jurassic dinosaurs, the most famous of which were the brontosaur and stegosaurus. It is easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming around this craggy, menacing canyon.

The boats are put into the water and soon, we, too, are river-ready. We have peeled off our layers of clothes down to our swimsuits and shorts, strapped on orange life vests, and slathered SPF-30 all over our bodies. But before we get into the boats, we meet our guides, trusty leaders all, each one about five-foot-five with skin like No. 8 toast and, pound for muscly pound, a body that says “river.”

There is Angie, thirty-eight, who has thick brown hair that she either has in a ponytail haphazardly atop her head or falling out from beneath a floppy safari hat. In all of the business, Angie is the most geologically minded of the guides; she constantly refers to “Cambrian” or “Precambrian” in describing the canyon rock formations, as if we have any, idea where that falls on a timeline, anyway.

Gabriela is a strapping German blonde with a swirling tattoo on the small of her back and another, with a design of the sun, water, and moon, on her left arm. “These are ray life forces,” she says of the arm tattoo, which she designed herself. “It’s like two people coming together. It’s about peace.” Gabriela, twenty-three, is the earthiest and most rugged of the guides, and the only one with frosted white toes in her Tevas.

Then there’s our diva of the river, Rachel, who looks like a smaller, beefier version of Gabriella Sabatini. A self-described “gnarly river woman,” Rachel has been running rivers for seven years. She is tanned, toned, and has straight brown hair with bleached-out streaks that falls like flat water down her back.

She wears green shorts and a black sports bra, and has, like the other two guides, a Teva tan on her feet. She is twenty-six and works in the winter at Alta Ski Mountain. Rachel is our boss, our leader of all things river-like, our mentor.

“I’m going to talk to you about river safety,” Rachel says, standing in two feet of the icy water near one of our three boats to demonstrate. “In twenty-five minutes, we’ll hit our first rapids. If the boat flips over on top of you, use your hands to feel your way out. There are sixteen feet of boat here, but you will get out. Some people think that they can find air pockets, but when the boat turns over, there are no air pockets. You have to get out.”

I imagine being trapped under this yellow beast with tents, coolers of food, and two portable toilets strapped to its belly, and I begin to wheeze. But after hearing the story about a writer from Houston on the last trip who had to be evacuated out by helicopter because she was having a panic attack, I don’t dare say anything. I felt a twinge of the Dallas-Houston rivalry tugging at me, and it was as good as a gauntlet being tossed at my chipped, hot-pink toes. I would conquer this water fear not just for me, but for Dallas women everywhere — big hair, small hair, all.

Soon we’re floating down the Green River — which is not green at all but brown and thick like chocolate milk from the rains a couple of days ago — and enter the 1,000-foot-high walls of blackish, coralline, jagged rock, which is part of the Uinta Mountain group and some of the oldest rock in the world, says Angie. It’s Precambrian, she says, about 1,400 million years old.

Angie also tells us that our journey is the same one that John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran, took in 1869. Along with nine other men on four wooden boats, he set out to map, measure, and plot the Green River and its canyon. While Powell and his men made the trip in three months, we will do it in four days. But there are some similarities between the two groups — after a spectacular wreck at Disaster Falls Powell’s group was more interested in retrieving a keg of whiskey than the lost provisions. The river, I soon find out, will do that to you.

As we enter our first rapids, Little Stinker, I hold on and lean in, as instructed. Our boat rolls through the waves, rocking a bit back and forth, and we all get splashed with the murky, muddy brown water. We do not flip. We do not bounce off the sides of the canyon walls. It’s like the log ride at Six Flags turned up a notch or two. I love this.

Around 4 p.m., we pull into camp and park our boats along the sandy banks of the river, just below the spot where Ann Basset, in retaliation for her husband’s murder in the late nineteenth century, drove the killer’s 200 head of cattle off the red-rock cliff. When she showed up in court in a frilly white dress and pleaded innocent, the charge was dismissed.

After we pitch our tents, Deanna calls us over to learn about foot massage. “I just want to teach people to touch each other and to touch each other with intention, which means mindfulness and love.” We hear this many more times over the course of the trip.

Judy, a redhead from New York, sits down in front of me and I pour oil all over her sandy, dirty feet. Deanna passes around charts that point out the different areas of the body as they relate to the foot. If something’s sore on the foot, she tells us, it can tip-off to problems going on in these parts of the body — Judy’s back, it turns out, has been bothering her, and when I touch this area of her foot, there’s a knot there that needs to be worked out. This river trip is Judy’s first vacation away from her husband of twenty years and her two sons. “No one has ever massaged my feet before,” she tells me.

We slip our greasy feet back into our sandals for the first of many gorges. Tonight is Mexican night, which begins with a giant bowl of guacamole, chips, and salsa. We then have soft chicken tacos and vegetarian enchilada casserole. For dessert, there’s chocolate fondue with apricots and apples. And so begins what will hereafter be known as the bloat trip, one never-ending, all-you-can-eat buffet, where there’s always enough for seconds and chocolate at every meal (this is, after all, a trip designed for women by women.

At 6 a.m., barefooted and with our feet firmly planted on the earth, we do yoga, led by Deanna’s best friend, Mary, also in. her fifties, who has a voice as soothing as the quiet whoosh of the river, and, as a physical testament to what inner mindfulness can do for you, a lean, strong bod with a stomach off which quarters would sail.

“Feel the river,” she says, showing us how to get situated into the triangle position. “Feel the beauty. Inhale, look up to the river, exhale the river, and turn the palms up to Father Sky.”

We do the warrior, the triangle, and the pigeon yoga positions as our muscles ache and tremble on the banks of the river. Nearby, a family of bighorn sheep watches us with curiosity. As the coffee brews below and the cool breeze ruffles the sage, I can hear the pancake batter sizzling on the griddle below us.

“People want to feed us again,” Mary says. “Let’s go have breakfast.”

After pancakes with strawberries, sausage, coffee, fresh fruit, and yogurt, we’re back on the boats. Today, I’m on the party boat, with Rachel as our captain, and Deanna, Mary, and Debra, who’s recently divorced and working on a children’s book when she’s not traveling. We break out the vodka and pour it into our cans of Fresca as we float down the sixteen miles of flatwater, all day until we pull into camp. We have many deep and meaningful conversations along the way — real-life experiences with ghosts, the proper way to do tequila shots, that sort of thing.

As we pull into camp, the bluish-gray clouds that have been hanging above us for the past couple of hours decide to get on with their business. Scrambling in the rain, we pitch our tents and get inside. But not for long.

Roaring laughter pulls us out, one by one, down to the edge of the river where the guides are setting up for dinner. Outfitted head to toe in rain gear in crayon colors of green, yellow, and blue, the circle grows as a bottle of Jose Cuervo is passed around. Since it’s happy hour, we open up the wine, too, and we each take a seat on a washed-up tree trunk near the open fire. As fat raindrops crash onto our hooded heads, Rachel cooks the salmon. Gabriela makes the papaya-orange-cilantro salsa, and Angie stirs up the brownies. Soon, we eat, drink, and laugh until it’s all gone but the rain.

This languid pace continues for the next two days. We no longer worry about which rapids are ahead or if it’s going to rain. There are no weather reports, no schedules, and no itineraries that we must follow. And no one seems to care. Like the words on Angie’s faded pink T-shirt, we simply go with the flow.

It sounds lofty to say that a river trip will change your life. It may just increase your tolerance for dirt underneath your toenails or for wearing the same pair of shorts for four days in a row. Then again, as I found out, it may reveal that sleeping on the ground, using a wadded-up sweatshirt as a pillow, can be the most peaceful sleep you’ve ever encountered, with the river, not the television, providing background noise. There are all of the obvious metaphors — the river as life, with the rocks and obstacles along the way, the river as movement, constant and changing — but to over-intellectualize what the trip is about is to assume that it is about anything at all. For Judy from New York, who spent the last two days in the water in a one-person kayak, maneuvering through the white water solo, I suspect it may mean more foot massages in her immediate future. I hope so.

After we pull our boats out of the river and load them onto two fat vans, Rachel hands me a can of Foster’s and promises to visit on her cross-country trip next month. We toast and she tells me that I am now a gnarly river woman. Indeed. I have a Teva tan on my feet.

For more information on this and other river trips, contact Holiday River Expeditions at (800) 624-6323.

Ellise Pierce is a freelance writer in Dallas who also writes for Newsweek and People.